2149: Alternate Histories
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, 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.
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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