Parallel Worlds and Inherent Strength (#SFWApro)

My friend Ross coined the term “inherent strength” to refer to the probability of history changing. As he put it, it’s quite plausible to imagine an alternative Marvel Universe where Steve Rogers did not become Captain America. It’s not at all plausible that there’s any divergence in which he becomes a contract killer for the mob or slaps around little old lady. It’s just not in him.
For a real historical example, look at the Confederacy. Reading Battle Cry of Freedom it struck me that the best bet to preserve slavery might be rather than helping the South win, someone could negotiate peace and reunion early on, before emancipation became government policy. It was a controversial, radical step for a lot of people and Lincoln took a big risk; if the South returned to the fold, it might never have happened (which is not to say slavery would have endured forever, but it wouldn’t have ended by 1965).
The trouble is, reading the book also convinces me it’s very unlikely that would ever have happened. The South didn’t want to reunite, and it was convinced it could win. The inherent strength lies, I think, with the CSA lasting until it was beaten in the field.
Or consider the Captain Confederacy comic book series, set in a world where the South won. In one issue, it was mentioned in passing that General McClellan won the election of 1864 and after negotiating peace, freed the Union’s slaves. Again, I’m not sure this could have won against the “inherent strength” of history—McClellan’s Democratic Party was solidly against emancipation and from all accounts so was he.
For a third example, I’ve read many stories where the Protestant Reformation dies in its cradle for one reason or another. As a result, the Catholic Church continues as an unbreakable theocracy to this day (or in one variation, Cromwell’s Puritan theocracy in England has the same effect). I honestly find this idea implausible: the fractures and issues in the church were so substantial, I think schism and reformation have inherent strength on their side. Sooner or later, they’d have happened.
That said, I’m not suggesting this is a magic bullet for rating all alternative histories. If you have a universe in which history is utterly fixed, it’s a moot point, for instance. No matter how probable or unlikely our history (and a lot of outcomes have hinged on pure luck), it’s fixed and never going to change.
Then there’s the idea that every single thing that can go differently does, creating a multiverse in which ever possible event plays out every possible way (as in Crisis on Two Earths). In that case, if it’s all purely random, maybe there’s a world where Steve Rogers is in fact a hitman. No matter how implausible, everything that can happen will happen.
There are also stories which present just a complete bizarro-history, like Star Trek’s mirror universe where Spock, Kirk and the Federation are all evil. Or a Bentley Little short story in which George Washington survives Valley Forge by turning cannibal.
“Inherent strength” stories fall somewhere in the middle. A middle where history isn’t fixed, but human decisions aren’t utterly meaningless. Parallel time streams may exist but they don’t include every single possible alternative history, maybe only the probable ones. It’s implicit, I think, that human decisions and free will matter. Which is the case in most time travel and alternative history stories, I think.
It’s not an absolute standard for judging divergence, but I think it’s a useful one.


Filed under Now and Then We Time Travel, Writing

6 responses to “Parallel Worlds and Inherent Strength (#SFWApro)

  1. Nice concept — I enjoy alternative history stories. I read somewhere that Lincoln said if he could have ended the war without freeing the slaves that he would have.

    • Correct. Reading Battle Cry of Freedom, I can see why it’s hard to pin down what Lincoln would have done with black Americans if he lived. His statements weren’t consistent over the years, and he was almost certainly tailoring them for political consumption, so his true endgame? Anybody’s guess (within limits).

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