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October 20, 2008

Keymasters of the Universe, a novel
Posted by Abi Sutherland at 07:20 PM * 133 comments

I often think we’re living in an alternate history novel. Honesty, the events of the world are too strange to be real. In different times and different circumstances, my guess as to the author may change1, 2, but the overwhelming impression remains.

The complex net of economic forces that is influencing our lives right now makes me think of Kim Stanley Robinson or Neal Stephenson: writers who capture the sweep of history, and yet document the effects of its small eddies on specific human beings. I am not, at present, in the main plotline (thank goodness); I’m almost certainly not even a minor character. The protagonist is likely to be in Iceland right now, or perhaps an Icelandic expat, living in a world gone suddenly strange and restrictive. I hope it all comes out well by the end.

Then there’s the Darien Scheme. That’s always struck me as a piece of an alternate history, leaking across into this one. Know the story?

At the end of the seventeenth century, Scotland was in an economic trap. It hadn’t the resources or the might to compete with the great European trading powers: the Spanish, the Portuguese and their near neighbors, the English. Scotland, already bound to England by the Union of the Crowns under James Stuart, found its political and economic independence increasingly threatened by its wealthy neighbor to the south.

The solution, thought some, was to join the game: get a colony in the New World. The specific objective was Panama, with its temptingly narrow isthmus. The Scots thought to build a colony on the Darién river, where the landmass is just over 50 miles wide, and offer portage services for freight (at, of course, a fee). It was to be, according William Paterson, its chief promoter, “The door of the Seas and the Key of the Universe.”

The venture raised £400,000 by subscription, accounting for somewhere between a third and a half of all of the nation’s capital. In 1698, a fleet of five ships set out from Leith Harbor to stake Scotland’s place in the New World. More followed in 1699.

Somewhere, I think, an author must have sat with his agent over a dram of Panama highland single malt (18 year old Yaviza3) and discussed his latest novel idea.

“I was thinking of doing an alternate history this time. What if the second Darien expedition had failed as badly as the first? What if the Scots never had their own colony in the New World?”

“You mean if they’d done a Jamestown and died out?”

“Something like that. Scotland pretty much bet its existence as an independent nation on the scheme. What if, say, the English colony at Jamaica had received the royal edict in time and refused to supply the Scots? The nation would have gone bankrupt, and only England would have been in a position to bail them out.”

“Interesting idea. England were after a union of parliaments right about then, weren’t they?”

“Yep. And the Scots wouldn’t have been able to refuse if they’d lost half their capital in Panama. I suspect that England might have held onto the Empire all the way through the 1800’s if they’d been able to get the Scots to serve as their administrators and soldiers. Imagine what that would have done to India, for instance.”

“Or Canada. Would they have broken with England if there hadn’t been a Scottish Empire to join? And hey—would we still have the canal? The Scots needed the 180 years of engineering innovation that the Darien revenues funded before they were ready to dig it in 1887.”

“I’m sure that someone would have managed it eventually. Maybe the Americans, a few years later.”

“I’d have to be convinced of that. Anyway, send me the outline and we’ll talk.”

Wait…what? You say the Darien scheme failed? The settlers died in their pestilential swamp, and only 300 of the 2,800 colonists made it back to Scotland? Scotland signed an Act of Union in 1707, including compensation to the Darien subscribers4?

Well, nuts. Wrong timeline again. You guys didn’t have Prez either, did you?

  1. This is not unlike my favorite meeting game, which is to identify which artists created the faces of the people around me. Some people are perfect Roman busts, others Dutch Old Masters, and still others come straight out of a Lucien Freud painting.
  2. For instance, Joshua Norton is such a perfect Neil Gaiman character that, had he not existed, Gaiman would have had to invent him.
  3. Aged in rum barrels. It’s an acquired taste, but worth the effort.
  4. Irony: the company in charge of the distribution would later become the Royal Bank of Scotland, the biggest recipient of British government investment in the current crisis.
Comments on Keymasters of the Universe, a novel:
#1 ::: Chris Eagle ::: (view all by) ::: October 20, 2008, 07:32 PM:

If Norton hadn't existed, Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson would have invented him already, and saved Gaiman the trouble.

#2 ::: Stefan Jones ::: (view all by) ::: October 20, 2008, 07:41 PM:


#3 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: October 20, 2008, 07:42 PM:

Chris @1:

Mark Twain was there first, and there is a certain Twainishness to the whole story. But I liked Gaiman's take on him best.

#4 ::: Mary Aileen ::: (view all by) ::: October 20, 2008, 08:15 PM:

Coincidentally, I first heard of the Darien scheme in a novel I read just last month, The Winter Sea, by Susanna Kearsley. (Good book, I recommend it.)

#5 ::: Zak ::: (view all by) ::: October 20, 2008, 08:22 PM:

Damn you! DAMN YOU!

I want that single malt.


#6 ::: Andy Brazil ::: (view all by) ::: October 20, 2008, 08:26 PM:

I suspect we're living in some satire based on the "suppose Gore hadn't won in 2000, and it was that idiot Texan who'd had to deal with 911. He'd have probably ended up invading the wrong country, failed to get Bin Laden, messed up on the New Orlean's relief efforts and then bankrupted the country" plot. Not sure who's writing it though. Swift?

#7 ::: 'As You Know' Bob ::: (view all by) ::: October 20, 2008, 08:37 PM:

John Prebble's The Darien Disaster is quite readable.

Even more unlikely than the Scotland/Panama connection is the story of Latvia and their Caribbean colony.

#8 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: October 20, 2008, 08:42 PM:

"Cartier, Cartier, O Jacques Cartier, si t'avais navigué à l'envers de l'hiver..."

#9 ::: Peter Austin ::: (view all by) ::: October 20, 2008, 08:59 PM:

De-lurking for random overly-technical pedantry:

Technically, the Latvian colony (on Tobago) was from the Duchy of Courland which occupied only a western portion of modern Latvia.

Also of note: The Knights of St. John of Malta had nominal ownership of four islands (St. Martin, St. Barthelemy, St. Croix and, most notably, the pirate haven of Tortuga) in the Caribbean for about a decade and a half.

I've always thought that Belgium had a sort of alternative-history feel to it. ("A small, ethnically divided country between France and Germany? Really?")

#10 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: October 20, 2008, 09:10 PM:

I hadn't heard about the Courland colony.
On the other hand, I know a little about the Delaware Valley Swedes (and Finns) and their colony (which was taken over by the Dutch).

#11 ::: Dave Trowbridge ::: (view all by) ::: October 20, 2008, 09:20 PM:

"This is not unlike my favorite meeting game, which is to identify which artists created the faces of the people around me."

I remember coming out of the Royal Museum in Brussels in August of 2000 after spending several hours in the 16th century section (The Massacre of the Innocents was a wrenching experience), and seeing the same faces that the Brueghels had painted walking past me on the street.

#12 ::: Erik Nelson ::: (view all by) ::: October 20, 2008, 09:25 PM:

Truth is stranger than fiction.

After all any work of fiction has a finite number of strange things but reality has an infinite number of strange things.

(I am tempted to wax philosophical about Hume and Unix, ie how not knowing whether sense-data is real is akin to not knowing the difference between a file and a stream, but I would be drifting away from relevance thereby.)

#13 ::: ColinL ::: (view all by) ::: October 20, 2008, 09:57 PM:

The Darien Scheme is ruefully regarded by the few Scots that know about it -- I was in my twenties before I heard about it, a kind of shameful history. The Scots, great shipbuilders and traders then, mind you, with links across the globe, chose about the most inhospitable spot on the American continent to establish a colony. Apparently one of the reasons they ( I can never say "we" ) decided to settle there was the presence of native tribes -- only to learn that they were just passing through and would never have considered actually living there.

And an addendum to the footnote on the Royal Bank of Scotland -- it was in competition at the time with the Bank of Scotland; one was, for want of an easier explanation, a nationalist bank (formed to fund the Jacobites), the other not (the Royal). After a great rise in trade out of Glasgow, the two banks faced a lot of competition [ ]; the new "ship banks" were instrumental in forging a new way of banking, quite different from the banks around at that time. If you come to Glasgow you can have a drink in the pubs that were once ship banks [ ]

The Bank of Scotland has gone down the sh*tter as well, btw :-).

