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October 13, 2004

Too many impossible things before breakfast. On the eve of the final Gore-McCain debate, Will Shetterly explains why my alternate-history scenario is all wet. [07:55 PM]
Welcome to Electrolite's comments section.
Hard-Hitting Moderator: Teresa Nielsen Hayden.

Comments on Too many impossible things before breakfast.:

Claude Muncey ::: (view all by) ::: October 13, 2004, 08:30 PM:

I'm not familiar with this scenario Patrick, Surely this isn't that idea you nad that Bush could actually have gotten elected, allow the country to be attacked, then screw up wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, while driving us back into a deficit? I'm sorry, but that won't fly. White supremacists from the future giving Robert Lee automatic weapons works, but not that mess of yours. Try again.

Will Shetterly ::: (view all by) ::: October 13, 2004, 08:59 PM:

Claude, I really didn't really mean to spoil a bit of innocent fun. And I confess, I hadn't realized how many people read Patrick's blog, but now it seems like everyone's running with his scenario. Salon.com has a piece about a puppet-control device on a President Bush's back. Sojourners's latest email proposes that abortion rates would increase under his anti-abortion presidency as more people struggled under a Bush economy. I think it just proves that everyone loves a disaster story. The Bush Presidency and The Day After Tomorrow are equally implausible, equally horrifying, and equally capable of making me glad that things just couldn't happen like that.

Mary Kay ::: (view all by) ::: October 13, 2004, 10:23 PM:

Am I missing an Electrolite post or are y'all playing with my head? Why do I even bother to ask...


Avram ::: (view all by) ::: October 13, 2004, 11:00 PM:

Enough about this, let’s talk about the really intriguing alternate history: If Aaron Sorkin hadn’t been jailed for drug possession back in the spring of 2001, leaving The West Wing without its head, would the writers have still had Bartlett lose reelection and brought in that new cast in 2002?

Kip Manley ::: (view all by) ::: October 13, 2004, 11:22 PM:

Well, it's been an undercurrent or, heck, an open theme for so many posts hereabouts: at this point it's gone from funny-once to obscure inside joke to maddening shibboleth to inexplicably funny "you hadda be there" to darkly serious and surprisingly deep what-if. Our host would deserve mighty kudos for his perseverence, even if the alternate history weren't so skillfully woven into the fake news posts—and so perversely fascinating. But Messr. Shetterly is right: there's something of a steam-engine time to this particular counterfactual: note how easy it is for those Sidelights links to be spun into this alternate history with just a suggestive word or two in the link text.

I'd also note Patrick Farley's webcomic, Spiders, which is set in an alternate history similar to Patrick Nielsen Hayden's, in which those horrific Iraqi desert spiders are used to shore up the horror we could only imagine, of lives wasted and possibility destroyed, if things had really gone as badly as we sometimes think they might. —It's instructive, I suppose: there but for the grace of God, and all that—and far be it from me to tut-tut the "utility" or "harm" of a fiction or fevre-dream—but I do sometimes wonder how healthy this what-if game we're playing really is. (George W. Bush president? And, after doing such a demonstrably horrible job, standing a good chance of re-election? Please. Could we ever really fall so far, so fast?)

Lenny Bailes ::: (view all by) ::: October 14, 2004, 12:55 AM:

Mary Kay:

Did you miss the parts that have you moving to Seattle and turning into a Democratic party activist instead of founding and chairing the Bay Area Rasff relaxacon?

Rob Tomshany ::: (view all by) ::: October 14, 2004, 01:02 AM:

it occurs to me that the credibility-straining, barely comprehensible magnitude of the notional "Bush II administration's" mendacity and incompetence might be turned to narrative use within the scenario itself. If we the readers find the scale of wrongdoing and blundering impossible to believe, then wouldn't it seem reasonable that the hapless Americans within the story would refuse to believe it as well, that they would think to themselves "this could not possibly be happening, no American government could screw up this badly" even when confronted with the evidence? Think about it.

