(This is the second part of my discussion of the movie Things to Come)
Part Two– how this film inspires me.
My previous post was an appreciation of Alexander Korda’s Things to Come, discussing how it is a powerful, if sometimes disturbing, early science-fiction film classic. One of the powerful aspects of the film is that it took contemporary events and concerns of 1936 and projected them into an effective “future history“. There were many thunderstorms looming on the horizon that year. Germany was rising again under the Nazi dictatorship, which had no scruples about telling the whole world what it meant to do, especially in Eastern Europe. Asia had already seen the Japanese takeover of Manchuria in 1931 and would see all-out war between Japan and China in 1937. Civil War broke out in Spain in July, 1936, in what most historians now see as a dress-rehearsal for World War II. It didn’t take much prescience to see that another general war was coming.
The course the film lays out for this new Great War is a reasonable projection of the first Great War, which was deadlocked for most of its history. Supposing that the war could go on for year after year of bloody stalemate was not a wild leap of the imagination. In that stalemate the breakdown of civilization and the previous world order was all-too-reasonably a possibility.
The fact that the actual history did not turn out the way Things to Come thought they might teaches us some lessons about the business of alternate history. It also teaches us something about irony.
In its classic form, alternate history takes a single, critical event and changes it– Lee Harvey Oswald misses Kennedy, Hitler dies of poison gas in World War One, Harry Truman loses the 1948 presidential election– and examines how that one change alters history. When it’s done thoughtfully and well, alternate history can create worlds that are tragic, or evocative of what might have been, and can teach us important lessons about the contingency of life and history on decisions which might even appear trivial at that moment.
Watching Things to Come reminds me of all the ways history could have turned out differently in World War Two. The period is loaded with potential branch points for an alternate history, and it’s been a favorite of sci-fi writers for decades. World War Two is also a rich field for alternate history writers because the moral implications of a Nazi victory in the war would have been so profound– a nightmare that barely bears thinking about. Even short of that catastrophe, postwar history could have turned out a thousand different ways, right down to the very personal and intimate. What if Anne Frank had survived the war? What if Eisenhower and Kay Summersby had really hooked up? What if Hitler had immigrated to America in 1919 and become an illustrator for science-fiction magazines– which is the actual premise of Norman Spinrad’s The Iron Dream.
All of this is fertile ground for science-fiction writers, and looks to remain so for a long time to come.
At this point, though, you might be asking what Things to Come has to with alternate history– it was created as a future-history, not alternate history. To put it simply, all future-histories are fated to become alternate history. Eventually every future sketched out by an author finds itself diverging from factual history, real-life events having no obligation to adhere to some writer’s conception of what path they should follow. When this happens, some authors try to retcon their stories, but others throw in the towel and say, “It’s alternate history”. As an example, the future history of Star Trek, as described in the original series, has now diverged from factual history (no Eugenics War in the 1990’s, etc.).
In the case of The Shape of Things to Come, Wells’ original 1933 novel, his future history was obsolete almost at once. Things to Come did a little bit better, but by 1946 or so it was already diverging from real life– Western civilization did not fall into a recurring cycle of hot wars lasting a generation, but rather a Cold War with peripheral bush-wars and serious economic and political competition between East and West.
So why didn’t the future of Things to Come become our factual history?
The answer is pretty damn ironic– nuclear weapons.
Suppose that nuclear science took a different path in the 1930’s and that no one on the planet in 1940 has an inkling that nuclear weapons are a practical possibility. That means no Manhattan Project, no Tube Alloys (the code-name for the British bomb project), no German nuclear weapon program, no Soviet effort, no Japanese investigations– every major power had some sort of nuclear research going on on during the war. In fact, one of the poorly remembered aspects of the history of World War II is that, in certain circles, there was real fear the Germans were years ahead of the Allies and might deploy a weapon before them. In fact, for several different reasons, they were years behind.
Just as it was in the factual history, in our alternate history the war in Europe would have been won by conventional forces in the spring of 1945. The immediate result of our small alteration would almost certainly have been that the planned invasion of Japan in the autumn of 1945 would have gone forward. The Allies anticipated a long, hard campaign to subjugate the Japanese home islands, including a million casualties (killed, wounded, missing). There is no telling how devastated such a invasion would have left Japan, over and above the destruction already wrecked by aerial bombing.
Suppose the conquest of Japan adds two additional years or so to the war, so that World War Two ends in 1947 or 1948 (GIs in the Pacific anticipated this– their poetic formula for the end of the war was “Golden Gate in ’48”). America’s instinct then, as it was in the factual history, would have almost certainly been to demobilize the Army.
In the absence of a nuclear deterrent, it is conceivable that the Soviets, under Stalin, would have seen the weak occupation forces the Western allies had in Germany (and they were weak), and been tempted to use the still powerful Red Army to try and scoop up West Berlin and then the rest of Germany. If so, the war would have resumed as the former allies fell out (as former allies tend to do)– and Wells’ generation of war would have been well under way.
In the factual history, though, nuclear weapons made even Joe Stalin think twice about resuming conventional warfare in the heart of Europe. The salient irony of nuclear weapons in the Cold War is that they were practically useless, in any traditional war-making sense– nobody ever figured out a meaningful definition of “victory” in a nuclear-armed standoff. As a result, a kind of quasi-peace settled over Europe, allowing it to rebuild and affording two generations of Europeans the time and space to buy Mercedes and Audis and time-shares in Majorca, rather than having to scratch for food amid the ruins of Birmingham or Paris.
This is what makes alternate history so much fun, seeing how one factor can change the whole historical equation. It’s also what makes it very hard to get right.
But I intend to keep trying.
My next post on a film that inspires me– Aliens. Oh, yeah– this is the big one. Buckle up.