Tag Archives: Alternate History

The Problem with Timeline-191

So I’ve already talked about two Harry Turtledove series before, Darkness and WorldWar, so now it’s time to talk about Turtledove’s other famous book series.  The unofficially named “Timeline-191” (and sometimes Southern Victory) comprises of eleven books detailing the history of the two American countries after the South won the American Civil War.  Told from multiple viewpoints from both countries (and one or two thrown in from Canada), we experience the tragic history of these two countries as they are drawn into conflict again and again up until 1945.  Now, upfront, I honestly think this may be Turtledove’s weakest major series but before I divulge why, let’s dive into the series and see what makes it so special and one of the most famous alternate history stories of our modern day and age.

So the first Timeline-191 book is called How Few Remain.  In this book we understand why the South won the American Civil War and what happened to the two countries shortly after.  After a brief prologue dedicated to the defeat of the Union, the book picks up twenty years later where the two American countries pick up arms again and fight each other but this time it’s for the C.S.A. acquisition of two Mexican provinces.  Fearing that the C.S.A. would become too strong, the U.S.A. declares war on the C.S.A. but is abysmally defeated thanks to the C.S.A.’s reliable generals and its alliance with France and Britain.

How Few Remain is probably the most interesting book in the series as it can stand by itself very easily.  The book retains all of the Second Mexican War and its immediate consequences as well and as such, many of our stories have a clear beginning and a satisfying ending.  What’s more, unlike the rest of the series, all of our viewpoint characters follow historical characters like Theodore Roosevelt and Mark Twain.  The book also offers very reasonable ideas of what the world may be like in 1881 such as the C.S.A’s continual involvement with France and Britain and the dominance of Democrats in the U.S.A. up until the 1880s.  Now, Turtledove could have just left How Few Remain as it is but he decided to take this story he created and make a mega book series out of it.  What follows is the next logical step in our timeline, and a 30 year jump with it, the Great War.

This is my favorite part of the series and it’s awesome.  Because the C.S.A. allied itself with France and Britain, the U.S.A., in return, allied itself with Germany and the Austria-Hungary Empire to acquire its own strong allies.  Of course, everything went to Hell in a handbasket, thanks to a certain Archduke, and now, not only do you have the mess of Europe fighting each other, but now you got the U.S.A. fighting Canada and the C.S.A!  It’s a literal world war at this point.

So the first reason why the Great War trilogy is my favorite part in Timeline-191 is how it’s not immediately clear who will win this war.  It could honestly go either way.  In How Few Remain, right from the start, the U.S.A. is kind of done for so there’s not as much incentive to read the book.  But for the Great War, it’s so close and even that any small event can help push the war one way or another.

I also like how Turtledove just didn’t pull any punches with the harshness of trench warfare and the dire outlook for many of the soldier’s lives.  The settings and characters are highly realistic and don’t offer that sweet storytelling guidelines many of us are familiar with.  It’s very similar to the Song of Ice and Fire series, actually.  I also like how diverse our viewpoint characters are ranging from regular soldiers, to spies, farmers, commanders, and politicians.  We definitely get a full spectrum of viewpoints that cue us in what’s happening in this crazy world.  Turtledove excels at this and has done this before in the Darkness and Worldwar series.  This is a guilty pleasure but honestly one of my favorite POV characters is Gordon McSweeney who is a stupid, badass bigot.  The things this guy says and does in this series is great.

Now, there is a third reason but let me get back to that in a moment…

Gordon McSweeney at his craziest. Image from http://jakarnilson.deviantart.com/art/Sgt-McSweeney-s-MoH-47587475

So, spoilers, the U.S.A. along with the other Central Powers, won the Great War.  The series doesn’t end there though as we are treated to our next trilogy in the series, American Empire.  This trilogy is kind of weak as there are jumps of time within the books.  The three books cover about twenty years altogether meaning there’s a lot of plot development crammed into characters whom we already don’t spend much time with.

