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The Alternate History of Science

Alternate histories are one of the mainstays of science fiction. They explore the large consequences which may arise from small (or not so small) changes to established history, playing with the unlimited concept of “what if?” Many have focussed on humanity’s martial past - positing different victors in a number of different wars and exploring the logical consequences of such events. However a small subset of alternate histories are notable for the attention they pay to our scientific history, and how it influenced the development of modern culture.

The largest subgenre of alternate history is perhaps Steampunk. While many texts falling under this umbrella are best described as science fantasy, and many are played for comedic effect, the best examples make a serious exploration of the basic premise: what if nineteenth century societies in the UK or elsewhere had made key breakthroughs in technology?

An important feature of most scientific development is that it appears relatively obvious in hindsight: Victorian technology may have been capable of reaching the Moon for example, should that have been deemed a priority [1]. Many other inventions, such as automobiles and powered flight, could also have been made significantly earlier based on knowledge of the time, but had to await key inventors willing to pursue them. There are, of course, exceptions to this. Much of modern technology was made possible by the transistor, the invention of which relied in turn on aspects of quantum physics and manufacturing technology. It is difficult to imagine the confluence of discoveries that would have allowed this to occur any earlier. Thus steampunk rarely posits silicon-chip electronics, but many examples include ingenious mechanical or valve-based alternatives which would indeed have been within the scope of nineteenth century science.

The retrofuturistic technology from Steamboy (2004)The key question explored by most of this genre is how the social mores of the nineteenth century, and in particular the imperialism of the time, would manifest in, or themselves shape, a more technologically-advanced society. Would the consequences lead to a more enlightened age of empire, or would the oppression of indigenous peoples and conflict between nations actually be worsened by the advent of power without moral maturity? In some texts this question is reversed - the steampunk scenario is used to question whether we really are any more moral or mature than our predecessors. While the genre is primarily aimed at having fun - as illustrated by the steampunk conventions where biscuit-dunking in tea is a competitive sport - at its best it challenges our perceptions of how science and technology interact with society and how scientific ethics are shaped by wider culture.

The book cover of Space Captain Smith by Toby Frost

Notable examples of steampunk include the anime films Laputa - Castle in the Sky (Studio Ghibli, 1986) and Steamboy (dir. Otomo, 2004), the influential novel The Difference Engine (Gibson & Stirling, 1990), the Burton & Swinburne novels (2010-2015) of Mark Hodder, and the comedic space opera series starting with Space Captain Smith (2008, sequels 2009-2017) by Toby Frost, amongst many others. While some of these embrace the opportunity to describe the technology, others focus on the imperialism and social context of the genre (as satirised on the cover of Space Captain Smith, see image). Steampunk versions of more traditional science fiction franchises such as Battlestar Galactica and Transformers have also been published in comic form, while other examples build on previous fiction - Scarlet Traces (Eddington & D'Israeli 2002), for example, is a graphic novel series which explores the impact on Edwardian Britain of retroengineering the technology left behind by the Martians in H G Wells' War of the Worlds (1897).

Examples of the same retro-futurism motifs moved a little later into the twentieth century can be found in the movie Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow (dir. Conran, 2004) and even the Captain America movie franchise (Marvel, 2011-onwards), which imagines advanced technology deployed during World War II. An honorable mention here should also go to the 2008 Doctor Who Christmas Special “The Next Doctor” in which stranded alien Cybermen, rather than human inventors, are forced to adapt contemporary technology to meet their goals, resulting in a magnificent steam-powered CyberKing striding across London.

In fact, Doctor Who, as a long-running television series predicated on time travel technology, is perhaps the science fiction text which provides the most examples of interventions into our scientific and technological past. As well as embracing the steampunk aesthetic in its more recent series, there are a number of examples of the Doctor or their companions encountering notable scientists of the past. Instances seen on screen include encounters with George Stephenson, Einstein, Charles Babbage, Ada Lovelace, Thomas Edison and Nikolai Tesla - each of which help shape the inventors’ life experience and are implied to contribute to their inspiration (with the final four all appearing within a single series of the Thirteenth Doctor’s tenure). George Stephenson's appearance in the serial "The Mark of the Rani" (1985, see image below) is also notable for focussing on the social and political context of the Industrial Revolution and name-checking a large number of other leading scientists and engineers. Other episodes include numerous passing comments which imply that the Doctor met, inspired and occasionally taught other scientists such as da Vinci, Heisenberg and others. If the extended Doctor Who universe, including myriad novels, comics, audio dramas and games, is considered, there is scarcely a well known scientist or alchemist in human history that the Doctor is not said to have influenced.

George Stephenson (Gawn Grainger) meets the Doctor and Peri in Mark of the RaniWhile in most cases these throwaway references are included for comic effect or to add to the Doctor’s air of alien authority, their cumulative effect is somewhat problematic. One possible reading is that human scientists are incapable of any great discovery without alien intervention. Earlier incarnations of the Doctors in the 1970s and 80s may well have supported such a view, with the third and fourth Doctors in particular expressing a frequent arrogant disregard for human science. In all fairness, recent Doctors have been more effusive in their praise of human creativity, and so might well challenge the alien intervention interpretation of scientific history. Nonetheless, their continual visits to the scientific past have the same not-always-benign effect.

Such alien-intervention literature risks marginalising the true story of scientific creativity. Discovery and technology in the real world is a product of its own deep history and cultural context, as well as the genius of individuals; indeed Isaac Newton himself commented that: “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants”.