Marilee ::: (view all by) ::: October 14, 2004, 02:22 AM:

Will, I saw pictures in the WashPost from Fox (they were filming from the back, to get the moderator) and Bush definitely did have some sort of hard rectangular thing under his suit coat. I don't know what, but it was there.

Nabakov ::: (view all by) ::: October 14, 2004, 04:05 AM:

I’d agree with Rob T.

The only way you could have believable characters existing within such an implausible scenario, is if you can convince the reader that they believe it’s fiction too.

You’d probably need to create a character who could develop a theory in which people are written by the text, as a framework that your characters can use to rationalise their belief they’re living in a fiction, and then kill him off just as the theory starts writing itself.

Simstim ::: (view all by) ::: October 14, 2004, 10:56 AM:

So that's Man in the High Castle then? [OK, OK, not quite but there's a lot of similarities]

Clark E Myers ::: (view all by) ::: October 14, 2004, 12:57 PM:

As you know Bob With sanctions and inspections working in Iraq, Bush also would have kept the pressure on Israel to create a viable Palestine. Frankly, peace in the Middle East was inevitable. he explained

BSD ::: (view all by) ::: October 14, 2004, 02:41 PM:

I'm not exactly a war and tactics buff, but even I can tell that the plan PNH suggests Bush II would use for Iraq is clearly bad enough that he (who, though he only served in the Reserves, certainly would have (as PNH grants him not only Powell but also a number of other very experienced strategists) sufficient advice) would have tried almost anything different.
Even assuming he engaged in an invasion of Iraq (the reason for which PNH leaves sadly unclear -- he says they'd accuse the provably-disarmed Saddam of having WMDs, or of harboring terrorists (who mostly wanted him out as a secularist), or most laughably, of using a humanitarian rationale for invasion. Come on, Mr. Nielsen-Hayden, do you really expect us to believe that Republicans would really invade anywhere for humanitarian purposes?) it's more likely that he would have, like his father, taken the wise choice of keeping out of Baghdad and not trying to occupy a notoriously difficult country to occupy.

And really; after the massive national and international support for Gore's intervention in the Sudan, can he suggest that had Bush been elected we'd sit by for a second Rwanda?

Carlos ::: (view all by) ::: October 14, 2004, 02:51 PM:

The technical term for this is "double-blind what-if", usually abbreviated DBWI. Of course the scenario as initially given is rather implausible; after Tippergate on the one hand, and the cocaine allegations and drunk driving record on the other, there's no way either Gore or G.W. Bush would have been viable candidates in 2000.

But, given the quality and depth of the group effort, the scenario has achieved a certain dark magnificence all of its own. Kinda similar to Chet Arthur's masterpiece, For All Time (though some people feel that FAT jumped the shark with the state-sponsored cannibalism. Incidentally, PNH, I'm really glad that Tor is publishing it. Between Chet and Jo Walton, Usenet rules!).

Also, even though I usually don't like SFnal in-jokes, I really liked the cute Greg Bear reference about the Naderites.


TomB ::: (view all by) ::: October 14, 2004, 04:00 PM:

A friend once told me that the classic Phildickian experience is to start reading a PKD novel, get very absorbed in it, and when you put it down after the last page, realize that it is a different PKD novel and it's a year later; that some very strange things are going on in the world around you, but nobody else seems to notice.

I have enjoyed and admired Patrick's ground-breaking forays into hypertextual fiction. I don't want to slight others, such as Kathryn Cramer, who did it earlier and with great artistry, but there is something about the medium of the web that made it really work, and of course you have to factor in Patrick's long experience with alternate literary forms and publishing as a fanzine fan. Even though it was somewhat controversial, I think Patrick's winning the Hugos for Best Fanzine and Best Fanwriter, and the Nebula for Best Novel, for the same work, only shows its excellence and the uniqueness of his vision.