#14 ::: ColinL ::: (view all by) ::: October 20, 2008, 10:06 PM:


Ben Riach or Nova Scotia.

or a rum-aged Balvenie:

#15 ::: Erik Nelson ::: (view all by) ::: October 20, 2008, 10:07 PM:

Colin L at #13:

"Apparently one of the reasons they ( I can never say "we" ) decided to settle there

reminds me of the "wicked son" passage from the Haggaddah.

#16 ::: Terry Karney ::: (view all by) ::: October 20, 2008, 10:21 PM:

Dave Trowbridge: A friend told me there was a painting of my sister in the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

I went... it's true, there, in the dutch masters was a portrait of my sister. Uncanny.

#17 ::: clew ::: (view all by) ::: October 20, 2008, 10:32 PM:

Andy, #6: and what that novel is *actually about* is some late-twenties romance, with Vast Events punching up the angst. We're stage dressing.

#18 ::: Paul Duncanson ::: (view all by) ::: October 20, 2008, 10:42 PM:

Andy @ 6: We're living in an updated adaptation of Philip Dick's The Penultimate Truth. They've taken a few less liberties with the story than they did with Blade Runner.

#19 ::: Michael Roberts ::: (view all by) ::: October 20, 2008, 10:42 PM:

I've always (well, for the last four years) thought a Hungarian colony in Puerto Rico would be fascinating. The island would be Karibszentjános, there would be terraced pepper fields in the hills in the south ...

The whole thing requires a great deal of change to history, though. For one thing, you need a Hungarian navy. I particularly like imagining what their uniforms would have looked like.

#20 ::: Don Fitch ::: (view all by) ::: October 20, 2008, 10:53 PM:

Maybe something like this happens to all of us as we get older -- kinda like seeing some stranger across the room, thinking "Gee, what's X doing here", then realizing that X must now be (and probably look) fifty years older than that. (Well... okay, not fifty years in your case, yet.)

But then, I suppose you've seen the portrait of Teresa Nielsen Hayden at the Huntington. (It's unacountably mistitled as "Mrs. Siddons as the Tragic Muse".)

#21 ::: CHip ::: (view all by) ::: October 20, 2008, 10:53 PM:

Michael: If von Trapp could be in the Austrian Navy, why couldn't Hungary have a navy? If that's not enough, you could always follow A Midsummer Tempest and posit that Bohemia has a seacoast....

abi: Gaiman has said his favorite Sandman episode is the one in Baghdad, but the Emperor Norton one is mine. I actually got to ride on a ferry of that name on my first trip to SF (ran from the main docks to ~Sausalito).

#22 ::: Don Fitch ::: (view all by) ::: October 20, 2008, 10:56 PM:

Arrgh! My comment (#20) should've been addressed to: #16 ::: Terry Karney.

#23 ::: Terry Karney ::: (view all by) ::: October 20, 2008, 11:20 PM:

Don: I have! Perhaps I ought to go and take a photo of it.

#24 ::: Lola Raincoat ::: (view all by) ::: October 20, 2008, 11:27 PM:

Meanwhile, a little farther south, Scottish mercenaries were active in the 1770s fighting unsuccessfully against maroons (colonies of escaped slaves) on behalf of the Dutch in what is now Surinam. William Stedman, who captained one troop of mercenaries, wrote a best-selling memoir of his adventures. Who did the publisher hire to do the illustrations? William Blake.

Sometimes I think human history tends toward maximum weirdness. No alternate universes required.

#25 ::: Lawrence Watt-Evans ::: (view all by) ::: October 20, 2008, 11:40 PM:

Andy Brazil, #6: I think it's by Ron Goulart.

#26 ::: Zak ::: (view all by) ::: October 20, 2008, 11:56 PM:

Colin @ #14,

Sweet! New liquor to go hunting for!

#27 ::: Chris W. ::: (view all by) ::: October 21, 2008, 12:08 AM:

I've often wondered what might have happened if John McCain hadn't switched to the Democratic party in 2001.

I was stunned when Obama chose him as his running mate after such an ugly three-way primary battle, but I think the American people really saw the Obama-McCain ticket as a chance to start again.

The assassination of a president with such promise was tragic, but I think it was the near-simultaneous incapacitation of Vice President McCain with a life-threatening recurrence of his melanoma shook us all. And you have to imagine that Majority Leader Clinton was livid at having that last glass ceiling broken by President Pelosi.

It seems safe to assume that with McCain out of the picture, Obama would have chosen Clinton as his running mate, but historians will always be left to wonder how a second President Clinton would have handled the collapse of the dollar, the Russian occupation of Ukraine and Belarus, the Straits of Formosa conflict of 2011, etc...

#28 ::: xeger ::: (view all by) ::: October 21, 2008, 12:33 AM:

ColinL @ 14 ... or a rum-aged Balvenie

You ... bastard... Dammit! Now I'm going to have to hunt that one down...

#29 ::: Mez ::: (view all by) ::: October 21, 2008, 01:06 AM:

There's too much on my plate to stop and look up references, but a couple of the places that early Zionists were looking at as a possible new home for the Jewish people were in Australia.

I think one was somewhere in the north; possibly northwest (lots of mining towns there now). Another was in Tasmania. One fellow went to the west or southwest of Tassie to survey the area, missed his pickup and died there; another of that Antarctic-pointing island's strange and tragic tales.

And there was definitely a "review current history as if it were an alternative history story" strain in a thread within the last year or two – I think sometime following H. Katrina.

#30 ::: Bruce Cohen (SpeakerToManagers) ::: (view all by) ::: October 21, 2008, 01:26 AM:

Michael Roberts @ 19

Well, of course there was that Bohemian colony in southern Manhattan ... what? ... oh, right, they didn't have a navy, did they? Never mind.

#31 ::: Steve Taylor ::: (view all by) ::: October 21, 2008, 01:34 AM:

I'd heard of the Darien Scheme before, though I certainly don;t know much about it. The (sort of) Latvian colony on Tobago is new to me though, and I thoroughly approve.

There was an Australian utopian socialist colony in Paraguay for a while. It went the way of all such ventures :(

#32 ::: Bruce Cohen (SpeakerToManagers) ::: (view all by) ::: October 21, 2008, 01:42 AM:

And if FDR hadn't finished 5 terms, what might have happened? Suppose that stroke in '45 had been more than the mild event it actually was, and that he'd died before ordering the nuclear demonstration on an uninhabited island that caused the unconditional surrender of Japan, so that nuclear bombing of the Japanese main islands was necessary to end WW II. And suppose he hadn't been there to convince the Western World to pull back from that idea of Churchill's of a "Cold War", so that when Stalin died, Russia was ready to lower its guard and join in making the UN the peace-keeping force that negotiated the Peace of Palestine, and later joined in creating a Lunar Republic with the Treaty of Tycho. Russia and the US might have spent another 30 or 40 years fighting proxy wars all over Africa and Asia, to frightened to face each other directly for fear of unleashing Armageddon.

It would have been a hell of a second half to the 20th Century, I'm guessing. I think the author to write that story is Charlie Stross; he's pretty good at horror.

#33 ::: Steve Taylor ::: (view all by) ::: October 21, 2008, 01:44 AM:

Mez at #29 writes:

> There's too much on my plate to stop and look up references, but a couple of the places that early Zionists were looking at as a possible new home for the Jewish people were in Australia.

Sometimes I wonder if there's anywhere on earth that wasn't considered as a Jewish homeland for at least 20 minutes - though I've got to admit I didn't realise we were on the list.

I just - yesterday - finished Michael Chabon's _The Yiddish Policemen's Union_, which has the Jewish (not quite) homeland in Alaska and I'm totally bowled over by it. Sitka is real to me now - well, I know it's already real, but now it's full of moody smartass Yiddish speakers. And the smell of boiled cabbage.

#34 ::: Michael Turyn ::: (view all by) ::: October 21, 2008, 02:02 AM:

Ever since the November Coup of 2000, I've been certain that we're living in one of those timelines the heroine must go back in time to prevent.

I'm torn, though, between love of country and love of the movies, when considering whether or not I'd rather live in the world in which President Bogart starred in "Everybody Comes to Rick's" and Ronnie Reagan wound up in the Oval Office....