However, the second, and primary reason, why the Timeline-191 series falters at this point is Turtledove’s over reliance in incorporating plot developments that mirror our real world.  I’m serious.  Turtledove oversaturates his story with parallel events that almost defeats the purpose of an alternate history genre.  Long story short, the C.S.A. becomes Nazi Germany and fights the U.S.A. again in the 1940s.  And guess what?  The C.S.A. loses!  Go figure!

Now, the next four books in the series, called Settling Accounts, is entertaining to read but by this point, all sense of disbelief is kind of thrown to the curb and we aren’t as engaged with the story as we kind of know what will happen in the end.  I even stopped reading the series by this point due to the aforementioned reasons and it was getting depressing fast.  You see, throwing in a little nod here or there in reference to our timeline is fun or all but this is just overkill.

This is why I liked the Great War part of the storyline the best.  True, there are historical references in this trilogy but it doesn’t control the story as much as it does later on.  The trilogy is fun, original, and not bogged down by its sheer alternate history glory.  I’ve actually read online that supposedly, the U.S.A. was going to lose the Great War and actually become the next fascist power in North America.  But then Turtledove decided later on that that wasn’t going to happen which explains several things.  One, Jake Featherston, who becomes the C.S.A.’s Hitler, was a pretty nice, if awkward, guy early on before he almost suddenly develops this hatred against African Americans; and two, Gordon McSweeney was probably going to be the U.S.A.’s version of Hitler until Turtledove pulled the plug on that idea and killed him off, rather inexplicably, at the end of the trilogy.  Very interesting fan theory for sure and I’m interested to see how that story could have turned out.  Regardless, because of this switch, the Great War trilogy is not as tied down compared to the rest of the series and that’s what makes it so good.  My advice is to read How Few Remain and the Great War trilogy and just stop there.

You gotta love the propaganda posters people make for the series as well. Image from http://s13.photobucket.com/user/Redem10/media/Turtledovepropaganda.jpg.html

There’s a lot more to talk about this series so I’ll just leave that for another time.  For now, I’m curious to see if you like this series and if you agree with me or not.  If not, is there another alternate history story you like better involving the American Civil War?  Let me know!

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Harry Turtledove’s Worldwar Series is Among the Best Alternate History Stories

Aliens invade Earth during World War 2.

So is the basic, and awesome, concept behind one of Harry Turtledove’s greatest novel series, the “Worldwar” series. First published in 1994, this 8-book series is one of the most famous alternate history stories written and poses one of the most delightful what-if questions ever asked. What if aliens invaded Earth during World War 2?

Now, WW2 is like a magnet when it comes to alternate histories. Soooooo many authors have written about this war posing various what-if questions but they’re usually about what if Nazi Germany won the war.   No other topic in history, not even what if the Confederate States of America won the American Civil War, comes even close to matching the popularity of this topic. As such, alternate historical WW2 stories oversaturate the genre and make it hard to find good stories from this small pool.

What Harry Turtledove does to differentiate himself from other writers is focus on the point of divergence (the point in history where something happened differently than from our own timeline). It’s not Roosevelt or Hitler that gets assassinated, it’s not Nazi Germany refraining from declaring war on the U.S.S.R., it’s not Japan refraining from bombing Pearl Harbor, it’s an alien invasion. Freaking aliens.

Now at this point, you might be saying to yourself, “but they’re aliens! Shouldn’t they be able to steamroll over us and conquer Earth no problem?” You might be right, BUT, these aliens are practical…sensible…and not farcical. These aliens have technology similar to ours right now but with an added bonus of say…50 years from now or so. They have interstellar but slower than light travel, they have large spaceships for holding armies, and they have cryonics to preserve the soldiers during the long flight. So their technology is not too-farfetched.

More importantly though, the aliens, known as “The Race,” were not expecting this degree of advancement from the humans. When the Race sent their first probes to Earth, they sent back pictures and videos of humans riding horses while wielding swords and bows. The probes painted an image of the human race as relatively backwards and not a threat to the more technology advanced the Race. As such, when the Race arrived to the war-torn world of Earth, they were expecting an easy conquering of a backward species.

