I am a bit of a sucker for “what if” alternate histories Perhaps this is why I love Harry Turtledove’s World War/Colonisation (lizard race sends a probe to mediaeval earth but leave it a few centuries before invasion, landing bang in the middle of WWII!) and Great War/Settling Accounts (Confederates win the civil war so two there is the USA and CSA which fight on opposing sides in WWI and WWII) , series and the Changing the Times website. I must get hold of the current issue of Focus, a popular science magazine, which sets out a fascinating series of counterfactual scenarios. Today’s Independent sets out a few of these scenarios, including these:
1348: The Black Death is averted
In the 14th century, the Black Death came out of the heart of Asia. It affected all of Europe within a few years. In cities such as London, half the population died. It was monstrous, but the plague had first appeared in Europe in Roman times, so populations had some resistance. In all, just (just!) a third of Europeans were killed by the Black Death. Compare that to 95 per cent of native North Americans killed during the European conquests by measles, smallpox and plague - diseases to which they had no prior exposure. But could the Black Death have been averted? Arabic doctors had an understanding of hygiene, for example, far in advance of western European medicine. What if the Death had been stopped or diluted?
In the emptied world after the Death, the feudal systems came under strain. Suddenly there were too few folk to do the work; a bad lord could not keep employees. Prices changed as the population drop meant there was more than enough food. There were revolts as the rulers tried to regain control. The relationship of rulers to ruled was transformed, and the slow opening-up of the medieval world began. Our modern freedoms came out of the vast charnel house that was the Black Death.
1962: The Cuban missile crisis blows up
In October 1962, the Cold War almost got very hot indeed. The Soviet Union was losing the arms race. The Russians had an overwhelming number of troops in central Europe but only 300 unreliable long-range missiles. The US had 5,000 nuclear weapons it could have deployed against Soviet targets. Premier Khrushchev saw that if he could plant bases for short-range missiles on the island of Cuba, where there was a friendly Communist government, he could even up the playing field at a stroke. Saturday 27 October, 'Black Saturday', was the most dangerous time of all. An American spy plane was shot down by the Cubans and the US Navy forced a Russian submarine to the surface. Communications were poor and there was a danger of soldiers on the ground opening fire on their own initiative. World war was a gunshot away.
What if that fateful trigger had been pulled? The bombs would have fallen on Sunday 28 October 1962, at 8am in Britain - 3am in Washington - the most difficult time to respond. The first targets would have been military. Civilian, economic and industrial targets - the cities - would have been next. By mid-November Britain would be dark and cold. Epidemics of cholera, typhoid and dysentery would hit.
Reconstruction, rescue and corpse disposal would be attempted, with the workers paid in food. Looters would be shot. December would have seen the peak of deaths from radiation sickness. In all, between 17 and 38 million in Britain would die from the blast, the fallout or the cold. By 1967, between four and eight million people would have been scraping for survival.