#35 ::: Shannon Roy ::: (view all by) ::: October 21, 2008, 02:29 AM:

It's never been the "Hitler won" type alternate realities that have sent me down the rabbit hole. Or even the "Kennedy impeached / Nixon assassinated" type.

The one that fascinated me for years was the one mentioned only in passing in Heinlein's "Number of the Beast": the "Earth without K" (at least, I think it was "K").

Everything's exactly the same. Except there's no K.

When you start to thin about it, it's inda inky.

#36 ::: geekosaur ::: (view all by) ::: October 21, 2008, 03:03 AM:

Erik Nelson @12:

I am tempted to wax philosophical about Hume and Unix
He's already pretty good at Unix philosophizing.

#37 ::: geekosaur ::: (view all by) ::: October 21, 2008, 03:15 AM:

Shannon Roy @35:
Earth-without-a-J: presumably the Romans had only done a two-way split (I -> I+J+Y), which leaves me wondering if they'd also dropped part of the other three-way split (U -> U+V+W; note that V and W are reversed in eastern Europe, so I suspect it's the most likely one to have just not caught on at all).

Then again, if you think about it, the only sensible way you end up with "iugs and iars" via a single simple difference is if the I->J->Y split didn't happen at all; so was Earth-without-a-J actually Earth-without-a-J-or-Y, or was there a larger difference in history that resulted in J being mapped into I instead of Y?

(yep, I gotta admit the linguistic aspect is more interesting to me :)

#38 ::: Shannon Roy ::: (view all by) ::: October 21, 2008, 04:01 AM:

geekosaur @ 37
You're right, of course! It was Earth-without-J!

And there's certainly the linguistic spin which makes it interesting on that level, although you can sort of get that from fairly standard "Romans took over this bit but NOT this bit" alternates (or equivalent).

The bit that got me, though (and I'll be the first to admit that this almost certainly wasn't in the Heinlein!) was that reportedly there was no J -- but everything else was exactly the same! I mean, how does that even happen?!

Now that I'm "growed up" and regularly interact with people who cannot hear (or, therefore, reproduce) the n/ng difference, or mistake "l" for "n" or "b" for "p", I'm less rabbit-holed by the idea, I must admit.

#39 ::: Sica ::: (view all by) ::: October 21, 2008, 04:12 AM:

Icelandic expat here, living in Scotland.

I don't think I'm the protagonist. I'm working though so I'm not as affected by the complete freeze in international bank transfers as students.

The whole situation is rather scary though and it feels weird to know I'm completely on my own, i.e normally I can get financial help from my parents if the small start up I'm working for has cash flow problems. Not so much now.

A friend of mine is a better bet. She's an Icelandic student in Oxbridge, cut off from her funds and her banker boyfriend has just lost his job in the City..

#40 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: October 21, 2008, 04:51 AM:

Sica @39:

I was thinking of you, hoping you were OK, when I wrote that. I'm sorry to hear about your friend.

I had a friend from Kuwait at St Andrews during Gulf War I. The university found her work (in the dining halls) and scrambled a bunch of emergency funding for her. I hope Oxbridge is equally accommodating.

#41 ::: chris y ::: (view all by) ::: October 21, 2008, 05:39 AM:

CHip @21: Technically, Hungary had a part share in the Austrian Navy of course. Admiral Horthy, no less, defeated the Bela Kun Revolution in Hungary and was quasi-dictator there for most of the inter-war period.

I'm in two minds about Panamanian whisky. Do they have good peat for the fires in Panama? Is it a good climate for barley? If not, I have a nasty feeling it simply be bourbon.

#42 ::: Epacris ::: (view all by) ::: October 21, 2008, 05:43 AM:

Would the World Without J be a mashup of The Wonderful O and the Universe Without Shrimp?

#43 ::: Sica ::: (view all by) ::: October 21, 2008, 05:54 AM:

Abi, Thanks for the consideration :) as for my friend I know she'll pull through. She's resourceful and has a good support network even though some of it is incapacitated in Iceland right now.

I'm ok and in fact I'll potentially be way 'richer' than normally when I go home for Christmas this year. What with earning in pounds and the icelandic krona having collapsed. It's something my parents have joked about (we'll be ok, we have a daughter abroad earning pounds!) Hopefully though things will have stabilized by Christmas.

I have whiplash from following the news though everything has happened so quickly. There's lots of misinformation out there as well. Stories about runs on food in Supermarkets and that there is no food production in Iceland. That people are burning furniture for warmth etc.

Granted there was a slight run on a supermarket at the very start when people decided they wanted to stock up on pasta, rice, fancy japanese soy sauces and olive oil. The local food production mostly centres on sheep, fish, milk and potatoes. So not the most exciting diet. Having said that though there is currently no lack of imported goods.

Also fortunately we've got the geothermal energy and that's used to heat the houses so no matter how poor the country gets, the locally generated renewable energy will be used to heat the houses and generate the necessary electricity to keep things running.

Things are slightly strained here in the UK though since it turns out a lot of councils, charities and even the police are loosing millions in the Icelandic bank collapses. This is in addition to thousands of UK savers frozen out of their Icelandic online savings accounts. Gordon Brown then in return freezing the assets of one of the key banks didn't help either. We're in good company here: UK Financial Sanctions. I had no idea that Landsbanki, a bank, could be an evil regime.

I don't run into that sort of thing much though since the people I meet are usually very nice people. Then again I don't have a strong accent anymore so I don't know if things would be different then.

What I'm worried about now is waiting to see what strings will be attached to getting help from the IMF.

#44 ::: Raphael ::: (view all by) ::: October 21, 2008, 06:01 AM:

Unfortunately, I guess that if the Darien scheme hadn't failed on its own, it would have been taken over by someone else. Would the Scots have been able to defend an isolated colony against a Spanish, French, Dutch or Portuguese assault? And would Spain, France, the Netherlands or Portugal (but especially Spain) have left a succesful colony at such a strategically important location alone?

Based on my general cluelessness about the situation, I'd say the most likely outcome of the Icelandic crisis is that the current security cooperation between Norway and Iceland gets extended to economic matters until Iceland becomes a de facto Norwegian protectorate. Looks to me like the alternatives would be that they join the EU- wich they have resisted strongly for decades- or end up as a Russian client state- wich would be a strategic disaster for anyone in the region not currently allied with Russia.

(If that happens, Greenland and the Faroes might start to think that Iceland is getting better terms from the Norwegians than they're getting from the Danes...)

Judging from some of Cindy McCain's hairstyles and costumes, we probably live in a sci-fi serial produced by J. Michael Straczynski, in wich she is one of the main villains/ambiguous characters.

#45 ::: Debbie ::: (view all by) ::: October 21, 2008, 06:11 AM:

Here's one for you. What if we had a world in which India decided to just get on with it, and took the lead in space colonization? What if they found, and successfully exploited, all sorts of extraterrestrial sources of minerals, and developed fusion power to the point where it was commonplace?
Oh, wait. Hmm. This might turn out to be a great timeline.

#46 ::: Connie H. ::: (view all by) ::: October 21, 2008, 06:17 AM:

I'm very fond of the proposal for Israel to be founded in Baja California, having visited there and seen how weird and beautiful, and in need of serious development it is.

#47 ::: Peter Erwin ::: (view all by) ::: October 21, 2008, 06:27 AM:

chris y @ 41:
I'm in two minds about Panamanian whisky. Do they have good peat for the fires in Panama? Is it a good climate for barley? If not, I have a nasty feeling it simply be bourbon.

Yes, I was wondering about that, too. Some very brief Googling suggests that wheat, barley, and rye do not grow very well in Panama (Panama appears to import most if not all of its wheat and barley, for example), so you may be stuck with corn. I don't know if Panama has mountains high enough to create the kind of cold climates that wheat and barley prefer, as is apparently the case in Ecuador.

(The Wikipedia article on whisky mentions that Indian "whisky" is largely made from molasses, and is thus actually rum. Make of that what you will...)

#48 ::: Neil Willcox ::: (view all by) ::: October 21, 2008, 07:04 AM:

Based on my general cluelessness about the situation, I'd say the most likely outcome of the Icelandic crisis is that the current security cooperation between Norway and Iceland gets extended to economic matters until Iceland becomes a de facto Norwegian protectorate.

Deja Vu!

