April 17th, 2004

krazy koati

We didn't start the fire

I've been reading Stephen Baxter's Anti-Ice, an alternate history of the 19th century in which the United Kingdom's supremacy has been heightened by discovery of a lode of superconductive antimatter enabling all manner of steampunk innovations. I'd like to sulk about this book a while, hopefully avoiding spoilers, because my real gripe is with one of the conventions of the alternate history genre. (I have a secondary gripe that nothing about the paperback cover suggests it's alternate history.)

Anti-Ice history is identical to our own up to 1720, when a Little Moon is captured into Earth orbit and strange destructive fire rains down on Australia. Poor 'roos. A century later this anti-ice -- reasonably docile at Antarctic temperatures, tremendously explosive as it warms -- is discovered by James Clark Ross. The British, naturally, claim the Antarctic and soon use the material to power all sorts of new technology, not to mention build huge bombs; one is used to destroy Sebastopol and end the Crimean War. But that's not the story; for that, flash ahead another fifteen years --

It's 19 July 1870, and the New Great Exhibition is disrupted -- Prussian Chancellor Otto von Bismarck has maneuvered French Emperor Napoleon III into declaring war over the unimportant issue of the Spanish Succession thanks to careful wording in the Ems telegraph -- but that's enough to make my point.

The heavens themselves have been changed since 1720; for decades, British technology and thus economics have had an electrifying boost, the equivalent of an atom bomb was used within living memory, and the internal politics of Spain, France, Prussia, Austria, and the surrounding states are indistinguishable from those of our actual timeline? There's a convention in alternate history to have a sort of ``conservation of events,'' which irritates me to no end. I'll give Baxter a European situation similar in 1870 to what there is in our timeline, but I won't give him -- after superconductor-powered railroads, the anti-ice bombing of Russia, the failure to enact any part of the Chartist movement reforms, and a great number of technological developments outlined in the book -- Marshal Achille François Bazaine surrendering nearly 200,000 French soldiers to the Prussians at Metz on 27 October 1870, much less the epilogue's 1910 mention that the pesky rabble-rouser David Lloyd George is the kind of person they need in the cabinet. That's the sort of funny coincidence that helps make alternate history the smelly, unemployed cousin of science fiction.

That's not to say there are no noticeable changes from our timeline. Queen Victoria abdicates in 1868, following the Prince Consort Albert's death from typhoid (and Benjamin Disraeli's quitting as Prime Minister and leaving the country to William Ewart Gladstone). The Imperial government moves to Manchester. The even-more-powerful industrialists keep the vote out of the hands of the annoying poor. Charles Dickens gets run out of the country after David Copperfield flops and he goes on to cause who knows what trouble in the United States. And (in the epilogue) Bismarck stays in office through to 1910 (giving him a longer life than in our timeline), which is maybe the most remarkable development. Not dumping Bismarck would show practical intelligence on the part of Kaiser Wilhelm II, who was to politics what Wile E Coyote was to engineering. And Ulysses S. Grant is the first United States President to leave the country while in office. Still, the changes -- where they're not absurd (Manchester the capital?) -- just aren't that much.

I realize I'm asking for a lot of work for one lousy little novel, but much of the point of a science fiction novel is the imagination put into the background, and that background should be more than a good read of AJP Taylor's The Struggle For Mastery In Europe. And Baxter's done this sort of thing a couple times, notably with his novel Voyage, in which NASA stumbles towards a Mars mission instead of the space shuttle between 1969 and 1986. That's filled with enough real events that it's a novel and a space history quiz, even repeating events from missions explicitly said to occur in Baxter's 1960s. You'd think somebody would have noticed they held the Apollo 13 accident twice. And as if to make my point about painfully cute coincidences, the various modules on the Mars Mission -- built by Columbia Aerospace -- are named Discovery, Atlantis, and Challenger, with the names revealed to the world on 28 January 1986. It's hard not to throw the book at the wall after that.

Trivia: Singapore's Empress Place Building, now a wing of the Asian Civilizations Museum, was named after Queen-Empress Victoria in 1907. Source: Street Names of Singapore, Peter K G Dunlop.

Currently Reading: Anti-Ice, Stephen Baxter, though I'm done.