This is one of the reasons why the Worldwar series is a great series of novels to read. We are presented with a believable science fiction setting that offers a conflict that is not one-sided and can be viewed from multiple protagonists. Oh yeah, the protagonists. In typical Turtledove fashion, we are presented many different protagonists to follow from various walks of life, both human and the Race. They offer us a glimpse into their world and paint us a picture on what events are affecting them and what events they are affecting in return. My favorite POV is probably Molotov though Atvar, the Fleet Overlord of the Race, is a good character as well.

The second reason why this series is so great is that it does not overly rely on parallel historical events to tell a story. Let me give you an example of what I mean. Some authors, like Harry Turtledove, like to use events in their storyline as analogous to the actual historical events. In Harry Turtledove’s other famous series, Timeline-191, where the C.S.A. won the American Civil War, we see A LOT of parallels between the C.S.A. and Nazi Germany during the 1930s and 1940s and in the 1940s’ war between the C.S.A. and the U.S.A. In all honestly, it’s kind of annoying. I like my alternate history stories to progress like they naturally would and not just on some parallel track that was already determined by our timeline. This is why I like Timeline-191’s storyline during the Great War more so than the rest of the series because those parallel events are played down to the point of nonexistence.

Now, to be fair, the Worldwar series does have analogous events but they are portrayed as events similar to what has already happened in human history. Many of the human characters compare the Race’s colonization of Earth relative to British Imperialism in the 19th century. Topics like Social Darwinism and racism are prevalent in the Race’s attitude towards humans. The humans disgust the Race with their non-seasonal mating, long-term romantic relationships, high amount of liquid waste, and ability to handle change easily. But these events do not directly portray one or two significant events that happen during the course of history. In fact, many fans of the series more often than not compare the Race War to that of the Vietnam War. Even then, this is more of just a point of observation rather than directly comparing battles or weapons that the two wars may have.

As such, we are given two strong reasons why the Worldwar series stands out from other alternate historical novels. An original concept combined with a story that is unchained from our own history provides a delightful read that can keep the readers on edge. When I read the Timeline-191 series or other similar stories, I can get a relative idea what may happen and who might be killed at the end of the story. Worldwar pushes this to the side and keeps us guessing what may happen in each exciting new book.

And finally, in the television world where more and more companies like Netflix or Hulu are providing us with original, unhindered shows that can give us exciting and new series, I say this. The Worldwar series would be phenomenal if it was adapted into a television show. We already have shows with multiple protagonists, such as Game of Thrones, and there hasn’t been any good, strong science fiction shows in recent memory. What’s more, the tagline that I gave you at the beginning of the article is enough to entice anyone to at least check out the first episode

Aliens invade Earth during World War 2.

Someone has to make it. This series is awesome.

My only request is that you make the aliens chameleon-like cause god damnet, sooooo many book covers make them just reptilian-like. Make it happen!

Chrononauts the Board Game should get an Updated Edition!

When some board games begin to show their age or are plagued with problems due to broken gameplay, unreadable rules, or untapped potential, publishers may reprint these board games in a newer edition.  For Chrononauts, it needs an update because of both reasons.

For the unfamiliar, Chrononauts is a board game, produced by Looney Labs, about time travel and alternate histories.  Ah yes, alternate histories, perhaps my favorite subject in science fiction.  What if Nazis won World War 2?  What if Lincoln wasn’t assassinated?  What if the South won the American Civil War?  There is so much potential for great and in-depth stories that can take the reader on a wild ride.