It's a lot more complex than this, but essentially, Iceland couldn't build ships due to lack of wood so became a part of Norway for guaranteed shipping (Greenland did much the same).

#49 ::: SKapusniak ::: (view all by) ::: October 21, 2008, 07:08 AM:

Gordon Brown then in return freezing the assets of one of the key banks didn't help either. We're in good company here: UK Financial Sanctions. I had no idea that Landsbanki, a bank, could be an evil regime.

I thought it was Kaupthing? The one that hadn't yet gone to the wall before that point.

I'm deeply ashamed of my country (and extremely angry at my government) for doing that. When the ship capsizes and everyone has been spilled into the briney, you do *not* help push the guy who is closest to drowning under, and justify it on the basis that as he was splashing and flailing about so desperately he elbowed you in the chest. You do not do that.

Well, apparently we do.

You'd think that the fact we're all essentially roped together in this global financial mess, and the more countries, companies and people who go down, the more it drags everyone under, would have given the government some pause -- I'm sure that not doing that sort of thing is on the Evil Overlord list somewhere -- but obviously not.

However, that we used what was supposedly a anti-terrorism law to do it doesn't shock me at all, at this point that sort of thing just seems inevitable.

#50 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: October 21, 2008, 07:23 AM:

Abi: Panamanian barley? Now that's an alternative history with really bad weather.

#51 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: October 21, 2008, 07:25 AM:

'As You Know Bob' #7: You mean the Duchy of Courland's colonisation of Tobago, I take it?

#52 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: October 21, 2008, 07:28 AM:

Peter Austin #9: St Barthelemy was, down to the 1880s, owned by Sweden. The Swedes sold St Barts to the French. One wonders what a Swedish Caribbean empire would have been like. The Danes, of course, had their own (the three Virgin Islands which they sold to the US in 1917).

#53 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: October 21, 2008, 07:32 AM:

Lola Raincoat #24: Blake did some, not all, of the illustrations of Stedman's account of his sojourn in Surinam.

#54 ::: Nancy Lebovitz ::: (view all by) ::: October 21, 2008, 07:37 AM:

I've felt as though I've been living in fiction ever since Clinton's impeachment. Conservatives are putting a detailed account of an affair on the front pages of the newspapers. This is clearly satire, though I'm not sure who'd write it. Maybe RAWilson, though I can also imagine Heinlein using euphemisms to talk about it.

The 2000 election is a sort of political thriller which never quite got invented, but I can imagine an author going through electoral rules to look for weird breakpoints.

9/11 is probably Tom Clancy, though one of my friends kept describing it as an attack by a supervillain living in a cave.

Obama does seem like an idealized fictional character at this point.

Global warming is obviously science fiction. Financial collapse at the same time would improve the tension, but at least we might not be stuck in that novel.

Meanwhile, the technology keeps improving in somewhat unexpected ways, but you never get the golden age wish fulfillment stuff. I don't know which author would be best for that.

#55 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: October 21, 2008, 07:46 AM:

My own view of the Darien adventure is somewhat more jaundiced, since it would have been yet another slave colony in the region, only the slaves would have spoken a Scots Creole rather than an English Creole. Darien was one more colony in a region that the English and Dutch had already penetrated, albeit with some difficulty in the teeth of the Spanish. And the Spanish were not happy with that penetration. The English colony of (Old) Providence had been forcibly suppressed (though its remnants remain to this day on the islands of Providencia, Santa Catalina, and San Andrés, in the form of the Creole-speaking descendants of the slaves; as the Trinidadian writer Nicholas Laughlin recently put it, San Andrés is like a piece of Jamaica that has broken off and floated towards Colombia). The English colony at Bluefields (which was named after a Dutch merchant named Blauvelt), which became the capital of the kingdom of Mosquitia, similarly, preserves the remnant of that colonial presence in the form of the descendants of the slaves, and the language they speak, and the wit that today makes Bluefields the capital of the RAAS.

#56 ::: Raphael ::: (view all by) ::: October 21, 2008, 07:53 AM:

Nancy Lebovitz @54: Meanwhile, the technology keeps improving in somewhat unexpected ways, but you never get the golden age wish fulfillment stuff.

Some might say that depends on what wishes you mean.

#57 ::: Janet ::: (view all by) ::: October 21, 2008, 08:10 AM:

And how about the intrepid Welsh settling in Patagonia--they made a go of it.

#58 ::: Sica ::: (view all by) ::: October 21, 2008, 08:22 AM:

#49 SKapusniak

Nah the UK government froze Landsbanki but they transferred all the deposits in the Kaupthing Singer & Friedlander, the UK division of Kaupthing to the Dutch ING bank.

This then made the Kaupthing mothership go into technical default and it got effectively nationalized by the government then as well. The last of the three big Icelanic banks to fall.

This is all extra special because the UK division of Kaupthing was operating under a UK banking license and covered by the UK deposit guarantee.

The Icelandic government is not liable for any deposits there. It was a UK bank owned by a big Icelandic bank rather than a subsidiary operating under the European bank passport scheme thing.

Right now, in a "the plot thickens" sort of way Kaupthing is planning on suing the UK government for potentially billions of damages

To be fair Kaupthing wasn't doing great and it's fairly likely that it would have gone under anyway but still, it had a shot which was more than the other banks.

#59 ::: Lola Raincoat ::: (view all by) ::: October 21, 2008, 08:29 AM:

Fragano @53, yes, I know, and should have said so, but they were the only illustrations that Stedman liked, and the only ones that ever get reprinted (usually anonymously.) Also, none of the other illustrators ever wrote poems worth mentioning - though they had a much better grasp of 3-point perspective than Blake ever did.

And then there's the post-US-Civil-War colony of secessionists in Brazil ...

#60 ::: Bill Higgins-- Beam Jockey ::: (view all by) ::: October 21, 2008, 08:33 AM:

More evidence that we live in a parallel universe:

1. Steven Spielberg, spectacularly successful director of Close Encounters and E. T. and other SF, decides to make a film of a J. G. Ballard book... BUT the book is Empire of the Sun, not one of Ballard's SF stories.

2. Arnold Schwarzenegger is Governor of California. No, really. Look it up.

#61 ::: Sarah S. ::: (view all by) ::: October 21, 2008, 08:42 AM:

Terry @16

I look like Bouguereau's main model--strikingly enough that it stopped my mother in her tracks when we walked past one of his paintings at the Chicago Art Museum. Strikingly enough that I feel a little self conscious that I'm up there for everyone to see, stark naked.

Andy Brazil @6

I think it's got to be Christopher Buckley.

#62 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: October 21, 2008, 09:47 AM:

Lola Raincoat #59: Stedman liked them because Blake's work was the most faithful to his original drawings. Blake was a great poet, no doubt of that, but I find The Little Black Boy grating ('And I am black/But, oh my soul is white;/White as an angel is the English child, Bur I am black as if bereft of light').

There are also the US secessionists in the Bahamas (on Abaco, specifically -- I was at university with one of their descendants), and in Belize (where one of their descendants was to be the longest-serving prime minister).

#63 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: October 21, 2008, 09:57 AM:

I confess that I didn't research the ability of the Panama highlands to grow barley before writing this; I was mostly thinking about the Darien expedition itself.

If it's a burbon, then it would certainly be an acquired taste, and maybe less worth the effort, in my estimation.

#64 ::: inge ::: (view all by) ::: October 21, 2008, 10:02 AM:

Andy @ 6: Who's writing it?

Has been writing:
Will Shetterly:
PNH (lost the link)
A variation on the theme:

How do you do links here?

#65 ::: inge ::: (view all by) ::: October 21, 2008, 10:04 AM:

Note to self @64: RTFM.

#66 ::: Bruce Cohen (SpeakerToManagers) ::: (view all by) ::: October 21, 2008, 10:09 AM:

Speaking of alternative universes, could it be that the whole neocon* adventure was a deliberate attempt by priviledged, white SF fans to become the Draka**? If so, it just proves my argument that in most universes, even fictional ones, the Draka would suck big time at actually taking things over, though they'd probably be good at creating howling wildernesses (vide Finland in Under the Yoke. Has anyone, ever, been able to conquer Central Asia, and hold it?

* where "neocon" is short for NeoColonialsm.
** I've been expecting the Bush Administration to revive debt slavery for quite some time now. If I recall, the Draka weren't picky about slaves having to be selected by race.

