15 January 2011


Locus Focus: Take Thirty-Six!

Join us every Saturday as we write about our favourite settings
and the books that make them come alive!

The theories of time travel and the idea of parallel universes are philosophical twins. In a sense, traveling into the past or the future is a lot like crossing into a parallel universe--but not exactly so.

I once saw a fellow on TV who explained the "Grandfather Paradox" in time travel by saying that it doesn't matter if you do go back in time and kill an ancestor: you'll still exist because you've only killed him in a parallel universe and not in your own. Totally bogus, of course. James Cameron got closer to the truth when he had a character from the future send his own father into the past to meet his mother. There was never a John Connor who wasn't Kyle Reese's son; and there was never a 1984 without Kyle Reese. Cameron's only mistake was writing that "The future is not set." To be totally accurate, the line should be, "The present is not set."

But never mind that now, while we look at a setting that combines both the fantasy of parallel universes and an imaginative look at the future.

North American Confederacy
The Probability Broach:
The Graphic Novel

Story by L. Neil Smith
Artwork by Scott Bieser

Win Bear: "'CONFEDERACY'? Say, who won the Civil War--I mean, the War Between the States? You know, 1860-1865? Fort Sumter? Tariffs and slavery? Lee and Grant? Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis? Lincoln gets killed at the--"

Clarissa Olson: "I don't know what you mean, Win. Slavery eded peaceably in 44 A.L., thanks to Thomas Jefferson. I don't recognise any of the names you mentioned except Jefferson Davis, a minor president of the old United States, and . . ."

Win Bear: "And?"

Clarissa Olson: "And there wasn't any 1865. We called it . . . 89 A.L. [Anno Liberatis]."

In L. Neil Smith's political satire, the future is a function of the past, and history depends completely on popular philosophy. And to illustrate which opposing philosophies he believes are most right and most wrong, he gives us two versions of 1987: a dystopia in which meat is rationed by the government and Vitamin C is an illegal substance . . . and a utopia in which congressmen routinely propose the abolition of congress and cocaine retails at affordable rates. I can't say I'm very fond of either extreme . . .

When Detective Win Bear is blasted out of the United States of America into the North American Confederacy, the first thing he notices is that absolutely everyone there is armed: "More low-slung handguns, dirks, and daggers than in a dozen B-Westerns and Swashbucklers spliced together!" Later in the story, he bursts into a children's birthday party thinking it's where the baddies are, and reflects that he was lucky the kids were all younger than six years old, or else they would have had their own weapons and opened fire!

Thus Smith establishes a link between the right to keep and bear arms and the right to control your own property--for in this future, property is such a sacred concept that people aren't even taxed for anything. And if any of these political ideas sound familiar to you, then you already know that this alternative universe is a capitalist paradise where science has "naturally" made amazing leaps and bounds. (That one inevitably follows the other is a popular objectivist/libertarian dogma.) So the people of the future ride around in hovercrafts that can go hundreds of miles an hour, clone replacements for any lost body parts, and visit any planet in the solar system that they take a fancy to--and that's just a small bit of it!

But for all its fascinating features, this parallel future is only as wonderful as its history. Indeed, I'd say that half the fun of reading this novel is playing "spot the differences." So let's see . . . In the North American Confederacy, George Washington was shot for treason . . . and Thomas Jefferson, who was the fourth president, totally abolished slavery in North America. The first woman president was Harriet Beecher Stowe. But my favourite presidential twist is an obscure bit of history from A.D. 1865/89 A.L.: "John Wilkes Booth is touring the backwoods with an English play, Our North American Cousin, when an obscure Hamiltonian lawyer pops up and shoots him dead." (Bwahahahahaha! Although I'm not sure what poor Booth did to deserve that.)

Predictably, even the geography is different. Chicago is the biggest city in the world--but the state of Illinois doesn't exist. Galveston and San Antonio are still where you'd expect them to be (although the place is not Texas, but "Texico"), while Houston is way up north in what we'd call Alaska. New York City and Washington, D.C. are nowhere to be seen. But my knowledge of US history is so poor that I can only get the most obvious of these jokes.