…and in some cases aliens invading Earth during World War 2 (awesome series btw)

Chrononauts is the embodiment of that alternate histories and it does so wonderfully.  Unlike other board games, the board is actually a group of cards aligned up in neat rows and columns.  You have two kinds of cards, lynch pins and ripplepoints.  Lynch pins are important events (say Lincoln gets assassinated) while ripplepoints are events that are affected by them (Andrew Johnson gets impeached).  Reversing the fate of the lynch pins (Lincoln is only wounded) affects the ripplepoints (Lincoln is now impeached instead).  Once you reverse event, the ripplepoint is a paradox that can only be cured by placing a patch on it (they’re the orange cards in the images).  One of the ways you can win the game is to get back to your own timeline as designated by your ID card.

Okay, so why does Chrononauts need an updated edition?

The drawback of a time traveling game is that it can be outdated easily.  This game came out in 2000 so many of the most recent events depicted seem unwarranted.  True, the Waco Siege and John Lennon’s assassination are important events but I wouldn’t place them as truly historical.

This was remedied in 2009 when an expansion was released called the Gore Years (lol, gotta love the name).  Anyway, as you may have guessed, the expansion adds new cards expressing the pivotal moments that happened during the 2000s decades.  Mainly, Gore winning the election instead of Bush, the events of September 11th, and the Afghanistan War.  I don’t know if it’s because these events are more recent but I like these events more so than the 1990s’ ones as they seem more important.  Plus, I just love that outcome if Gore wins the presidency then Palin wins in 2008, haha.

But there’s a problem with this.  Unlike expansions in other board games where they blend naturally with the original game, the Gore Years is simply stapled onto the original game.  Events from the 1800s or 1900s do not affect anything from the 2000s and that seems a bit odd to me…

There’s actually another version of this game called Early American Chrononauts.  This version looks fuuuuuun and I want to play with it.  It adds a lot of awesome events from the 1700s and 1800s of American history such as the Boston Tea Party, the Battle of the Alamo, and the Louisiana Purchase.  But this game is just a standalone game and does not add to the original Chrononauts game.

As such, Chrononauts would do wonders if a second edition came out for it.  This edition can have more historical events that tie all the way back from the late 1700s to the early 2000s.  These events can interweave and drastically affect each other even if they may be a century (or more) apart.  What I’m basically saying is combine the original version with the Gore Year expansion and the Early American Chrononauts to create an expansive timeline.

But wait!  There’s more!

There are two things that Chrononauts does that can be greatly expanded in the second edition.  The first thing Looney Labs can do is add more patches for the same event.  Okay, for example, the 1945 ripplepoint has three different patches.  In the original timeline, the allies with the Second World War.  BUT, one patch has the Nazis conquering Europe, one patch has the U.S. invading Japan (and doesn’t drop the atomic bomb), while the final patch is world peace (no World War 2).  The reason for these diverse events is that the ripplepoint is dependent on three lynchpins instead of the normal one or two.  As such, several events can happen for the same year.  If Looney Labs, created an edition that has more of these multiple ripplepoints for the same year, that would be really cool.

The second thing they can do is have more items that come from specific timelines.  The German Cake is the only item in the game that works as a special action.  However, this can only happen if Germany attends the World Fair with Chocolate Cake (this takes place in 1939, the real event it replaces is the German invasion of Poland).  There should be other special cards as well such as say…an open bottle of champagne celebrating the Titanic’s successful maiden voyage or the autobiography of Davy Crockett.  These items from specific timelines can make the game deeper with more possibilities to exploit.

Mmmmm racist-free caaaaaaake… Image from http://www.wunderland.com/LooneyLabs/Chrononauts/Mysteries.html

Chrononauts is already a fun, engaging, and humorous game that has the potential to be that much better.  With a few modifications, it can achieve a higher status of a more in-depth game that can balance off the chance aspect of its gameplay with strategy while still retaining its original charm.  I hope Looney Labs does come out with another updated edition to this game as that would be awesome.

Also, and on an final, unrelated note, while doing research for this article, I stumbled onto Andrew Looney’s website, the creator of the game, and his explanation of the weird historical events that happen in the game. If you ever wonder why the prevention of the Hindenburg disaster would prevent the Korean War then you should check it out!  http://wunderland.com/LooneyLabs/Chrononauts/Mysteries.html