#67 ::: inge ::: (view all by) ::: October 21, 2008, 10:14 AM:

Bruce Cohen #66: Has anyone, ever, been able to conquer Central Asia, and hold it?

Depends on your time frame for "hold".

#68 ::: Bruce Cohen (SpeakerToManagers) ::: (view all by) ::: October 21, 2008, 10:19 AM:

abi @ 63

If it's a burbon, then it would certainly be an acquired taste, and maybe less worth the effort, in my estimation.

Granted, but that leads to another thought. Any place that already had a bourbon industry would have been attractive to the American Confederacy revanchists who eventually settled in South America. Picture a country, barely holding out against military and economic aggression from Europe, making a deal to take on a batch of exiles from the losing side of the Civil War, whose most ardent wish is to go back to the battlefield and retrieve their honor.

It's an interesting question, just how much effect styles of distilling and brewing had on history.

#69 ::: Michelle E ::: (view all by) ::: October 21, 2008, 10:21 AM:

There was a novel published in 2002 about the Darien expedition. I read about half of it before being distracted by life and other trivia.

#70 ::: Nancy Lebovitz ::: (view all by) ::: October 21, 2008, 10:24 AM:

More fiction: gay marriage is definitely an "in the future they do things differently" detail from Kornbluth.

#71 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: October 21, 2008, 10:25 AM:

I rather enjoyed Gardner Dozois's short story "Counterfactual", in which young journalist Clifford Simak asks himself what if the South had lost the Civil War, but under slightly different circumstances that didn't lead to a guerilla that went on for decades.

#72 ::: Constance ::: (view all by) ::: October 21, 2008, 10:46 AM:

Imagine what a strange world we'd be living if Thomas Jefferson had not recognized Haitian independence and welcomed her into the circle of nations and trading partners.

Love, C.

#73 ::: Hob ::: (view all by) ::: October 21, 2008, 10:54 AM:

Over in the "kind of a crank, but awfully smart and funny" corner, there's John J. Reilly (I linked to my own blog post about him just because it has links to my favorite pieces, and his site is a little confusing to navigate).

#74 ::: Michael Roberts ::: (view all by) ::: October 21, 2008, 11:31 AM:

@{somewhere up there}: Bohemia isn't Hungary, it's Czech. And the Austro-Hungarian Empire was concatenated in name only; Hungary was the breadbasket, not a seat of power. There were Hungarian nobility active in the Empire, of course, but the power was most definitely in Vienna, not in Ofen-Pest. (What's that? You call it Budapest now?)

See, when Hungary held off the Turks at Mohács, then the Turks redoubled their efforts and conquered them, they still ground to a halt before reaching Vienna. When the Hapsburgs helped drive the Turks out later, nobody had asked when the Hapsburgs were going to leave. So they didn't. (Then the Russians helped drive the Hapsburgs out.)

So I figure -- what if the Turks hadn't managed to defeat Hungary in the first place? Hungary under Matthew -- he had Europe's largest library -- was at least as significant a power as France. They had a sea coast; Dalmatia and most of Croatia, half of Romania, large parts of today's Czech Republic and Slovakia and Serbia, a third of Ukraine, and even a sliver of Austria and part of Italy were all Hungarian at the time.

If the Turks hadn't conquered them, they would certainly have been a European Power, and the Thing To Do for powers at the time was to colonize, especially in the Caribbean with its sugar.

The years don't quite match up for colonization of Puerto Rico before the Spaniards got to it, of course. Hungary would have had to conquer the island, and then they probably wouldn't have called it Karibszentjános. But it's still a fun thing to think about when translating the names of all the towns I drive past. It drove my wife crazy for the better part of a year.

#75 ::: TomB ::: (view all by) ::: October 21, 2008, 11:46 AM:

If it's a burbon, then it would certainly be an acquired taste, and maybe less worth the effort, in my estimation.

A sour mashup indeed.

#76 ::: John Stanning ::: (view all by) ::: October 21, 2008, 12:05 PM:

@74 : Turks ... ground to a halt before reaching Vienna

Um... well, in one alternate history anyway, the Turks didn't grind to a halt - they reached Vienna in July 1683 and besieged it for two months before Vienna was relieved by a Polish, German and Austrian force led by Jan Sobieski (afterwards elected king of Poland), helped by the Hapsburgs. That was the Ottoman empire's second try for Vienna - they'd besieged in unsuccessfully in 1529.

#77 ::: John Stanning ::: (view all by) ::: October 21, 2008, 12:10 PM:

(checks reference) Sorry, correction: Jan III Sobieski was already king of Poland before the battle of Vienna - he'd been elected in 1674.

#78 ::: y ::: (view all by) ::: October 21, 2008, 12:11 PM:

Crowley writes, "I have seen the real world gradually replaced by this other, nightmare world, which everyone else assumes is real, until nothing in past or present is as I knew it to be; until I am like the servant in Job: I only am escaped to tell thee."

#79 ::: ajay ::: (view all by) ::: October 21, 2008, 12:12 PM:

74: Caribbean cooking with paprika would be pretty tasty, I should think, but a Hungarian Creole would be enough to make strong linguists weep... the sort of thing you'd end up using for codetalkers.

#80 ::: Graydon ::: (view all by) ::: October 21, 2008, 12:14 PM:

Well, I mean, it doesn't take much; consider what would have happened if Issac Brock had taken that musket ball somewhere other than between his arm and his body at Queenston Heights. (They've still got his coat, sliced side and sleeve and modest bloodstains, in the family museum of the Earls of Niagara.)

No retention of Michilimackinac, no 1841 Chicago War -- Chicago would probably be a major city! -- no Resorption of New England, Vermont would probably have stayed anglophone, and the US might have done something about slavery before Embargo and Partition.

It might even have affected the Union of Crowns between Britain and France; it's possible that a less confident Britain would have reacted very differently to the 1848 revolution had it not been coming off the decisive victory of the Chicago War.

Certainly we would not have seen the marriage of Marie-Michelene Tremblant to Prince Arthur in 1879, with its attendant odd combination of monarchist and suffragist sentiments in the Quebecois regions of British North America. The resulting Grand and Various Parliaments Act of 1903 would not have happened without those sentiments, and without the Act, we would not have had Eugenia Fitz-Williams' 1915 declaration in response to the firebombing of Grand Duke Ferdinand's coach that she did not need to care who thought her unmanly; the proper response to murder was not war.

Without Prime Minister Fitz-Williams, the 20th century would have begun with a general European war; however short and confined chiefly to manoeuvre, this would inevitably have set back diplomatic relations and scientific progress by decades.

#81 ::: Sajia Kabir ::: (view all by) ::: October 21, 2008, 12:41 PM:

(Dives into the deep end)
Had Nehru been wise enough to allow the Muslim-majority areas of India to separate, there might have been no dreadful four-year civil war following Independence, leading to half a million civilians dead, and India would not have fragmented into half-a-dozen states, with the regional separatist movements having no larger conflict to take advantage of.

#82 ::: Mary Frances ::: (view all by) ::: October 21, 2008, 01:05 PM:

Fragano@62: Yeah, Blake's "Little Black Boy" is grating on several levels, no argument. For me, though, most of the Songs of Innocence & Experience grate, if pulled out of context. In context . . . the possible levels get to me. For example, there is also the possibility that Blake was actually equating Christianity (or some Christian attitudes) with a subservient self-hatred in that poem, given some of his other poems about Christian virtues--if, in other words, he was implying that to accept the conventional rewards of heaven meant that one must despise one's self on earth.

I've always read him as a really sneaky poet, actually. May or may not be fully justified, but it is interesting . . .

#83 ::: Sam Kelly ::: (view all by) ::: October 21, 2008, 01:56 PM:

Don Fitch at 20: That comment gave me quite a turn, because I saw that same painting a week and a half ago... in the dining room of Hatchlands Park in Surrey. (Reynolds did three versions, it seems - as far as I can tell, the third is in the possession of the Tate Gallery.)

The Cobbe Collection of composers' keyboard instruments was mostly wasted on me, sadly, but the house also has rather a nice collection of artwork. There's nothing quite like walking into a room and being mugged by an unexpected Titian, unless it's being mugged by two unexpected Titians and then noticing a small Vermeer across the room.