A strong theme in Patrick's fiction is how perception is highly subjective and easily manipulated. He meant it in the political sense, but it could go beyond that. We know that at the quantum level, the phenomena we observe are profoundly affected by the very act of observation. What if the boundaries between fiction and reality are more porous than we might think? What if the very act of creating powerful thought experiments alters the context in which they are performed? I am asking this because I have been having nightmares that I am awake in the world of Electrolite. What if the Noreascon 4 masquerade entry of "candidate" John Kerry's acceptance speech wasn't just a great fannish game of pretend? I keep wondering why my nightmares are so vivid and the real world of peace and harmony (well, except for the globalization protests and the endless gridlock in Washington) seems so tenuous, almost as if it were the dream. The latest is I've been dreaming that all my friends are trapped in the same nightmare with me, but that if we all vote on November 2nd, the quantum waveform of "W" will be reflected back in time, causing him to disappear as the interference patterns cancel out, as if he had never been elected President in the first place, and we can all wake up.

In other words, much as I appreciate art and literature and playing around with ideas, you might be playing with fire, Patrick, and for the sake of us all please be careful. There may be a deeper reason why people want stories to have happy endings.

TomB ::: (view all by) ::: October 14, 2004, 04:17 PM:

Before you all rush to correct me, yes, I know that in the Electrolite shared world, "president" George W Bush never was elected, just installed. My mistake -- there just are too many crazy things that happened in that world. I don't know how Patrick and his contributors have been able to keep track of them all.

Clark E Myers ::: (view all by) ::: October 14, 2004, 05:49 PM:

Is Patrick's premise cannonical? That is:
1. The U.S. still has the blatantly undemocratic Electoral College. 2. Republican officials in Florida use every legal and quasi-legal trick to suppress or discredit votes for Gore.
3. Gore makes the mistake of asking for a recount in a only a few counties instead of the whole state.
4. The Supreme Court compromises its integrity by halting the exercise of democracy and gives the presidency to George W. Bush.

Emphasis added

Seems to me there was substantial discussion on thread Hugged it like a brother on Making Light to the effect that Gore made no mistake in that Florida?

Dave Bell ::: (view all by) ::: October 14, 2004, 05:54 PM:

I'm afraid that one of the dead giveaways which, alas, would be obvious to any computer user, is that the Royal Navy installs a non-Lyons operating system in one of its ballistic missile subs. Not only is it beyond all credibility that the British computer industry, built on the hard-edged commercial experience of running stock-control and accounting for a large-scale fast-food business, should have no place in the world of high-reliability computing, but the product and company names are just so dumb. Whoever heard of a computer company called something like "Microsoft" or a product named "Windows"? Whether for warships or not.

Ken MacLeod ::: (view all by) ::: October 14, 2004, 06:15 PM:

I'm getting disturbing echoes here of 'Divided by Infinity', a story in one of the Starlight anthologies, edited by PNH. That story explores the possibility that the many worlds interpretation (combined with another premise) has the consequence that as we get older, the world in which we live becomes increasingly improbable, because it's one of the ever-narrowing (but infinite) subset of the many worlds in which we survive, against the odds, to that age.

Even so, a Bush Wins in 2000 world is too freaky to be plausible.

Clark E Myers ::: (view all by) ::: October 14, 2004, 07:58 PM:

Where is J. v. P. when the question turns to numbers? I had always thought probability zero applied for any single world in an infinite sequence - that does not of course prevent making a selection from a number line. Hence Bush wins in 2000 has probability zero but......

Will Shetterly ::: (view all by) ::: October 15, 2004, 01:25 AM:

Clark, I did a little checking on the web for Florida's rules in 2000, and as far as I can tell, the scenario for the Bushiverse goes like this: Gore has the option of statewide recount or a few counties. His campaign decides to look like gentlemen while cherrypicking four or five counties that are likely to give them the victory. Then they ask for a statewide recount, the Florida Supreme Court grants it, and wham! The U.S. Supreme Court shuts them down. It's Hollywood-class implausibility, but you gotta admit it's great drama. I might not want to live in that world, but it'd be fun to see the movie.

Ken, I (and maybe a million others) call that the Hindenburg Effect, based on that great Dick story in which the Hindenburg crashes, but the crash is covered live on radio and people are so terrified that zeppelins and dirigibles are effectively abandoned. Packing people into large heavier-than-air craft for long flights-- Ugh! There's another world I don't want to live in.

