Category Archives: World War II

Films that inspire me– “Things to Come” and the history that wasn’t– Part Two

(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.

But….

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.

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My next post on a film that inspires me– Aliens. Oh, yeah– this is the big one. Buckle up.

Abandoned fragment #5- Love and rockets

I’m doing better today, and making some progress on the line-edit for Shadows. If I can stay focused I probably have no more than four days or so of work left to do. The operative word in that sentence is, however, most definitely if.

I’ve got another abandoned fragment, and this time it is definitely a fragment, and almost certainly abandoned. For a brief time I had a delusional concept for, of all things, a romance novel set in England during World War II, during the V-2 campaign in late 1944. I don’t read romance novels, so I have no idea where this came from. I now doubt most extremely that I’ll ever write the thing; but since I tend to doodle the really dramatic scenes of my concepts first, I wrote this down, which would have been the emotional payoff for the entire story. Sometimes my writing process is just…odd.

One WAAF officer + one US Army Air Force tech sergeant + one V-2 rocket – one fancy radar set = this scene.

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Copyright 2013 Douglas Daniel

The cellar shook as if it had been hit by a giant’s hammer, together with a roar that left Anne’s ears ringing. She went to her knees from the concussion. The overhead light flickered and went out. Anne felt dust cascade down on them.

The roar ended and the room steadied. Someone was praying, loudly, sobbing every other word. “Shut up!” Anne yelled. “Somebody find a torch.”

“Here, Annie.” A light clicked on. It was a torch in the hands of one of the girls– Steffie. The Scotswoman’s hands shook; her hat was askew, and dust coated her face. The torch’s beam swung around, a solid shaft of light in the swirling dust. Isaacs was picking herself up off the floor; Bradford was the one praying, on her knees in a corner; Cooper sat in the middle of the floor, looking dumbfounded.

“Is anyone hurt?” Anne called, getting to her feet.

“No…I’m all right….Lord Jesus, help!” The chorus of voices told Anne everything she needed to know.

“Come on, Steffie,” she said. “Help me get the door open.”

“Is that wise?” Steffie said.

“Don’t ask questions– come on!”

Anne unlatched the cellar door, but it took both of them to shove it open. It finally swung up and open; timbers had been lying across it. Filtered sunlight flooded the cellar. Anne crawled out and stood.

There was smoke and the stink of burning things; but the first thing she saw was the manse. The roof of the old house was gone, along with the eastern wall. The three remaining walls cupped only broken masonry, splintered wood and a cloud of dust.

“Thomas!” she yelled. She ran toward the manse.

She clambered atop the pile of debris. For a moment she couldn’t comprehend what was where– the interior walls were smashed, as well, and everything was a welter of broken junk. Then she saw the chintz curtains, tattered and bedraggled under a layer of brick. She bent and began throwing bricks aside. “Thomas!”

Steffie climbed up on the wreckage beside her. “Annie, don’t,” she said. “It’s…he’s probably….”

“Shut up and help me, damn you!” Anne snapped. Panic choked her. “Thomas!”

She heard a cough. She stopped, listening. Another cough. And then, “Ah, crap.”

A pile of broken timbers to her left slithered and fell, and there was that stupid, bloody, beautiful mahogany table, nicked and battered, but still intact. And out from under it crawled Thomas.

Anne clambered across the wreckage toward him. Why was she crying now? She nearly impaled herself on a splintered wood beam, and then she was there. “Are you all right?” she asked, relieved and frightened at the same time. She reached down to help him up.

“I’ve been worse,” Thomas said. He coughed again and stood up. His glasses were gone. Pulverized brick dust sluiced off his uniform. He had lost his cap and dust covered his face. Anne saw that one sleeve of his uniform blouse was ripped from shoulder to cuff. More alarmingly, a trickle of blood ran down the side of his face. Thomas seemed wholly unaware of it.

“You need to go to hospital,” Anne said.

“Maybe—gotta clean up first.” Thomas turned, rather unsteadily, and then stopped. “Jesus Christ!” he said. Anne turned to see what he was staring at, and then wondered how she could miss so large and dramatic a tableau.

Between the manse and the radar unit was a huge crater– thirty feet across and half that deep, raw earth sending up tendrils of smoke. On the other side of the crater the transport truck lay on its side, burning. The radar unit itself had fallen off the trailer and lay on the ground. The housing was riddled with shrapnel holes; the dish was shredded. Over the smell of concrete dust and burning petrol Anne could definitely detect the ozone stink of fried electronics.

Thomas raised his hands, in rage and despair. “Look what those Nazi bastards did to my radar!”

It was too much. Anne grabbed Thomas by the lapels and shook him with all her might. “Damn you! I don’t care about the bloody Nazis, and I don’t care about your bloody radar! You were nearly killed, you stupid sod! Doesn’t that mean anything to you?”

“Whoa, stop the roller-coaster,” Thomas said, grabbing hold of Anne’s hands in an attempt to damp out the oscillations. She stopped shaking him and they stood there for a long moment, panting, face-to-face. Without his glasses, Anne realized, Thomas’ eyes were brilliant blue.

Dust be damned. Anne raised herself up on tip-toe and kissed Thomas right on the lips. The sergeant’s eyebrows went up, but he kissed her back. For a moment she hung off his neck and he lifted her up off her feet, and they were just there.

They finally broke the kiss. Thomas set Anne back down. He stared into her face, wondering and confused. Anne stepped back and slapped him, hard enough to make dust fly. She stalked off.

Group Captain Carter came running from the direction of the bunker. He had to step out of Anne’s way. He looked at her retreating figure, then at Thomas. “Are you quite all right, sergeant?”

Thomas rubbed his face. “Beats the hell out of me, sir. And the day started out so normal.”

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You can probably see why I don’t write romance novels.

Later.