#84 ::: Constance ::: (view all by) ::: October 21, 2008, 02:00 PM:

So the story goes the island we know as Puerto Rico was originally named San Juan, and the city was Puerto Rico. But the Spanish king got them confused, and ever after the island is the rich port and the city is Saint John.

Love, C.

#85 ::: Sam Kelly ::: (view all by) ::: October 21, 2008, 02:14 PM:

My mistake; the third version is in the Dulwich Picture Gallery.

#86 ::: Bjorn ::: (view all by) ::: October 21, 2008, 02:17 PM:

Since we know there are only 200 people in there world anyway, it is of course inevitable that ML would have as a longtime reader (and very occasional de-lurker) an Icelander who works at Kaupthing.
And yes, the past three weeks have sometimes felt like a novel was happening to me. But only as a minor character.

#87 ::: Terry Karney ::: (view all by) ::: October 21, 2008, 02:27 PM:

Sarah S: given some of his treatments of his models (I am reminded of one in which he has her very thin, and somewhat better fleshed), that could be a bit disconcerting. I don't know how I'd feel, but apart from oddities of people stopping me to say they are reminded of Matthew Broderick, and one image of David Bowie, I've never had that problem, so I have no idea.

abi: Apart from Blended, (and with some caveats in re Canadian) I like whiskies. Good bourbons are (IMO) every bit as interesting as Malts. A different part of the spectrum, but so to is Lagavulin to Auchentoshen.

#88 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: October 21, 2008, 02:33 PM:

Bjorn @86:

You have my sincere sympathy. Until 18 months ago or so, I worked for the Royal Bank of Scotland. It is all too easy to imagine the sense of unreality, or surreality, that pervades your working days.

Best of luck, and if you need a sympathetic audience, you can be sure of finding one here.

#89 ::: SamChevre ::: (view all by) ::: October 21, 2008, 02:46 PM:

With Eric Flint, I wonder what might have happened had Sam Houston been badly injured in the battle of Horseshoe Bend. Perhaps John Brown would have been a madman in a united North America, rather than a hero in Kansas.

#90 ::: Gag Halfrunt ::: (view all by) ::: October 21, 2008, 03:06 PM:
If von Trapp could be in the Austrian Navy, why couldn't Hungary have a navy?
Historical pedant mode on:

You overlooked the small matter of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Georg von Trapp was born in Zadar in Dalmatia, then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and now in Croatia. He joined the Austro-Hungarian navy in 1894 and trained at its academy in Fiume (Rijeka). When the Empire collapsed in 1918, its navy ceased to exist.

#91 ::: Chris W. ::: (view all by) ::: October 21, 2008, 03:37 PM:

I've also often wondered what might have happened if the English and French crowns hadn't been united, or if the union hadn't stuck.

I mean, imagine if Henry V had died of the plague or something in the early 1420's or if Henry VI had inherited his grandfather's insanity. (Remember, it was largely Charles' madness that made the union of thrones possible.)

The dynastic implications are incalculable. For one thing, the Yorkists could well have taken back the throne.

Even more importantly, the Lutheran revolts of the 16th century might have never been put down. Imagine if an independent England had stayed neutral in the 10 years war of 1618-1628. And the protestant revolts in England would have been nigh impossible to put down without French troops. Hell, England could have been made a republic in the mid 17th century by the rebellious parliament.

With the German minor states staying Protestant and maybe England joining them, it seems inevitable that they would have created a paralell Papacy. Imagine that, a Lutheran Pope! And the Catholic popes certainly wouldn't have been able to play the Habsburgs off against the Plantagenets in order to establish papal control over Northern Italy.

[[I love playing with medieval dynastic counterfactuals, because there are so many variables to play with, but part of the problem is that those variables quickly make it impossible to plausibly project forward to the present day. Still, I love the idea of a Europe which stayed Catholic and Feudal well into the 18th century, with the support of the Lancastrian kings of England and France.]]

#92 ::: Peter Erwin ::: (view all by) ::: October 21, 2008, 05:14 PM:

Bruce Cohen @ 66:
Has anyone, ever, been able to conquer Central Asia, and hold it?

I haven't read the Draka books, so possibly I'm missing what you mean by "Central Asia". Nonetheless, some suggested answers:

Alexander the Great; Ghenghis Khan; Tamerlane; the Russian Empire.

(As inge pointed out, the answers depend on what your time frame for "hold" is.)

#93 ::: Bruce Cohen (SpeakerToManagers) ::: (view all by) ::: October 21, 2008, 05:25 PM:

Peter Erwin @ 92

Well, by "hold" I guess I mean for more than the lifetime of the conquering general (I think that lets out Alexander, and Tamerlane) and also such that the occupying force wasn't constantly under attack by the locals, to the point where much more was spent maintaining the occupation than ever got taken out in tribute or trade (and that seems to let out the Russians and the Americans).

It seems to me there are two main reasons for invading a place like Afghanistan: to say you did it (and once you're dead, no one else will care a lot), and to get some economic benefit out of it (and I don't think anyone ever has).

#94 ::: John Mark Ockerbloom ::: (view all by) ::: October 21, 2008, 06:33 PM:

The Stedman/Blake book on Surinam and the slave revolts is online at (this link points to a cover page I created linking to both volumes).

Thanks for suggesting it!

#95 ::: Peter Erwin ::: (view all by) ::: October 21, 2008, 06:35 PM:

Bruce Cohen @ 93:

I believe one of Alexander's successors -- Seleucus, who ended up with the bulk of what had been the Persian Empire, minus Egypt and Anatolia -- held on to most of Alexander's Central Asian conquests after Alexander died in 323 BC. Bactria (part of what's now Afghanistan) didn't break away from the Seleucid Empire until the end of his successor's reign, around 250 BC; even then, it remained under Greek rule (the Greco-Bactrian kingdom) until around 125 BC.

As for Tamerlane: it's true that much of his larger empire -- e.g., his conquests in Persia, Syria, and Anatolia -- fell apart after he died, but I think his immediate descendants held on to the Central Asian core for some time. Samarkand (Uzbekistan) and Herat (Afghanistan) were both Timurid capitals, and Tamerlane's grandson Ulugh Beg established a major school for astronomy and mathematics in Samarkand. On the other hand, you might count Tamerlane out on the grounds that he started out from Central Asia, so he was less of an outside conqueror of the area.

In the not-so-recent past, the main economic benefit of conquering that area was probably control of trade routes (i.e., the Silk Road). Various parts of it have been relatively prosperous up until a few centuries ago, which explains the previous existence of major cities (some of which do still exist, of course: Herat, Samarkand, Bukhara...).

#96 ::: Neil Willcox ::: (view all by) ::: October 21, 2008, 07:57 PM:

On Central Asia, I point out the Ghaznavid Empire and it's successor state the Khwarezmian Empire. Khwarezm in particular doesn't get a lot of notice in histories as it's last king made the mistake of seriously annoying Genghis Khan.

(I also think that "take and hold" means different things at different times and places to such an extent that I'm not really sure what you're asking. However, the trick is always in the holding.)

#97 ::: Stephen Frug ::: (view all by) ::: October 21, 2008, 09:58 PM:

I always thought it was obvious, but since no one's said it yet (unless that's why no one said it):

I think the alternate history in which Bush stole the election in 2000 and became President is *clearly* a work by Philip K Dick.

I mean, the verging-on-but-not-quite totalitarian America, with the imperial executive? Sound familiar? Now, granted, PKD usually used Nixon as his President, but after all, the portrayal of Cheney is so Nixonian (not to mention that Cheney worked under Ford), that I think I see the continuity.

Then there's all the black, absurdist humor. There's a terrorist attack on the US (and the means: it would take an SF writer to come up with that, surely), and the response is to go invade a country that had nothing to do with it? Or the portrayal of the sycophantic media going from hounding Clinton over nothing to rolling over for admitted impeachable offenses? And a draft dodger running and winning against a decorated veteran on the basis of the latter's war record? All screams PKD to me.

And the vaguely post-apocalyptic setting works too: he has New Orleans simply having been left to drown. A sort of savage but effective touch. And the slow apocalypse of global warming going on in the background all the time.