The book cover of McAuley's Pasquale's Angel.Amongst the Doctor’s historical contacts, it is perhaps Leonardo da Vinci who has attracted most interest in other science fiction. The artists’ inventions included a number of devices which had the potential to create widespread technical and sociological change. These were either not pursued by Leonardo or beyond the technical abilities and material science of the time to construct. Minor shifts in the timeline - either by allowing devices to be manufactured or by positioning Leonardo himself as a time traveller with advanced knowledge - can thus lead to interesting scenarios which explore the impact of science on Renaissance Europe. An example of a book exploring this concept is Paul McAuley's Pasquale’s Angel (1994). As becomes gradually clear, the pivotal moment in this history was a coup in which Lorenzo de Medici was killed (rather than merely injured as in our reality) twenty years before the novel is set, changing the political and cultural milieu of Renaissance Florence. As a result, Leonardo focussed on engineering rather than his art, and a centuries-early industrial revolution resulting from his inventions, together with their potential for future change, provides the setting for a murder mystery investigation.

Even when not permitting da Vinci to change established history, SF has occasionally also looked at "rediscovery" of his inventions to be constructed in the present. A fun, albeit not entirely serious, example here is Blackadder: Back & Forth (1999, produced for showing in the Millennium Dome) in which a time machine constructed to a da Vinci design unexpectedly proves successful! An alternative approach is to assert that Leonardo himself was an alien (again rather undermining the acknowledgement of human potential). This premise appears in sources as varied as the classic series of Star Trek ("Requiem for Methusaleh" 1969) and cartoon Futurama ("The Duh-Vinci Code" 2010).

An alternative to advancing historical scientific discovery in the early-modern period or later is sometimes seen in alternate history which diverges from our own before the Renaissance. A popular trope here is changes to the survival of Imperial Rome or similar civilisations which have left imprints to the current time. For example, given the role of the medieval Roman Church in shaping early scientists, changing Roman history has the potential to lead to a world in which scientific method as we know it was never developed - this occurs is Poul Anderson’s novella “Delenda Est”, in which Rome loses the second Punic War before christianity is established, significantly changing the history of medieval Europe. Delenda Est is one of Anderson’s Time Patrol series and thus also represents the inevitable complementary trope of time police: agents specifically tasked with negating the interference of travellers straying outside their own epoch [2].

A young Peter Duncan, as Roman Briton Cotus, inspects a steam apparatus in A Rift in Time (1974)However that’s not to say that the Romans never get their technological apotheosis in science fiction. A personal favourite of mine is the introduction of steam-powered technology to first century Roman Britain in the children’s science fiction television series The Tomorrow People (1973-1979). In “A Rift in Time” (1974), a time traveller accidentally leaves behind an understanding of steam power in the form of abandoned equipment and ideas in the mind of a young slave. Having already demonstrated the feasibility of its application in a device constructed from contemporary materials (see image), this introduces the breakthrough fifteen centuries early. Returning to the twentieth century, the protagonists discover a Roman Imperium that extends to the Moon and beyond, built on that early technological insight. Indeed the Romans of this timeline reached the Moon in the fifth Century... but retained Roman values and the institution of slavery. Restoring the original timeline poses the moral dilemma of what to do about the enslaved child, while also neatly illustrating the butterfly effect - the potential of very small changes to grow over time into world-shaking events.

The Water Commanding Engine deployed at Raglan Castle in the 17th CenturyFinally, an interesting example of time-travel science fiction used to communicate and explore the history of science can be found in the Jodi Taylor short story “The Steam Pump Jump”. Here, the characters (a somewhat ramshackle bunch of historians, security agents, and technical researchers from St Mary’s Institute for Historical Research) visit Raglan Castle in 1641 to witness the public demonstration of the first steam-powered “Water Commanding Engine”. - a little remembered but highly significant event in the early stages of the Industrial Revolution. The setting provides opportunities for comedy and character development, but also introduce this technical innovation to an audience for whom it was a long-forgotten curiosity. In this case the characters manage to avoid distorting history, making this a time travel rather than alternate history story, but the potential for introducing anachronism is a running theme in the series.
(Image: The Raglan Castle steam pump, source: wikisource)

As this, and the other examples mentioned above, demonstrates, Science fiction can provide a valuable tool to inform and educate audiences about the history of science. However this is not without risks. At its worst, alternate history fiction can give the impression that every human innovation of the past was the result of alien intervention or the actions of future time travellers, denying our predecessors the volition and respect they are entitled to. But at its best, the same fiction can encourage us to study the cultures and individuals that gave rise to those innovations, and to critically evaluate our own culture by comparison. Perhaps it’s a risk worth taking.

"The Alternate History of Science", Elizabeth Stanway, Cosmic Stories blog, 5th September 2021.


[1] Perhaps not with any degree of safety, but that is a whole other matter. The biggest problem facing nineteenth century spaceflight was development of a launch vehicle, but the principle underlying rocket propulsion was already well understood and used in fireworks and missiles by this point. A fun example of a Victorian Royal Navy excursion to the Earth’s satellite can be found in the Doctor Who novel “Imperial Moon” (Bullis 2000). Doctor Who Victorians also made a Steampunk-esque visit to another planet in “Empress of Mars” (2017). In both cases the launch or transport mechanism was provided by alien technology. [Back to text]

[2] “Delenda Est” was printed with other stories featuring the same intervention agent in Anderson’s Guardians of Time. Other examples of timeline policing or other deliberate manipulation by a trans-temporal organisation can be found in novels including The Society of Time by John Brunner and Asimov’s The End of Eternity, on television in Doctor Who’s Celestial Intervention Agency and The Tomorrow People’s Time Guardians, and in movies such as Timestalkers (1987), Timecop (1994) and The Adjustment Bureau (2011) - the last of which was based on a Philip K Dick short story. Time Police also feature heavily in Jodi Taylor’s comedo-dramatic time travel novel series The Chronicles of St Mary’s. [Back to text]