Sunday, November 10, 2013

Unintentionally Writing An Alternate Timeline

In his 2003 Trojan Odyssey Clive Cussler makes reference to Rudi Gunn fighting in "the conflict to rid the [Persian Gulf] of Saddam Hussein"--but as it happened, Hussein was no longer around in this universe. Treasure, set fifteen years earlier (in 1991), referred to the "assassination of President Saddam Husayn."

The same novel also makes two (unfavorable) references to President Bill Clinton. However, as the Dirk Pitt novels, with their succession of fictional presidents, ran from the late 1980s to the mid-2000s, it is not at all clear when Clinton would have been President in Pitt's universe.

Of course, the reader of novels like these, while likely to be aware of the discrepancies, does not pay them much mind; they are simply not essential to the story. Nonetheless, they do point to a routine problem of the techno-thriller, and particularly the sort of techno-thriller based on politico-military crisis--its use of topical plots based on current events, which make them date rather quickly. The problem quickly gets compounded by the tendency of successful techno-thrillers to turn into series', and in the process, also depictions of an alternate universe. Because the writers strive to remain topical, they attempt to reconcile their other timeline with our own--typically with awkward results.

Take, for instance, the Jack Ryan novels. These have seen the U.S. and Soviet Union develop effective, laser-based strategic defense systems (The Cardinal of the Kremlin); the nuclear bombing of Denver and the establishment of a Middle Eastern peace which sees the Vatican's Swiss Guards policing Jerusalem (The Sum of All Fears); and the dismantling of the ballistic missile forces of the United States and Soviet Union, following which the U.S. fought a war with Japan that ended with an aerial attack that destroyed the Capitol, and many of the country's leading political figures (Debt of Honor). One might add that in the books Saddam Hussein was assassinated by an Iranian agent, and Iraq (and Turkmenistan) subsequently absorbed by an expansionist Iran, which also subjected the United States to an Ebola-based plague (Executive Orders), and China has also fought a war with Russia that ended with Russia's entry into NATO, following which China began a transition to democracy (The Bear and the Dragon).

After The Bear and the Dragon Clancy went back in time with a story about the assassination attempt against Pope John Paul II, Red Rabbit (a homage of sorts to Frederick Forsyth's Day of the Jackal), but then rejoined contemporary events with The Teeth of the Tiger, and the subsequent "co-authored" works, Dead or Alive, Locked On and Threat Vector. These books, in contrast with the events of Executive Orders, assume the Middle East peace of The Sum of All Fears unraveled, that the War on Terror and the subsequent campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq happened as they did in our own time, while China is again an antagonist in Threat Vector. Much of this (particularly the incorporation of the 2003- Iraq war) strains credulity, but even the less implausible alterations to fit our timeline simply throw out what came before--diminishing the integrity of the whole.

Nonetheless, troublesome as the discrepancies, and the attempts to paper over them, happen to be, one should not overestimate the problem for fans. In contrast with other, harder types of science fiction, the techno-thriller is not about world-building.

Still, they are a reminder of the fact that bestselling series have a way of dragging on too long. And taking such a set of stories together I do find myself wondering if fans of these types of books do not compare these timelines with our own, and what they think of the differences: that interstate and especially great power relations have been less belligerent in real life than in these novels, while the wars the United States has fought have been more protracted, messy affairs, rarely ending in the tidy ways these books tend to picture.

At the very least, this would all seem to support I.F. Clarke's criticism of such "invasion stories" as having promoted an aggressive view of foreign and defense policy, and an understanding of war as a simpler thing than it has ever been, let alone what it is now.

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