Still, I admit that the story overall is not quite up to Dick's best. Cheney, while an effective villain, is a bit over-the-top -- like the complaint sometimes made of some of PKD's Nixons too. Surely some shred of humanity would make the character more realistic. (Not to mention that VP candidate that comes up late in the story -- surely that's going to far, no one would buy that.) And, on the other hand, the Democratic candidate is too good -- smart, a brilliant rhetorician, politically savvy, black -- and poised to win big? Nah. Sort of a deus ex machina. And of course the election-theft scenario from 2000 is too blatant -- unrealistic.

But, sadly, Dick clearly got lazy at the end -- that economic crisis was simply ripped off from the Great Depression, with some handwaving about new economic instruments which were just like banks but not regulated as banks. Unconvincing. If you're going to put an economic crisis in the story, really, be original about it. History doesn't really repeat itself that way.

But it certainly has this in common with all the worlds Dick made up: I wouldn't want to live in it. That's for damn sure.

#98 ::: CHip ::: (view all by) ::: October 21, 2008, 10:50 PM:

chris y @ 41: Panamanian whiskey might be ... interesting; unless they fermented the wort in caves, it would probably have huge amounts of side products, some of which would vary with the exact temperature and might even pass through distilling -- I wonder whether single malts could actually establish a brand under those circumstances. I also imagine problems with malting in those temperatures -- you could spoil a lot of grain in the process; \probably/ none of the byproducts of things that grew on it would survive distilling, but it would be an interesting risk.

Raphael@44: I would not underestimate the Scots' ability to defend their holdings.

What if Margaret Drummond had insisted on going to dinner with her sisters despite her fever? She certainly would have died along with them, and the unionist plot might never have been uncovered had not one of the conspirators unburdened his guilty conscience at their useless deaths; unionist interests might then have persuaded James IV to court and marry Margaret Tudor instead of a loyal, provenly fertile, and properly Scottish woman.

Such a marriage might have made it impossible to raise enough troops for him to survive Flodden Field, reducing his later successes at forging a united Scottish military. His heirs would have had a claim to the English throne when Elizabeth died without issue, but England with a clear claimant to the throne would not have fallen into the Second War of the Roses; under such a "Great Britain" (as some dream-smitten writers dubbed the united island they imagined) a disunited Scotland might have been little more than an agricultural vassal, awarded piecemeal to loyal Englishmen, instead of the independent power it is today. Worse, Scottish students might even have been forced by a poverty to lend their genius to the hated Sassenachs instead of building financial empires and fleets of steam-powered merchant "clippers" at home, making Glasgow the economic capital of Europe and Edinburgh the cultural rival of Paris.

<phase shift>

Or what if Sir Richard Croft had been a less brilliant obstetrician, failing to save Princess Charlotte and her son after a difficult pregnancy? An heir to rule Great Britain and Ireland might have been belatedly produced from among the widely-scattered royal bloodlines, but whoever he was would not have ruled the United Kingdom of Great Britain, Ireland, and Belgium; what might have happened had Albion not finally found a permanent foothold on the Continent after centuries of disputing France?

Without the restraining British experience, the Belgians might have inflicted endless horrors on their African colonies; but these have paled next to those Europe would have suffered, had the Kaiser not realized that Graf von Schlieffen's mad scheme of striking through Belgium to take Paris must certainly founder on the regiments of rigorously Empire-trained soldiers, blooded by their Indian experience and aided by their Gurkha commandos. Without the UK's example of uniting the Flemish and Walloons, the Austro-Hungarian Empire might not have transformed itself into the astoundingly heterogeneous but powerful Commonwealth it is today, with Vienna the Continental capital of both food and fashion; it might even have supported Germany's scheme and shattered into a dozen minor nations under the stress of inevitable defeat.

"History is wonderful; you can get hundredweights of speculation out of a few ounces of fact." (Samuel Langhorne Clemens)

#99 ::: Joe McMahon ::: (view all by) ::: October 22, 2008, 01:08 AM:


What do zombie theoretical physicists want?


#100 ::: geekosaur ::: (view all by) ::: October 22, 2008, 02:11 AM:

Shannon Roy @38:
Lack of letters does not mean lack of phonemes; before the split, the Roman "I" was used for all three phonemes ("I", "J", "Y") just as the Roman "V" was used for "U", "V", and "W". Which correspondence goes back at least as far as Aramaic (yud and vav/waw, respectively) and probably all the way to Phoenician.

#101 ::: Alex ::: (view all by) ::: October 22, 2008, 05:44 AM:

Just to add to the chorus of Hungarian seapower, during the Austro-Hungarian Empire the Hungarians made quite a point of jealously rivalling the Austrians with regard to the sea. Under the 1867 Ausgleich, they got their chunk of Dalmatia, and they proceeded to invest heavily in developing Fiume/Rijeka as a modern port and linking it up to the hinterland by rail.

They went so far as to insist on building one of the Austrian navy's battleships, a bad idea because the centre of shipbuilding and marine engineering in the empire was Trieste, in Austria, and the Hungarians essentially had to build the industry along with the ship, with predictable consequences for the budget, the timetable, and the ship's eventual performance.

#102 ::: Tykewriter ::: (view all by) ::: October 22, 2008, 08:11 AM:

What if Paul Revere hadn't fallen off his horse and drowned in the Charles River?

#103 ::: chris y ::: (view all by) ::: October 22, 2008, 09:53 AM:

Why, what if Earl Walþeof and þe Danisc king had not beat Duc William in þe great girnwrack of 1069, and made Edgar Ætheling king? Would we all now speak a tongue half ænglisc and half frensc? And had not Edmund VI in 1362 sent scips to help þe Greenlandmen, nor then made anness with þe Skrælings? Þen Earl Ayenwađa of Odondayland myt never have writ his great Book of þe Common Weal, and all Ængland, from Danmark to Cipango’s sea myt yet lie under a king’s niþ.

(It should be clear from the above that I have no idea what Modern English would look like if it had not been creolised with Norman French in the middle ages.)

#104 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: October 22, 2008, 10:13 AM:

What if George Lucas had done Flash Gordon as he originally wanted to, instead of Star Wars when that fell thru?

#105 ::: y ::: (view all by) ::: October 22, 2008, 11:42 AM:

Warren also sent William Dawes by a different route, and he arrived in Lexington shortly after Revere. Revere was actually captured between Lexington and Concord, and his horse taken; it was Prescott who made it through to Concord. Revere could have been captured at any of several points along the route--for example, by the Somerset while rowing to Charlestown. To make a real difference, though, I think Gage would have had to have acted much more briskly; warnings had already gone out several days before.

#106 ::: Michael Roberts ::: (view all by) ::: October 22, 2008, 01:10 PM:

Hmmf. Well, as always on Making Light, somebody knows more than I do about (x), where (x) is (anything I thought I knew something about).

Constance @84 - you are correct. The original name of the island was St. John, and the main port, appropriately was Richport. I figured the Hungarians wouldn't have screwed up the nomenclature, which is why the name of the island would have remained Szentjános -- and in keeping with the charming Hungarian habit of prefixing the regional name to the names of villages resulting in thirty-letter monsters of opacity, I figured the region would be "Karib" as in "Karibtenger" (Caribbean Sea). Hence "Karibszentjános".

ajay @79 - at least here in Puerto Rico, comida criolla already has paprika in it, some -- I'm not actually 100% sure that a hypothetical Hungarian/Caribbean cuisine would be so vastly different from what we have now, since the components are largely determined by what will grow well in the tropics. Peppers grow great here, but Puerto Ricans favor a more bitter, green pepper than the sweeter and spicier peppers of Hungary. Fortunately, our grocery carries proper Hungarian ground pepper for cooking.

As to Hungarian Creole. Yeah. I sometimes make my brain hurt trying to think of how the Hungarian language would have adapted to the cultural mixture here. After all, I'm quasi-presuming that Hungary would have wrested control of the island away from the Spaniards. Hence there would still have been Spaniards in the hills, if nowhere else. So the resulting Taino/Spanish/French/Hungarian dialect would have been ... múly, múly esztrányo.