Will (who thinks he'll use his jet pack to fly door-to-door this weekend drumming up votes in the Four More 4 Gore campaign.

Nabakov ::: (view all by) ::: October 15, 2004, 03:34 AM:

All in all, I’d say the creation of such detailed alterniverse is a very impressive achievement far outstripping earlier works in the same vein such as Pierre Menard’s “Jorge Luis Borges”.

I’m particularly impressed by the little touches such as the fact my pseudonym was actually a real person and the not frustrated writer depicted in Charles Kinbote’s “The Black Swan.”

However some of technological and scientific speculation sounds a bet farfetched. The concept that “atoms”, tiny packets of vibrating energy underpin everything instead of phlostigon, is pure 17th century crackpottery.

And the idea of a distributed but non-hierarchal, real-time global information and communications network that allows people to make comments like this one here, frankly is just implausible.

Charlie Stross ::: (view all by) ::: October 15, 2004, 08:36 AM:

I dunno. The most frankly unbelievable thing about the whole Bushiverse AH, from where I'm standing, is the idea that a British prime minister, let alone a Labour one, would get into bed with this guy.

I know the Junior Health Minister has a reputation for using grandiose messianic visions to paint himself as a man of sincerity, but surely even he has a sufficient grasp on reality to be able to tell the difference between reforming the NHS and invading Iraq? Plus, there's Harold Wilson's example from the 1960's, thanks to which the UK stayed out of Vietnam A Labour leader would have to be profoundly ignorant of his own party's history to allow himself to be led into a foreign adventure of that magnitude, let alone a fool's crusade led by a right-wing charicature.

Certainly John Smith would treat this hypothetical mad Texan with the proverbial barge-pole. Having him drop dead of a heart attack is the only way to make the British dimensions of this scenario fly, and he's been fit as a fiddle since his quadruple bypass in the early nineties.

Frankly, the international dimensions of this AH would only make sense if Labour lost the 2000 snap election and someone from the barking mad right wing of the Tory party -- say, Anne Widdicomb (or even Michael Howard) -- was Prime Minister, rather than Michael Heseltine being head of the opposition. I can see either of Widdicomb or Howard going along with a crusade to re-form the middle east, they're both hawks even by Tory standards. But a Labour prime minister? Get real.

Mitch Wagner ::: (view all by) ::: October 15, 2004, 10:31 AM:

I've never been able to get into the whole Bush-wins-in-2000 subgenre. It doesn't pass the sniff test.

I can't believe a man as incompetent as this hypothetical President Bush would still have the support of half the American people for re-election. Surely, after four years of blunders, any lummox of a Democrat could sweep Bush from office easily.

This premise is almost as implausible as that 1980s Commies-invade movie, "Red Dawn," the one where Nicaragua and Cuba supposedly have enough manpower between them actually occupy the whole U.S. (I like that movie anyway, though--great performance by Ronald Reagan as the Cuban commandante. And, hey, now that I think of it, didn't Reagan make a run at politics himself back in the 50s or 60s or something like that?)

Larry Brennan ::: (view all by) ::: October 15, 2004, 12:52 PM:

Furthermore, I can't imagine Chancellor Stoiber actively turning his back on his American ally. The rise to power of a back-bencher like Schroeder and a radical still cooling his heels in jail like Fischer is equally unlikely. The very idea of a Red-Green coalition gaining power in Germany is absurd, especially considering the economic boom in the former East under the leadership of the highly popular CDU governments in Saxony and Brandenburg.

A liberal Germany! That's a good one!

adamsj ::: (view all by) ::: October 15, 2004, 06:12 PM:


There are lots of infinite sequences with only positive terms which sum up to a finite result--that's absolute convergence, right?--so if futures are countably infinite, they can all have non-zero probabilities. If futures are uncountably infinite, that's a different story--I think measure theory says you can only have a countably infinite number of such points.

Which is more reasonable--countably or uncountably infinite futures? You're asking about reason in a thread in which George W. Bush becomes President? Of the United States? Come on!

Mary Kay ::: (view all by) ::: October 16, 2004, 12:01 AM:

Ya know, if y'all keep this up I'm gonna need more and better drugs. Who's dealing?


