2149: Alternate Histories

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Alternate Histories
"So their universe wouldn't have the iconic photo of a screaming Truman being hoisted aloft by the newspaper-printing machinery..."
Title text: "So their universe wouldn't have the iconic photo of a screaming Truman being hoisted aloft by the newspaper-printing machinery..."


Alternate histories are a common device in speculative fiction. One of the most common (even cliche) uses of alternate history is to posit a world in which the Axis Powers achieved victory in World War II. This is presumably so compelling because it was a relatively recent event in which a series of relatively minor changes could have altered world history in major ways. One of the standard literary works along this line is Philip K. Dick's The Man in the High Castle, where the world is split into spheres of influence controlled by the Empire of Japan and Nazi Germany. This novel has been developed into a popular TV series of the same name on Amazon Prime.

At one point, The Man in the High Castle discusses the fiction of their own world, which includes their own alternate histories in which the Allies had won the war instead. The Grasshopper Lies Heavy is one such novel. Because these stories are speculative, they don't entirely match the 'real' history of our world, differing in key ways. This results in an "alternate-alternate" history where the Allies won World War II, but the details still differ rather significantly than the history of World War II in our reality -- most notably, The Grasshopper Lies Heavy depicts a post-World War II world defined by a Cold War between the United States and the British Empire, rather than one between the United States and Soviet Union. In one sense, this functions as a meta-critique of the very concept of alternate histories, highlighting the reality that we can never know the details of what would have happened if history had gone differently.

In this comic, Megan and Cueball discuss this fictional device. Then in typical xkcd fashion, things start to get exaggerated to ridiculous proportions: Megan points out that, if characters in our stories have their own fiction, then the characters in their stories presumably have their own body of fiction, and so on, creating a recursive loop. If each alternate history contains its own alternate history, presumably each iteration would deviate more and more from our own reality, because each would be speculation based on increasing layers of speculation. Eventually (by the 500th iteration) the history would differ so wildly from our own as to be completely absurd to us, with very few elements being even recognizable.

The 500th iteration timeline apparently includes hovercraft and cybernetic horses. Hovercraft are a real technology which does have military applications as landing craft, but their use in actual warfare has been limited. Cybernetic horses do not exist in our timeline yet[citation needed], but Boston Dynamics is getting close. In our timeline, Scotland is part of the United Kingdom, and would likely not develop military technology independently. New Jersey is a state in the United States and Madagascar was controlled by France during World War II; neither of these would normally be able to pursue an independent foreign policy that would have allowed them to join alliances and fight wars unless their parent governments also did. Belgium was occupied by the Axis Powers early in the war. These three regions developing a alliance and fighting against Canada (which was also an Allied power) would require a highly unlikely combination of events. How this war would be affected by the lack of Scottish hovercraft is unclear. This scenario also apparently contains a theocracy of some variety in Missouri, which (remarkably!) is vaguely plausible.

Interestingly, even within the bounds of the exceedingly meta-fiction, it is bordering on impossible for the scenario to come into existence; the reason for this is that while the ending would become evermore bizarre, the actual events will only be able to vary so much, as they are based on predetermined scenarios that occur before the changes take place. Unless at least two wars are being modified, or the events are based on a later occurrence, (basically the two are discussing something different entirely, albeit still a historical scenario) the idea of so many implausible things occurring is unlikely no matter what the circumstances, unless they all happened over the course of the war. Of course, it's possible several of those 500 iterations involve BAD alternate histories fiction. Or possibly fiction based on history which was deliberately falsified.

It's unlikely, but it's worth noting that "cybernetic horses" could be a reference to cyber forces, since in 1418: Horse that substitution is suggested.

Laura Ingalls Wilder was an American author, best known for her Little House on the Prairie series. In the 500th iteration timeline, she apparently became "God-Emperor of Missouri", despite not being known as a political figure in our timeline. Harry S Truman, in our timeline, became 33rd President of the United States, following the death of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. In the 500th iteration timeline, Truman apparently died in an accident involving pajamas and a printing press (a possibility is that he has big loose pyjamas which get caught in the press) while still a senator (presumably a U.S. senator, since in our reality he was serving in the United States Senate prior to being nominated as Roosevelt's vice president in 1944). He apparently remained a significant enough figure for 500th-iteration Megan to speculate that he would have become God-Emperor of Missouri if he'd survived.