But is it really that easy? Are political ideas really the bedrock of all human history (and geography)? Now, I like ideas--but I'm not impressed by the demi-god status they seem to have acquired since the Enlightenment. Smith's future utopia, based so soundly on rational political ideals, is fantastic and fun . . . but it ultimately leaves me cold.

Now it's your turn!
Leave the link to your Locus Focus post in the linky
and take some time to check out and comment on those of others.
I can't wait to read what everyone has to say! =D

This Week's Other Locus:

Yann Martel's Island @ Birdie's Nest

Image Source: The Probability Broach: The Graphic Novel by L. Neil Smith and Scott Bieser


Birdie said...

fascinating. Actually, this entry kind of connects with mine on the ideation level. Don't have time for a proper comment now, but I will come back soon!

Enbrethiliel said...


I've just read your locus for this week, Birdie, and would be fascinated to learn how you think it connects with mine! You'd better come back soon! ;-)

love the girls said...

If I'm butting into a private conversation, please just delete me.

"it doesn't matter if you do go back in time and kill an ancestor . . ."

Or you can't kill the ancestor because if he's dead then you can't exist and be able to go back in time to kill him, because the travel back in time is just that, prior in time. Otherwise all time is concurrent.

I liked Whitley Striebers parallel universes.

Belfry Bat said...

I seem to recall reading somewhere something along the lines that one of Henry VIII's later anullment-seeking delegations was detoured somewhere around Lombardy because of bad weather and was thus delayed by some Castillian army also fleeing disease or defeat or victory elsewhere... don't trust me on the details, but it was one of those silly confluences of everything going wrong. Who knows, His Holiness might still have nixed the idea anyways, but... So, no, History is not very democratic.

Enbrethiliel said...


And I've always liked the G.I. Joe cartoon's parallel universe in which Cobra runs the world. I've had it in mind since I decided to write about L. Neil Smith's parallel utopia, because the difference between his universe-hopping hero and the Joes is that some of the latter actually choose to remain in the dystopia.

Anyway, I never really liked the Back to the Future premise that one can change the past to make a better future (Hello? What is the present for?)--but I've always loved the Back to the Future 2 premise that one has a life-and-death obligation to protect the integrity of the past.

(As you can see, LTG, this isn't a private conversation at all--and I wouldn't delete one of your comments even if it were--but I tend to get a bit loopy when it comes to time travel and parallel universes. Forgive me if you don't understand how this is any kind of response to what you have written!)

Enbrethiliel said...


Bat: Oh, you can't imagine that something as incidental as weather would play a part in Smith's story! It's all about ideas--and ideas apparently didn't become a major factor until 1772 (or whatever that year was--sorry, I'm not a US citizen). So if you're going to go by marriages and successions, which are the source of all the drama and anguish in Renaissance England, Smith won't care. He had the universes split during the drafting of the Declaration Independence.

Interestingly . . . if history did split at around that time and England remained Catholic . . . that means we are in the dystopia, doesn't it? And it's always easier to imagine a dystopia than an utopia, so I guess fantasies with a Catolico cerrado England are very hard to come by?

Birdie said...

Ooof. I'm so sorry I left you hanging. Problem is that the "alternate universe" theory and parallelism on the level of ideas is a major spoiler for life of pi. Let me know if you want it "spoiled."

I promise to come back in a much more reasonable amount of time!

Enbrethiliel said...


Well, if you put it that way . . . =P

I guess I can find out for myself when I finally read it. Consider me sufficiently tantalised! ;-)

Belfry Bat said...

I've read Life of Pi --- I even think I remember it rather well --- and for the life of me I can't figure out to what in the book you might be referring, Bird.

Birdie said...

Bat--I'm talking about the reveal at the end, and what the island means in that case. If it only exists in one version of the tale