NelC ::: (view all by) ::: October 16, 2004, 02:25 PM:

You know, I'm surprised Phil Dick hasn't had anything to say about all this. I mean, I know he writes mainstream stuff now, but this Bush43 scenario is awfully close to some of his old skiffy stuff.

Could it be that Phil Dick and Patrick Neilsen Hayden are actually the same person? Has anyone ever seen them together?

Patrick Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: October 16, 2004, 03:33 PM:

Wow, and I was talking to Philip K. Dick's two daughters just the other day, too. (They were in the office, having just been out to lunch with David Hartwell.) Obviously NelC has been inhaling glue from the akashic records.

Clark E Myers ::: (view all by) ::: October 16, 2004, 05:04 PM:

May be interesting implications for causality (as well as what we mean by probability - sampling thoery vs. Bayesian) if the postulated infinite possible futures do not have an equal chance (random choice) of coming into being - fun with Markov chains too.

By focusing attention then Patrick's side bar becomes the self-fulfilling prophecy? The most examined future takes on as probability the value associated with the first term in the infinite sequence?

Maybe Hawking was right the first time - if Skull and Bones is an information discontinuity (secret society, not very fuzzy black hole?) absolutely anything can emerge so it's all perfectly reasonable.

Nabakov ::: (view all by) ::: October 16, 2004, 10:47 PM:

And of course another reason why the Bush Presidency scenario is impracticable is the ludicrous assumption that in the 21st century the first world would still be locked into an old early 20th century model of an oil, gas and coal driven economy with all its attendant and insoluble problems such as finite resources, many under the control of non-western cultures, and greenhouse gas emissions.

If that had happened, you could see how a cabal of geopolitical, religious and business fixers, embedded within the oil and military-industrial complex and fronted by a dynasty of sleazy pols, could grab control of the US and direct its affairs accordingly.

But as we know, the joint EU - BRIC (Brazil, Russian, India and China)- Japanese push to develop a mixed hydrogen/nuclear/geothermal economy weaned the world off its oil jones decades ago.

But still I'm fascinated to see where this counterfactual storyline takes us next. Maybe a trainwreck of an American election that starts an inexorable slide into a Disunited States?

NelC ::: (view all by) ::: October 17, 2004, 09:29 AM:

Unlikely, I switched to the DVD edition ages ago. Maybe it was the ergot on the copy of Aristotle's Poetics I was leafing through earlier....

matthew holt ::: (view all by) ::: October 18, 2004, 02:02 PM:

Fabulous thread. If you like this you might like the classis sci-fi alternate univ story "He Walked Around the Horses" in which the role of Bush II is played by Napoleon Bonaparte....

Piper, H. Beam. "He Walked Around the Horses".
Divergence: 1777
What if: Burgoyne won at Saratoga, forestalling American independence and the Age of Revolution.
Summary: In 1809, Germans investigate a man claiming to be a British diplomat and carrying documents regarding some fantastical French emperor named Napoleon.

NelC ::: (view all by) ::: October 19, 2004, 10:37 AM:

Oh, jeez, I just read that Kilgore Trout has killed off his alter ego, Kurt Vonnegut.

I know Vonnegut was a fictional character, but what a way to go....

Clark E Myers ::: (view all by) ::: October 19, 2004, 12:35 PM:

Almost had to didn't he after all the publicity about Clark Savage catching Philip Jose Farmer defrauding the public by assuming the identity of Kurt Vonnegut to sell sunscreen at colleges?

Dave Luckett ::: (view all by) ::: October 19, 2004, 11:46 PM:

Yeah, and then there's the idea that John Howard got re-elected in 2001 and committed Australian troops to Iraq. But even sillier, after that fiasco, that he was re-elected in 2004. With an increased majority, yet. And a friendly Senate, with - get this - the balance held by a lunatic rabble from the far religious right. Oh, come on, now! There's a lot that's really strange about Australia, but we'd never be so stupid as to try to set up a theocracy of our own, would we? Try again, guys, the world just isn't like that.