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Changing the World: The Geography of Alternate History

In this great chain of causes and effects, no single fact can be considered in isolation.

Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859)​

Alternate history is all about contingency. In layman’s terms, asking “what if?”

We look at what did happen historically and we ask “what if it had happened differently?” What if a certain famous battle had been won by the other side? What if a famous statesmen or politician had never been born? What if a great empire had never risen? When we ask these questions we instinctively understand the notions of cause and effect — one event drives another; actions have consequences. What happens in history is contingent upon what events happened before.

If you change the past, you change the future.

Alternate history is a rejection of historical determinism. For it to be possible for events to have occurred differently to those in our own timeline, history cannot be predetermined. If you set your point-of-divergence back far enough, nothing in history is inevitable.

But what if some things are? What if certain circumstances in history actually do make certain outcomes inevitable, or at least highly likely? How might the deck be stacked in favor of our timeline, and what does this mean for alternate history and for the stories and timelines we want to write?

In this series of articles I’ll be exploring the concept of geographical determinism as it can be applied to alternate history — and specifically how physical geography influences the course of history.

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Dreams of Arab Unity

Proposals for unification of the Arab world are more than a century old. Sharif Hussein ibn Ali of Mecca, the steward of the holy cities of Islam, was the first modern Arab leader who sought independence for his people from the Ottoman Turks.

The British, who at the time controlled Aden and Egypt, promised to support Hussein’s ambitions if he would revolt against the Ottomans during the First World War; a promise Britain infamously reneged on.

It would be the first of many disappointments for pan-Arabists.

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Steampunk Has Its Own Cancel Culture

Noam Chomsky is probably the world’s most famous anticapitalist. David Frum is a former speechwriter for George W. Bush. I doubt they agree on much, but they agree free and open debate is vital to a democracy — and that it’s currently being attacked by the far left as well as the far right.

With 151 other leading intellectuals, including Margaret Atwood, Francis Fukuyama, Michael Ignatieff, Garry Kasparov, J.K. Rowling, Salman Rushdie, Gloria Steinem and Thomas Chatterton Williams, they caution in a letter to Harper’s that resistance to the illiberalism of the right must not harden into a dogma of the left.

Specifically, they worry that the “censoriousness” of so-called cancel culture is creating a “stifling atmosphere” in which authors self-censor their stories, books are withdrawn for alleged inauthenticity and editors are fired for publishing controversial opinions.

Their laments will sound familiar to anyone who has been involved in the politics of steampunk. The movement has been taken over by social-justice warriors, who brook no dissent from woke orthodoxy.

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Snowpiercer

Snowpiercer

Bong Joon-ho’s 2013 movie Snowpiercer, starring Chris Evans and Tilda Swington, didn’t exactly leave the door open for a sequel. Instead, courtesy of TNT, and streaming on Netflix internationally, we get a reboot with Daveed Diggs, of Hamilton fame, and Jennifer Connelly, who recently starred in the movie adaptation of Alita: Battle Angel (our review here), in the lead roles.

The series, which consists of ten episodes — a Season 2 is underway — follows the basic premise of the long-running French graphic novel Le Transperceneige, on which it and Bong’s movie are based: The world has become a frozen wasteland as a result of catastrophic climate change. Humanity survives aboard the 1,001 cars of Snowpiercer, a huge train built by the eccentric billionaire known as Wilford. (See Big Trains in the Snow.)

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Authentic Victorian Fashion Patterns: A Complete Lady’s Wardrobe

Authentic Victorian Fashion Patterns: A Complete Lady's Wardrobe

In my review of Patterns of Fashion 2, I mentioned that there are alternatives to that work. This is one of them. Authentic Victorian Fashion Patterns (1999) has all the garments a lady living in Victorian-era America was supposed to own. Plenty are geared toward the upper-class woman, but the books contains patterns for a variety of outfits.

All the patterns are reproductions from a dressmaker’s journal called The Voice of Fashion. (Of which this is not the only reproduction, but I digress.)

Personally, I find these patterns much easier to work with than those in Patterns of Fashion 2. Not only are we provided with a short introduction shedding light onto the cost of an American lady’s wardrobe, and what should be in it according to polite society at the time; the methods needed to turn these patterns into a garment that fits your body are pretty well explained.

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When The World Held Its Breath: Japan Strikes North

What if Japan had joined Barbarossa in the summer of 1941?

It’s a question that’s interested many and even puzzled a few ever since before the end of the Second World War.

“It should be clearly made known to Russia that she owes her victory over Germany to Japan, since we remained neutral,” were the words of Kantarō Suzuki, the Japanese prime minister, on May 14, 1945.

This was a belief that arguably stemmed from desperation on the part of the Japanese. It was expressed following the capitulation of what was left of the Third Reich the previous week, where Japanese hopes now lay in the Soviet Union’s willingness to mediate a peace between Japan and her numerous enemies. In the end these attempts came to nothing and as the Soviets joined the war against Japan in August, perhaps some within the Japanese leadership wondered if they’d made the right choice to spare the Soviets in the summer of 1941…

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The Green Wave

The Green Wave

Cassandra Kelly’s debut novel, The Green Wave, is a most enjoyable one, taking us on a wild adventure with Rosalyn Flynn, Reverend to the Enlightenment Church and airship pilot, from Canterbury to Sydney and far beyond. Along with a cast of characters that are well fleshed-out and equally interesting as the Reverend herself.

Even though the backstories of the characters are kept to a minimum, we are given ample information about them not to be left with tons of questions. Action scenes are descriptive, but short enough to keep you from becoming bored with detail. The author has definitely found that fine line between going in-depth and being overly descriptive.

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Patterns of Fashion 2: Englishwomen’s Dresses and Their Construction c. 1860-1940

Patterns of Fashion 2

To those who habitually sew historical garments, the Patterns of Fashion series is probably nothing new. To those who don’t: Patterns of Fashions is a series often referred to by costubers, especially those working recreating garments from the past century and before.

Do they live up to the hype?

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