Res Extensa #5: Alternate Timelines — History, Maps, and Science Fiction

Thinking about alternate pathways through history, the worlds they create, and wild speculation in science fiction

The holiday season is upon us, certain to be one of the oddest on record for many across the country. It's a time for gratitude and reflection, which I'm sure we could all use some of after a rollercoaster of a 2020.

Moments of introspection make you wonder what could have been; what a minor change in life decisions could've set you on a divergent path far away from where you are now. Reflection forces you to recognize and appreciate the great things you have, and to notice those forks where things could've gone in a different direction. What if my wife and I had never met? What if we'd decided against having kids? What if I'd decided to turn down that meeting that led to a job offer? Or what if I hadn’t gotten that weird medical thing checked out?

I tend to be a future-worrier, not a past-dweller. The former comes with its own challenges, but I think it's better for your mental state than the latter. Deep thought about future situations can at least bear fruit if it helps make better decisions, but the past is fixed, unchangeable. Dwelling on a decision un-made won't go back and re-make it.

In mid-2017 I was suddenly diagnosed with stage IV cancer, was rushed to emergency surgery to have a colectomy procedure. After a flurry of doctors, follow ups, and recovery, I was on an aggressive chemotherapy cycle 2 weeks later. The story has a positive ending, but let's just say 2017 wasn't my favorite year. I don't think about it often anymore; as I said: I'm not much of a past-dweller, and that trait served me well getting through treatment in good spirits. But I do wonder what the outcome might've been if I'd delayed seeing a doctor, or saw a less-respectable oncologist, or opted for a safer, less aggressive "no-second-surgery" option. I'm sure the outcome would've been worse, but in the moment you can never be sure. The surgery I ended up having required a multisite tumor board debate of dozens of Mayo Clinic specialists to confirm the recommendation, but might've been the decision that put me where I am now.

Life is full of these moments where history turns, sometimes on seemingly small decisions. Though causality isn't always determined by a single decision (the butterfly's wings aren't the only cause that generates the hurricane), it's still tantalizing to think about how an alternate sequence may have played out.

In today's issue I want to dive into this idea of alternate paths, those small "what-if" moments when outcomes might've been much different.


A Thousand Chances to Go Wrong

This idea of untrodden paths was top-of-mind as I was reading a book I just finished, Erik Larson's The Splendid and the Vile, his narrative history of the the Battle of Britain, the Blitz, and Winston Churchill's leadership through the start of the War. I'd highly recommend the book, a gripping account of Britain during the relentless German bombing campaign that lasted a year and killed nearly 50,000 civilians.

Raids began in daylight, but when Britain refused to submit, they eventually turned to nighttime bombing that lasted for months over London (56 of 57 nights in a row).

The book covers from Churchill's appointment until the official involvement of the US after Pearl Harbor. Larson presents many of the events of the period from the perspective of Churchill and his closest aides. Most striking to me was how many of these perilous moments Britain had to navigate to safely withstand and combat the effects of the Blitz. Positioning themselves appropriately to resist the Germans required dozens of key outcomes to turn their way.

In the early days, the famous evacuation at Dunkirk prevented the death or capture of 200,000+ British troops. What if Hitler had been more forceful in preventing the evacuation? What if there was no German halt order?

Not long after the successful rescue operation, Britain was preparing for what they knew would be an invasion. And after they successfully moved so many so quickly across the channel in small craft, they worried about a "reverse Dunkirk." Could that have worked? The Royal Navy was almost certainly too powerful for a large-scale naval operation from Germany, but how could they have stopped thousands of small boats in scattered landings along the sparsely populated Kent coast?

What if Churchill, the ultimate in ferocious wartime leaders, wasn't appointed? What if Britain had surrendered after 30 days of relentless bombing of the capital? With the Brits out of the picture, could Germany's ability to focus efforts made them successful in knocking out Russia?

Another precarious time was the lead-up to US involvement in the conflict. Larson describes the extensive efforts Churchill went through to court Roosevelt into joining up with their cause. He knew they couldn't fight back alone, and was certain of victory if he could win the Americans over. A shrewd demonstration of British production capabilities (enough to show that their cause was desperate, but not hopeless), helped to coax FDR into pushing through Lend-Lease, a program that likely saved the war effort for all of the Allies.

