Alternative History

[Originally posted on Goodreads 2018-04-17.] I mentioned my pending novel The Fourth Protectorate in my earlier Crime and SF blog post. I also spoke briefly about it during Keith Skipper’s July 2017 monthly mardle in Radio Norfolk’s Matthew Gudgin’s Teatime Show. For those who are interested, here’s a little more information about the novel’s genre.

The Fourth Protectorate is an alternative history with supernatural elements, but what actually is alternative history? It’s sometimes referred to as a ‘what if?’ genre. What if something happened in the past that caused subsequent events to diverge from real life? That something is the point of departure, and the subsequent events form an alternate timeline (or history). I think the most well-known (but not the earliest) alternative history story is probably Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle (first published in 1962). The point of departure in that case was the different outcome of an attempt to assassinate US President Franklin D. Roosevelt. In real life, Giuseppe Zangara tried to shoot Roosevelt in February 1933. The premise of The Man in the High Castle is what if Zangara had succeeded? In real life, Roosevelt felt so strongly about supporting the Allies during WWII that he broke tradition and stood for a third term. The alternative timeline has Roosevelt replaced by an isolationist who keeps the USA out of the war, which changes the outcome.

The ‘what if so-and-so died at an earlier point in time?’ premise is a common point of departure. The reverse ‘what if so-and-so didn’t die?’ is also used (to comic effect with Red Dwarf and rather more seriously with Star Trek: The Original Series). Other points of departure can be somewhat vaguer, such as ‘what if a battle was lost instead of won?’ (as with Len Deighton’s SS-GB, where the Battle of Britain was lost), or the point of departure can be something seemingly trivial (‘for want of a nail’).

In the case of The Fourth Protectorate, which is set from 1984 to 1995, the principle point of departure is the Brighton Bomb. What if it had killed the Prime Minister and the entire Cabinet? The event occurs in the chapter that’s rather unimaginatively called ‘Point of Departure’, and you can accept that as the actual point of departure if you like but, whilst thinking about the exact differences between the alternative timeline of the story and real life, I came to the conclusion that the real point of departure occurs earlier, but the differences are much subtler until 1984 is reached. So what actually causes the divergence?

In the world of The Fourth Protectorate, the supernatural exists, although most people aren’t aware of it, but there’s a constant conflict between good and evil. One side is trying to make the world a better place and the other is trying to ruin it. Both sides have some ability to predict future events, but neither side can interfere with free will. They can, however, plant suggestions in people’s minds to influence outcomes. People are free to choose to follow or ignore those suggestions, but those who have a natural predisposition towards the suggestion or those who have a weak will are more likely to comply. So when is the actual point of departure?

What if during the Blitz a bomb toggle was operated a fraction later? A minor suggestion planted in the airman’s mind that causes a momentary delay. The dispersal pattern changes, a different set of buildings are destroyed and a different set of people die. The global outcome is unchanged, but minor deviations start to occur that can lead up to a bomb or some people being in a slightly different location a few decades later. It may also have led to more significant changes. The Prime Minister and other ministers are never named in the book, so they may not be the same as in our real timeline.

So the principle point of departure is the ‘what if so-and-so died?’ type but the actual point of departure is a seemingly insignificant change that had a knock-on effect. This conveniently means that any minor discrepancies from real life at the start of the book now have an explanation (such as the reason why famous/infamous people who lived in that region in real life don’t appear to exist in the story).

One of the interesting things I’ve encountered while writing the novel is the background research to refresh my memory of the 1980s (and the previous decade). It’s reminded me of just how volatile that era was. There were definitely a lot of ‘what if?’ moments.