The title text continues the discussion about Truman, mentioning a photograph of Truman screaming in horror as he is hoisted by newspaper-printing machinery. This plays off a famous photograph from our world where Truman is the one hoisting up a copy of the Chicago Tribune in triumph, as said newspaper erroneously claimed he was defeated in the 1948 United States presidential election by Thomas Dewey.


[Megan and Cueball are walking together]
Megan: In alternate history stories where the allies lost WWII, sometimes they have their own fiction with the premise "what if the allies had won?" which differs from our world since they'd be speculating and wouldn't predict everything.
Cueball: Yeah, I think they do that in Man in the High Castle.
[Megan and Cueball continue walking together]
Megan: But within those stories, they should have "what if the allies had lost?" fiction which is even more removed from our world.
Cueball: Uh oh.
Megan: So how deep does it go?
[Cueball and Megan, wearing tall black ball-topped hats and large bracelets and presumably from some alternate history, are walking together. There is a caption in a frame over the top of the panel]
500 levels in:
Megan: In my alternate history, Scotland never develops hovercraft, so Canada's cybernetic horses defeat the Belgium-Madagascar-New Jersey alliance.
Cueball: Wow!
[Alternate history Cueball and Megan continue walking together]
Cueball: Then who becomes God-Emperor of Missouri, if not Laura Ingalls Wilder?
Megan: Senator Truman!
Cueball: He survives the accident?!
Megan: Yeah, the pajama craze never catches on, so he's wearing normal clothes when he walks by the printing press...

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The hands on the 500 deep versions are quite different. Does anyone have an idea of what that might refer to? -- The quiet one (talk) (please sign your comments with ~~~~)

I thought they were big bangly bracelets. Yomikoma (talk) 19:54, 13 May 2019 (UTC)
I think they are puffy shirt sleeve cuffs: [1] ProphetZarquon (talk) 22:31, 13 May 2019 (UTC)
Let's compromise and say "big circle shapes on their arm connectors." (talk) (please sign your comments with ~~~~)
The hands changed because history changed. DUH! 12:41, 14 May 2019 (UTC)

In *my* alternate history, Al Gore loses the presidency, but it is to Bill Nye. As a result, Bill Nye causes sweeping educational reform. However, this causes the U.S. to buckle in comparison to the world economy, as the lowered military power (about a 3% decrease by the end of his presidency in comparison to the "true" timeline) means that Indonesia is able to push their limits a little, leading to Kuwait, West Timor and Luxembourg doing the same. Also, because of the lack of a Haliburton loophole, the Everglades are larger than today. Unfortunately, when David Tenant tried out for the role of the Doctor, this results in a live alligator attacking him. This throws the show biz industry into a tailspin, and so... - SD 19:54, 13 May 2019 (UTC)

Unfortunately? ... I think we disagree on our choice of practitioner. ] ; > ProphetZarquon (talk) 23:36, 13 May 2019 (UTC)

Something of the meme must have leaked through the æther, one way or another. Just yesterday I was involved in intensive discussions about how world history would have turned out with a different power-structure had the Darien Scheme not gone totally wrong, Scotland had cornered the Pacific/Atlantic trading markets, had been in a position to accept England, et al, into its parliamentary structure in a differing version of the Union, and created a particularly caledonially-influenced New World and Scottish Empire (provisionally titled the 'gaelosphere') from where the future (or at least contermperaneously alternate) history of the world developed out of. There was no mention of hovercraft, admitedly, but I now imagine they'd have been terribly useful upon certain parts of the isthmus, or particularly in dealing with the treacherous tides running through Caledonia Bay by Fort St Andrew. So, GOOMHR! If it's not we who should get out of his, of course 22:44, 13 May 2019 (UTC)


Is there a name for the hats Cueball and Megan are wearing, or is it just a top hat that Randall added a ball to to make it look different? Herobrine (talk) 22:35, 13 May 2019 (UTC)

