My Millennial List
(First published in Chicon 2000 Progress Report #5)
“It is hard for thee to kick against the pricks.” And I have given up kicking. If 90 percent of my fellow creatures are convinced that a new millennium began this year, I shall concede that either one of the first two “millennia” contained only 999 years or that one of those years should have been counted twice.
A favorite way to start this new thousand year span has been to look back on the past 1,000 (or 999) years and construct lists of the Most Important This, the Best That, and the Greatest Other. Most of these lists are striking testaments to the parochialism and ignorance of our times. For the pessimists among you, I particularly recommend The Best Books of the Past Millennium, as selected by the customers of Amazon.com.
But list-making has its insidious attractions, so I have succumbed to the temptation to construct my own. The specific impetus was a development in the historical world that is of scientifictional interest.
Within the past couple of years, a spate of works has appeared in which serious, professional historians delve into what we call “alternate history”. The preferred name in scholarly circles is “counterfactual history”, both to avoid the taint of SF and because “alternative history” has been coopted by sundry ideologues to clothe diluted Marxism in pseudo-historical garb.
The great virtue of the counterfactual historians is that they tread new ground. Each has his own minute field of specialization, and many are eager to demonstrate that some contingency known only to themselves and a dozen other similarly situated experts had far-reaching consequences. Lots of novelists have hypothesized a Confederate victory in the Civil War, but has any considered, as a contributor to the volume Virtual History does, how the world might have been altered by the enactment of an Irish Home Rule Bill in 1912?
Thus I have been inspired to compile a list of the ten non-events of the past millennium that furnish the most interesting bases for alternate histories. I have tried to avoid overworked themes, but not every one of these ideas is absolutely fresh. In chronological order:
1001: The Vikings flock to the “New World” of Vinland. For all their reputation as looters and raiders, the bulk of the people who migrated from Scandinavia were peasants seeking land. In Vinland they would have found huge tracts more fertile than Iceland and Russia and less well-defended than England and France. Unfortunately, Vinland was also much farther away, so mass settlement there presupposes obstacles nearer at hand, such as Danish political failure in England, French liquidation of Normandy, more vigorous Slavic resistance to foreign overlords and, possibly, timely eruption of volcanoes in Iceland.
1071: The Byzantines win the Battle of Manzikert, instead of losing it due to treachery. The historical Turkish victory led to the abrupt collapse of Byzantine power after over a century of revival, expansion and consolidation. Had the troops of Emperor Romanos Diogenes remained steadfast, the Turkish threat could have been crushed for generations, and the Crusades might have been a Byzantine rather than a Western enterprise.
1248: The Mongol Grand Khan Güyük lives out a normal lifespan. Through much of the Middle Ages, Nestorian Christianity was a widespread presence in Asia and a serious rival to Islam. The best chance of a Christian triumph came in 1246, when Genghis Khan’s grandson Güyük was chosen as Grand Khan of the Mongols. Güyük’s mother and many of his intimate advisors were Nestorians, and his perceived bias in favor of Christianity provoked angry reactions from other Genghisids. In factual history, Güyük died after a two-year reign, but it is easy to devise a counterfactual in which he brought the Mongols to the Christian faith and ensured that Islam, rather than Nestorianism, would dwindle to near extinction.
1367: The Black Prince declines the chance to invade Castile. At the beginning of this year, England’s possessions in France were on their soundest footing ever, with sovereignty conceded by treaty and a financially healthy English administration presided over by the Edward III’s vigorous and capable son. By the end of the year, those advantages had been squandered by the Prince’s decision to invade Castile on behalf of its ousted monarch Pedro the Cruel. The campaign was a brilliant military success, but it gained nothing for England and threw the continental administration into a fiscal crisis that led to the French reconquest. If only the Prince had treated Pedro as he deserved, Bordeaux might today be a center of English culture.
1492: A revolt of subject peoples sweeps away the Aztec empire. It was by allying with rebellious victims of Aztec tyranny that Cortes was able to win his spectacular victory in 1521. By itself the tiny band of conquistadors would, despite its superior weaponry, have inevitably been slaughtered by the armies of coherent, post-Aztec states. It would then have been an open question whether the native regimes would have succumbed to later Spanish assaults or have been able to assimilate enough European technology to retain long-term independence.
1553: Edward VI survives his bout of tuberculosis. Before succumbing to disease at age 15, Henry VIII’s son and heir had been a robust, intellectually gifted lad with an intense devotion (not inherited from his sire) to Protestant theology. Edward could have lived as long as his sister Elizabeth, in which case he would have reigned until 1607 and, had he followed his early inclinations, left behind a thoroughly Protestant realm instead of the via media of the Church of England. The secular significance of the change is that England’s American possessions would have been settled by a far different breed of folk from the religious dissenters who made up so large a part of the early population. “New England” might well have become the refuge of crypto-Catholic gentry, or it might have remained as thinly settled as New France and eventually fallen prey to the more numerous Spaniards to the south.
1763: France retains Canada. In the peace negotiations at the end of the Seven Years’ War, Britain seriously contemplated returning Canada to France in exchange for - Guadaloupe! One strong argument in support of this trade was that a French presence on the flank of the American colonies would foster gratitude for British protection and dampen any rebellious tendencies. Maybe so, and maybe continued competition with the French for Indian good will would have led to stern enforcement of the prohibition against American settlement west of the Appalachians.
1813: Sir Walter Scott, having steered clear of financial entanglements, has no reason to begin writing novels. Almost all alternate histories spring from changes in political, military or diplomatic events, because the effect of contingencies in the intellectual and cultural realms is often obscure. One possible exception is the impact of Scott’s Waverley novels, which such observers as G. M. Trevelyan and C. S. Lewis have credited with creating, almost single-handedly, the sense that “the past is a foreign country”, where people think, act and feel differently from ourselves. The supersession of the static view of human character, such as one finds in Gibbon, had profound effects, one of which, I think, was the development of science fiction as a literary genre.
1861: The South does not secede. Hundreds of speculations have appeared in print about what might have happened if the South had won the Civil War. Few have considered the more believable possibility that the war might not have occurred at all. The secessionist forces faced strong opposition in their home states, and the fledgling Confederacy could have proven as abortive as the Nullification movement 30 years earlier. An interesting possibility is that, in the absence of secession, the Supreme Court might have continued to hand down pro-slavery decisions á la Dred Scott. (A couple of opportunities to expand the Scott precedent were wending their way through the courts when the war broke out.) Could those have so inflamed anti-slavery opinion as to lead a disunion movement in the Northern states?
1912: Theodore Roosevelt is nominated for a third term. In retrospect, it is clear that World War I was the great disaster of the Twentieth Century, to which all subsequent misfortunes are mere corollaries. It is hard to see how anything could have happened in Europe that would have prevented the conflict from breaking out and bogging down in stalemate. The impetus for a happier (or at least dramatically different) future might, however, have come from this side of the Atlantic. If Roosevelt had wrested the Republican nomination from President Taft (a long shot but not impossible), he would almost certainly have been elected in November. (He and Taft together outpolled Wilson by 7.5 million to 6.2 million votes.) Roosevelt was a firm Anglophile who advocated American intervention in Europe from the beginning of the war. His presence in the White House would not have deterred the Germans, confident of a swift victory, from invading France and Russia, but it might have cooled Berlin’s ardor after the French failed to fold up according to von Schlieffen’s script. Perhaps Roosevelt himself would have mediated a compromise peace and become, ironically for so bellicose a figure, the only man ever to win two Nobel Peace Prizes.