You'd think that messing around with the timelines would be fun and easy - after all, we're always hearing that the slightest change to history could change everything. But it's not that simple, as we learned at a panel yesterday at Worldcon. For one thing, history is a lot more resilient than you'd expect, according to novelists John Scalzi, Eric Flint and John Hemry, plus Doctor Who writer Paul Cornell. We also learned why most alternate history books involve World War II or the Civil War.
It turns out you can make a lot of changes in history without actually derailing it, claimed Flint and Cornell. Go back in time and step on a butterfly, and that probably just means there's one fewer butterflies around in the past. Even if you kill Hitler before he rises to power, Germany probably still becomes a fascist country - although it's debatable whether the Holocaust would have happened.
Flint said his 1632 series of books was his attempt to refute the "great man theory" of history. He's interested in periods of history where huge historical forces are at work, and he chose the early 17th century because of the flowering of democracy and widespread literacy.
At one point, Hemry and Cornell debated whether it would have made much difference if George Washington hadn't been around. The colonies might have broken off from England sooner or later, Cornell said, but Hemry insisted Washington's decision to give up control of the army, and later to step down as president after two terms, helped keep America from becoming too autocratic. That kind of forebearance is rare in history, he said.
So why World War II and the Civil War? It's because most Americans are "ahistorical" and are only dimly aware of most things that happened more than 20 years ago, said Scalzi. There are only a handful of historical periods that stick in people's minds and hold their interest. Neal Stephenson was able to focus on a different period in his Baroque Cycle, only because he had gained so much goodwill with The Diamond Age and Cryptonomicon.
Scalzi wanted to do a different approach to changing history, in which someone treats history like a disease state, and tries to "vaccinate against Hitler," making lots and lots of little incremental changes here and there, so Hitler either isn't born or doesn't become a dictator. But when he pitched this to his editors, he got a muted response because a story about people making subtle changes in history didn't sound like good drama. (Which is too bad, because I'm actually prety fascinated with that idea.)