Actually, here in the south in Ponce, there were a lot of Frenchmen in the mix in the 1700's -- enough that pronunciation down here is actually different from on the north side of the island. The 'r' in particular is an affricative, so "carro" (=car) is pronounced "cajjo", and "Rodriguez", when enunciated "clearly" (hahaha), is often "JJodliguez". So I figure that Spanish would continue to have at least that much influence on Karibmagyar, and maybe more. And given the Hungarian tendency to maintain linguistic minorities in ethnically distinct villages and regions, I suspect a very bastardized Spanish would still be spoken in the hills, where the jíbaros are still marginally whiter (i.e. ethnically more Spanish) than the coastal populations.

Alternates are really attractive for daydreaming.

@76 John Stanning -- well, if you want history, you're knocking at the wrong door. I wuz edyookated in Indiana, the best money can avoid! And so my historical knowledge of Central Europe is largely what I've managed to glean from being married to a Hungarian and watching over my kids' shoulders as they read Hungarian literature. The Hungarians certainly credit themselves with stopping the Turk -- who am I to argue? Although, yeah, the siege of Vienna rings a bell. Perhaps they figure that the siege would have succeeded had they not had to slog through Hungary first.

Here's what I can't figure. Those Turks are always painted, anyway, as not wearing shirts. And there are a huge number of mosquitoes in Hungary. I honestly think it was blood loss that stopped them, not the actual Hungarians.

Perhaps I should get more of my history from places other than what's hanging in the Hungarian National Museum -- but those paintings are fantastic.

#107 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: October 22, 2008, 03:15 PM:

What if dogs had not joined the human pack?

#108 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: October 22, 2008, 03:39 PM:

ajay #79: A Hungarian Creole? Can you imagine a collaboration by Steven Brust, Neil Gaiman, and Tobias Buckell....

#109 ::: Malthus ::: (view all by) ::: October 22, 2008, 03:54 PM:

Well, if we're talking alternate history, what if the Khazar-Umayyad wars in the VIIth century had not disrupted the Silk Road? It is possible that if trade were assured, we would have seen a world where Indian mathematics spread to Europe, and the Scientific Enlightenment began in England/France/Germany instead of Asia Minor.

The area in question could have been a major center of learning, possibly lending its name to modern scientific terms. We might even call the science underlying the Internet "Al-Kharizm"s.

#110 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: October 22, 2008, 03:55 PM:

Mary Frances #82: I like Blake, but The Little Black Boy makes me wish for a time machine to take me back to late eighteenth century Lambeth just so I could punch him in the nose. On the other hand, given his attitude towards Xtianity, you might be right.

#111 ::: Michael Roberts ::: (view all by) ::: October 22, 2008, 05:36 PM:

Fragano: you wish you had a time machine so you could punch William Blake in the nose? That's ... that's kind of cool, actually.

#112 ::: Bruce Cohen (SpeakerToManagers) ::: (view all by) ::: October 22, 2008, 05:51 PM:

Fragano @ 110

I thought about that post for awhile, contemplating replying that you ought not to waste time travel on bopping William Blake, when you could go after someone who was really bigoted. Then I realized that most bigots would just stand there dumbly bleeding, without learning anything from the experience, whereas you might actually be able to get Blake to realize the error of his ways. So by all means, go back in time and beat on Blake.

#113 ::: Tykewriter ::: (view all by) ::: October 22, 2008, 05:52 PM:

What if somebody had invented a machine to replace the horse? What would have happened to our beloved horses? Would they still be part of the family? Would they have developed intelligence?

#114 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: October 22, 2008, 06:17 PM:

As I said, I like Blake. I just find that particular poem particularly grating.

#115 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: October 22, 2008, 06:19 PM:

Tykewriter #113: The horseless carriage will inevitably lead to the horse entering politics, and perhaps even whinnying its way to high office.

#116 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: October 22, 2008, 06:30 PM:

Fragano @115:

The horseless carriage will inevitably lead to the horse entering politics, and perhaps even whinnying its way to high office.

...where it will always vote Neigh*.

* pun stolen from Lois McMaster Bujold

#117 ::: Michael I ::: (view all by) ::: October 22, 2008, 07:18 PM:


No, no.

He'll just turn to crime and found the Evil League of Evil.

While perfecting his terrible death whinny...

#118 ::: Mary Frances ::: (view all by) ::: October 22, 2008, 09:16 PM:

Fragano @ #110: Ooh! Does your time machine have room for a passenger, so I can come with, and watch? I'd pay serious money for a chance to see something like that.

And who knows? Blake might really learn something (as per Bruce Cohen @112) from not only the punch, but from talking to you after you'd gotten his attention . . . that'd be an alternate history worth striving for, right there, in my opinion.

#119 ::: Mary Aileen ::: (view all by) ::: October 23, 2008, 09:42 AM:

Is a punch in the nose the equivalent of a kick in the shins?

#120 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: October 23, 2008, 09:54 AM:

Abi @ 116... it will always vote Neigh (...) pun stolen from Lois McMaster Bujold

...who may herself have stolen it from Gary Larson's Far Side cartoon about the Parliament of Horses being thrown into disarray when one horse finally figures out how to say 'aye'.

#121 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: October 23, 2008, 10:48 AM:

abi #116: I loved that pun!

#122 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: October 23, 2008, 10:49 AM:

Michael I #117: That would be a very Bad Horse, indeed.

#123 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: October 23, 2008, 10:51 AM:

Mary Frances #118: I'll have to see about getting hold of a TARDIS.

#124 ::: coffeedryad ::: (view all by) ::: October 23, 2008, 04:51 PM:

I can't remember if it was something I read, or something discussed here, or something I was discussing with friends, but...

What if William the Bastard and Harald Hardrade had invaded in reverse order, with Harald landing in September and William in October? If the Saxon army had been fresh for fighting off the Norwegians instead of the French, that could have changed the whole political shape of the Continent - Tostig's Norwegian client state would never have happened, obviously; Greater Norway might have splintered or even never formed, and they almost certainly would never have retaken Normandy. Without the Englisc resources and warmwater ports, they probably would have been unable to consolidate power in Rus, leaving it wide open to the Mongolian invaders a couple of centuries later. Service in the Varangian Guard might even have remained popular, propping up the Byzantine Empire a while longer.
Meanwhile, William would be setting himself up as ruler of England. Although the Normans and Saxons would have been at odds initially with a class barrier perpetuated by the language divide, eventually the island would be speaking some odd creole of Anglo-Saxon and French. This, combined with William's ambition, would have prevented England from becoming a client state of France the way it did of Norway, and we might have seen William and his descendents setting themselves up as kings and even fighting the French for lands in Normandy.

#125 ::: Brooks Moses ::: (view all by) ::: October 24, 2008, 03:31 AM:

On a related note, a realization that my wife had a couple of days ago:

It is a well-known fact that, in alternate universes, one gets Zeppelins. If you look up in the sky and one's flying overhead on a scheduled route, it's a pretty sure sign of being in one.

On Saturday, there's a Zeppelin arriving in San Jose to start regular service here.

A pretty clear sign, wouldn't you say?

#126 ::: Michael I ::: (view all by) ::: October 24, 2008, 07:55 AM:


Truly a Horrible scenario...

#127 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: October 24, 2008, 10:42 AM:

Another possible sign: the rotating art microgallery in the building window down the street from where I work has two large pieces with zeppelins over a large city. One might be a photograph, but I'm pretty sure the other is an artist's rendering (the clouds aren't quite real).

#128 ::: joann ::: (view all by) ::: October 24, 2008, 12:05 PM:

Brooks #125:

Regularly scheduled zeppelin service from San Jose to where?

#129 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: October 24, 2008, 12:32 PM:

Michael I #126: That's what happens when the Hammer fails.

#130 ::: Brooks Moses ::: (view all by) ::: October 24, 2008, 03:10 PM:

joann @128: Sightseeing trips around the bay, and up in Napa valley. See for details.

#131 ::: joann ::: (view all by) ::: October 24, 2008, 04:03 PM:

Brooks #130:

Cool! I was hoping for day-long flights between LA, SF and Seattle, taking over the old Air Cal slot, but just having the skies filled with stately zeppelins is enough of a kick. Bit pricey, alas.

#132 ::: Michael I ::: (view all by) ::: October 24, 2008, 06:34 PM:


Although he seems to succeed Moist of the time...

Unless he gets Penny-wise and pound-foolish...

#133 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: October 24, 2008, 06:48 PM:

Michael I #132: A lot depends on the quality of the Wonderflonium.

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