So many other events come to mind from the wider conflict. The German navy could've been more successful in strangling Atlantic supply routes. Roosevelt could've lost the 1940 election. We could've had less fortunate timing at Midway. Hitler could've postponed the invasion of the Soviet Union.

World War II was an absolutely epic event on every dimension. Not before or since has there been a time when no place was untouched by the events going on. On any given day between '39 and '45, there were hundreds of individual pivot points that could've turned history.

What might those turns have looked like?


Alternate Worlds in Maps

Rewinding and reprojecting alternate timelines is particularly effective when done through the medium of maps.

Maps have this quality about them, a concreteness in how they communicate that can't be matched by news stories or text narratives. There's something about the pattern recognition when we look at a map of the world; we've got an assumption of what we expect to see that gets violated when shown something distinctly different. A political map of Europe from 1914 (pre-World War I) looks like another world entirely from today — about 20 independent states, compared to today's 40+.

This article by Sam Arbesman looks at how maps are an interesting vector for communicating alternate histories. In the piece, he references writer Michael Chabon's use of maps to convey his fictional worlds, their ability to draw us in and make tangible comparisons to the world we know:

"Chabon hit upon the attraction of imagined cartographies: the lure of making the paraphernalia of verisimilitude. These worlds are different but they could exist, and we can be easily sucked into spending too much time lavishing detail on these constructions.”

For the carto-curious reader, the /r/imaginarymaps subreddit is a gold mine of sometimes-crazy, but often very plausible maps of timelines that never happened.

There's an intricate project put together by an imaginarymaps amateur cartographer-slash-historian called the "Thousand Week Reich," which outlines in expansive detail a Nazi victory scenario from many different angles, projecting what would've been realistic for the Reich to implement (as they'd planned) if given the opportunity. What's most incredible are the detailed accompanying maps with titles like The Slavic Insurgency (1946-1950), The Dutch Government in Exile, and The French Civil War (1952).

If nothing else, pursuing threads like this lends perspective to the fragility of history to individual (or few) events in sequence. Of course had these things happened, we'd have never known another way. And who knows, maybe we're currently on a sub-optimal path as we speak. Maybe there was a fork in the road somewhere behind us that could've led to a dream state of flying cars and space colonies. The realm of science fiction.


The Worlds of Science Fiction

I'd be remiss not to mention science fiction as the ultimate medium for speculation, both on alternate universes and especially the future road ahead of us.

The article above references several works of speculative fiction: Chabon's Yiddish Policeman's Union (what if a Jewish state sprang up in Alaska, not Israel?), Kim Stanley Robinson's The Years of Rice and Salt (what if the Black Death killed of 99% of Europe instead of 30%?), and Turtledove's Worldwar series (what if aliens invaded during World War II?).

It's one of the reasons sci-fi is my favorite fiction genre: it infinitely widens the world-building space, allowing writers to explore ideas and the human condition with no limits (or at least allows creators to define their own limits). Some of my other favorite sci-fi works fall into the spec-fic category — World War Z, Stephen King's Dark Tower series, or A Canticle for Leibowitz.

Philip K. Dick's The Man in the High Castle is one of the most well known in popular culture, having recently been adapted into a popular Amazon Prime series. It presents the above "what if the Axis won?" scenario (the book not that deeply, the series very much so).

Writer Ted Chiang (who's probably most famous for writing the story from which the film Arrival was adapted) wrote a phenomenal short story called "Anxiety is the Dizziness of Freedom," in which the characters can get a view into the lives of themselves in parallel universes using "prism" devices (you can read the whole thing online). The "multiverse" concept is not brand new, but Chiang's twist allows characters to communicate between dimensions.

One of the legends (inventors?) of the genre, Isaac Asimov, built his entire magnum opus around the idea that humanity figures out how to compute the future, what he calls "psychohistory." The Foundation series tells of a mathematician that figures out, using statistics, how to predict the future. He foresees the fall of an empire, and puts together a project (the "foundations") to preserve scientific knowledge through the dark ages.

Though today's AI and machine learning algorithms make it look like we're headed for psychohistory (Westworld borrowed heavily from this idea, and it was quite ridiculous), we're absurdly far away from the scale described by Asimov.

(Several years back I'd started a project to read and write about each work in the Greater Foundation series. I should pick that back up... I read and reviewed the first three: The End of Eternity, I, Robot, and The Caves of Steel.)


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