Tag Archives: alternate history

Writing prompt: Invent a pivotal historical person

Time: 7 minutes. Click here to go to my list of prompts.

“Invent a fictional person who played a pivotal but unknown role in history” [Note: For my historical event, I chose the marathon of the 1904 Olympics in St. Louis, which as you can read here, went farcically badly. The whole Wikipedia page is actually worth a read, with gems like this one: “One of the most remarkable athletes was the American gymnast George Eyser, who won six medals even though his left leg was made of wood.”]

I might not be able to win the marathon. But I could ruin it. The damned heavy cast slowed my walking. The bone was nearly mended, but it was too late now. Even if I sawed it off, my leg would be weak, and I could never run so many miles.

It was so hot. I felt the sweat dribble down my leg, itchy and utterly inaccessible. I drove my car along the route while the runners ran. One looked very sweaty and red in the face.

“Sir, you’re only nine miles in,” I said. “If you’re struggling like this now, you’ll never make it.”

The man ignored me for a time, but his pace slowed. Finally he stopped. “Sir, I have no thanks to offer for your discouragement. But I’ve left my clothes in the stadium. Would you make up the injustice by driving me?”

He was right, and I told him to get in. Ten miles in, though, the car broke. I left it, hobbling slowly. Several angry dogs barked in a yard along the path. With my crutch, I unlatched it and kept on moving before the dogs noticed.

I set my crutches across the road now. In the dust, and with the fatigue of the athletes by this point, they might miss it. I laughed, and turned to the man for whom I’d provided a ride. He was gone. He’d started running again. Oh, well, perhaps a sham winner was better than any idea I could concoct.


Writing prompt: What if there was no Bering Land Bridge?

Time: 7 minutes. Click here to go to my list of prompts.

This new world is an untamed wilderness, with not a man in sight. What are in sight, or at least in mind, are the terrible beasts that roam the wilderness. They are easily killed by daylight, but at night, we are the quarry. The cheetahs and the lions are the most fearsome. We see nothing, we hear nothing, but in the morning there are paw prints, and another man or horse is gone.

Michael says he hears spirits in the hills. He says that where there are no men, the ghosts of men must roam, that perhaps we have sailed to purgatory or something like it. I didn’t believe him. But then we saw a group of dark-skinned men in boats. They have no villages, and they sow no crops. They seem lost, like us or like spirits. Maybe we are dead too.

I don’t know if these are good spirits or evil spirits, but Michael says they are low and savage either way. He says that we should claim this land for the crown.

I don’t see much to claim, besides forests and beasts. We don’t know what to eat, we have not yet found gold or spice or empire. There is space to settle, but such a prospect seems daunting indeed. Perhaps we must take it, if only to rid it of evil spirits and the Dutch.

Guns, Germs and Steel: An Excellent Science Fiction Resource

For the last few weeks, I have been reading Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel. I would recommend it; there are over 1600 reviews on amazon that can tell you as much. Significantly for me, I found Guns, Germs, and Steel to be an excellent science fiction resource.

I am often skeptical of social sciences. Unlike math or physics, the simplest, most beautiful solution is often not the correct one in sciences describing human behavior. Guns, Germs, and Steel does an excellent job arguing a difficult central thesis. It does this by approaching the question from a bevy of angles, and asks what we would expect to be true in alternate scenarios. I am not an expert in this field, so I wouldn’t know if the book is overlooking any key angles, but I found the arguments convincing and honestly laid-out.

“Guns, Germs, and Steel” is the author’s shorthand for why Eurasian societies ended up defeating Australian and American societies. The majority of the book discusses prehistory such as the acquisition of crops, domestic animals, societal structure, the means by which Eurasian societies obtained guns, germs and steel so disproportionately to other societies.

This book is a must read for any science fiction author. Especially during the first half, I was mesmerized at the possibilities posed by this book.

Take one simple argument: Eurasian societies had a built-in advantage over American societies because Eurasia is oriented in an east-west direction, while the Americas are north-south. Crops domesticated in one part of Eurasia, such as the Fertile Crescent, could easily spread to other areas with similar climates, such as Italy. In the Americas, corn domesticated in central America took millennia to reach north America, because the central American corn was not ideal for northern climates. Only when a hardier corn came about did the corn spread north.

In another example, the author suggests that most plants are not suited to domestication; by chance, some of the plants most suited to domestication were in the Fertile Crescent. Regions with less suitable plants took longer to convert to farming, which delayed other advances. Present-day hunter-gatherers are experts on the properties of local plants, so along with other evidence, we can infer the lack of plant domestication in some areas was due to the lack of suitable candidates. Even in modern times, the only Australian plant domesticated is the macadamia nut, suggesting that the lack of crop-ready plants kept aboriginals as hunter-gatherers, rather than any biological differences amongst peoples.

So why does this suggest sci-fi? Much of the book is concerned with how environment shapes peoples. How would a society marooned far from Earth either thrive or degenerate back to more primitive ways? Much of it would have to do with the available resources, which would be shaped by the planet. In an alien society, which sub-group would tend to have which advances? If the land-bridge to the Americas was at a lower latitude, how would history have proceeded? If American societies had large domesticated animals, would they have resisted western invasion more, with diseases and beasts of war of their own? If the Cape of Good Hope had had suitable crops for domestication and thus supported a more advanced society, would the Dutch have gained a base of operations with which to fight the Xhosa?

Many possibilities suggest themselves for alternate histories, alien histories, or arcs of human colonization. The best books are ones that inspire and stimulate the imagination– this one did for me, and thus I strongly recommend it.