I imagine the Nth-Alternate Universe version of the page https://theoutline.com/post/868/why-do-we-all-have-pom-pom-balls-on-our-hats might mention them. 22:51, 13 May 2019 (UTC)
There has never been a hat that wasn't ridiculous. 23:38, 13 May 2019 (UTC)
EVERYONE looks better wearing a hat. DUH! 12:41, 14 May 2019 (UTC)
Created by [thing]

Is there a category or history filter or something to specifically list all of the "created by a [thing]" tags that have appeared over time? CYBERNETIC HORSE EMPEROR is the best phrase I have heard all day. It is going straight into my Robotech\Rifts RPG campaign. ProphetZarquon (talk) 23:36, 13 May 2019 (UTC)

Thank you very much, and not that I know of, sadly. 11:13, 14 May 2019 (UTC)
Plausibility of scenario

I have a few issues with the current explanation saying it is impossible for such a scenario to arise, though I'm not sure how exactly to restructure it. First, past events can be altered as an explanation for alterations to the timeline, demonstrated clearly in-comic ("the pajama craze never caught on" explains the future of "truman becomes god-emperor"). So, things could be changed before the world war, and thus anything is theoretically possible. Second, it's clear the humor and understanding of the comic doesn't require a judgement of how likely the scenario is. So that section of the explanation is at best unnecessary and at worst wrong, I think. 09:13, 14 May 2019 (UTC)

Let's assume that any given alternate history has a 1% chance of being detailed enough to consider the alternate history's alt-history, and (for simplicity's sake) that no alternate histories develop in such a way as to eliminate interest in alternate histories. Given these assumptions, reaching the 500th level would require...um, my calculator isn't giving me an answer, let's just say a LOT of top-level alternate histories where the Nazis won WW2 to get anything that reached that deep. Even if each alt-history had coinflip odds of reaching the next level, you'd still need something like 3.3e150 alternate histories to get that deep; even 90% odds need 7.5e22 alt-histories. This sort of infinite regression is only practical if some aspect of an alternate history makes it and its descendants more likely to generate further alt-histories. At this point, evolution would kick in and before you got more than a dozen levels deep nearly all alt-histories would be from well-adapted alt-histories. It seems likely to me that alt-histories with lots of little details and weird contrivances would be more likely to spawn alt-histories, so this comic seems pretty accurate in that regard. GreatWyrmGold (talk) 16:56, 14 May 2019 (UTC)

I think you're calculating that wrong. If there are 10 alternate histories now, each of those ten has ten in-universe alternate histories, etc, so there are 10^500 alternate histories we are trawling through at that depth. More than that, each step is not a minor change from actual reality, but 500 //successive// changes from actual reality, in each of those 10^500 alternatives. And at each level, nothing says the change is based on the reality //of that fiction//. So, if three levels deep in just one branch, alternate Harry Turtledove writes Guns of The Nazis, all 10^497 terminal branches beneath that are 497 steps more crazy than time travel. That, uh, is a lot of opportunities to stumble across wacky stuff, and "Laura Ingalls Wilder is god-emperor of Missouri because of pajamas" is not surprisingly wild, it's surprisingly tame. (talk) 00:06, 19 April 2024 (please sign your comments with ~~~~)

Does anyone think some of this might be a shot at the Kaiserreich/story inside kaiserreich/so on thing? (talk) (please sign your comments with ~~~~)

This is actually a thing with the Hearts of Iron IV mod, Kaiserreich. It's an alt-history mod where Germany won WWI, and within it there's an event describing a variant where Germany lost WWI, but instead of the Nazis the nat-pop party which takes over are known as Volkists. This was then made into a mod, which has within it an event describing a scenario where Germany lost WWI... 21:16, 14 May 2019 (UTC)

True, though you only need 100 alternate histories in each history. Until you hit the alternate history where the war with Italy causes us to stop using the roman alphabet, you're likely to get at least that many in each setting. 22:38, 17 May 2019 (UTC)

I'm surprised that a 500th iteration alternate history would have ANY names, events or institutions familiar to us. These Are Not The Comments You Are Looking For (talk) 00:38, 20 May 2019 (UTC)

This comic seems to be an excellent illustration of nested alternate realities if you follow all the links. https://www.darthsanddroids.net/episodes/0050.html 11:22, 29 August 2022 (UTC)