Review: “Crossroads of Destiny”, H. Beam Piper, 1959.
It’s another alternate history from Piper though not set in his Paratime series. Like Alfred Bester’s “Of Time and Third Avenue”, this story hinges on a numismatic matter. Piper’s story appeared in the July 1959 issue of Fantastic Universe Science Fiction. Bester’s story was published in 1951.
The narrator is a history professor. He goes to a “club-car” on a train where there are five men seated. There is a Staff Intelligence Army colonel. There’s a sandy haired man about the narrator’s own age and an elderly man who is either a banker or lawyer. Next to him is a plump and “slightly too well groomed” man. Separated from the group is a man reading a book though he seems to be listening to the conversation.
The conversation starts with the colonel putting forth an alternate history premise: what if Columbus had been financed by Henry VII of England (whom Columbus really did approach before Ferdinand and Isabella for money in our history)? This immediately gets the attention of the narrator. His specialty is history from 1492 to the American Revolution.
The plump man says that “would work”. He’ll give it to the “planning staff when I get to New York”. The narrator asks the sandy haired man if someone invented a time machine.
No, he’s told, the plump guy is planning a tv show, Crossroads of Destiny. Each half hour episode will show how an historical event could have happened otherwise. In the Columbus scenario, the plump man says maybe the ending could have sailors singing “God Save the King”. That was not, the narrator notes, composed until 1745.
The lawyer/banker asks how long the show is expected to last. “The crossroads will give out before long,” says the lawyer/banker. The narrator says sponsorship will give out before the list of possible scenarios.
Why, since the beginning of the century, we’ve had enough of them to keep the show running for a year.
The tv guy says they have 20 shows written with at least that many in the planning stage. The lawyer/banker asks why he thinks history can be changed.
. . . it seems to me that everything would work out the same in the long run. There’d be some differences at the time, but over the years wouldn’t they all cancel out?
At this, the man with the book suddenly says, joining the conversation, “Non, non, Monsieur! . . . Make no mistake; ’istoree can be shange’!”
The narrator takes a closer look at the man. He notes that he doesn’t look like he bought his clothes in this country. He’s also reading
Lingmuir’s Social History of the American People – not one of my favorites, a bit much on the doctrinaire side, but what a bookstore clerk would give a foreigner looking for something to explain America.
The lawyer/banker asks the narrator (seemingly he knows he’s a professor) what he thinks. The narrator, in a paragraph, argues that small changes would accumulate over time to produce big changes in history.
The colonel agrees that any changes from the Columbus scenario accumulate over centuries would be great and you would probably be too conservative in imagining them.
The sandy haired guy tells the tv guy he doesn’t realize what a great idea he has if he didn’t “ruin it with such timid and unimaginative treatment.”
The exchange that follows well-encapsulates my criticism of many an alternate history short story:
’Misplaced emphasis. You shouldn’t emphasize the event that could have changed history; you should emphasize the changes that could have been made. You’re going to end this show you were talking about with a shot of Columbus wading up to the beach with an English flag, aren’t you?’
‘Well, that’s the logical ending.’
‘That’s the logical beginning,’ the sandy-haired man contradicted. ‘And after that, your guest historian comes on; how much time will he be allowed?’
The tv guy says an historian will come on and talk for three or four minutes after each episode to explain the real history so kids aren’t confused. The tv guy concedes the sandy haired guy’s objection, but how would they dramatize such changes?
The sandy haired guy suggests a plot format concentrating on fictional characters and set in contemporary times – but a present altered from real history. (The professor is curious as to whom this member of the unwashed public is. He brings up some valid points, and Piper probably pondered this dramatic problem for his Paratime series.) The conflict will grow out of the alternate timeline and be impossible in ours. Justify the play as occurring in a “world of alternate probability”.
The tv guy is confused by sandy haired guy’s talk of an “alternate-probability”.
The colonel explains you can think of time as the fourth dimension in terms and then gives an explanation:
Now, suppose the entire, infinite extent of Time-A is only an instant in another dimension of time, which we’ll call Time-B. The next instant of Time-B is also the entire extent of Time-A, and the next and the next. As in Time-A, different things are happening at different instants. In one of these instants of Time-B, one of the things that’s happening is that King Henry the Seventh of England is furnishing ships to Christopher Columbus.
The man with the book wants to know about this theory:
Zees—’ ow you say— zees alternate probabeelitay; eet ees a theory zhenerally accept’ een zees countree?
The sandy haired guy interrupts with his proposed 25 second intro to each episode.
The foreign guy with the book wants to know about alternate probability theory, and the colonel gives a summary. When asked if he personally believes it, the colonel says he doesn’t disbelieve.
The sandy haired guy gives a summary of Fortean events Piper was interested in:
Things have been said to have happened that might, if true, be cases of things leaking through from another time world . . . Or leaking away to another time world.’ He mentioned a few of the more famous cases of unexplained mysteries— the English diplomat in Prussia who vanished in plain sight of a number of people, the ship found completely deserted by her crew, the lifeboats all in place; stories like that. ‘And there’s this rash of alleged sightings of unidentified flying objects. I’d sooner believe that they came from another dimension than from another planet. But, as far as I know, nobody’s seriously advanced this other-time-dimension theory to explain them.
The Prussian in question is, incidentally, the subject of Piper’s “He Walked Around the Horses”.
Another scenario is introduced by the man with the book: the Civil War starting during the “Jackson Administration”. Just then the porter comes in and announces they will be stopping at Harrisburg (thus the story is, like many Piper stories, set in his home state of Pennsylvania). The man with the book hurriedly finishes his drink and puts some money down. He tells them how much he enjoyed the conversation before he leaves.
The remaining men discuss him. The tv guy comments on his suit. It was a tailored suit, says the Colonel, though he doesn’t know any country where suits are cut like that. (Suits were a fixation of Piper’s). Then there’s his accent. The tv guy thinks it was phony. The colonel doesn’t think so:
The pronunciation was all right for French accent, but the cadence, the way the word-sounds were strung together, was German.
The tv guy asks if he was a foreign agent. The colonel doesn’t think so. Such an agent would try very hard to look and sound normal.
The porter comes in to ask if they know the guy who got off. He shows them a dollar bill he left. It’s odd looking. One side is gray and one side green. The picture is wrong as well as a bunch of other things. It’s not even an attempt at a counterfeit bill.
The narrator buys the bill for two dollars and goes back to his car and looks at it. Now the narrator knows why the man with the book was so interested in the discussion of “alternate probability”.
The man’s suit struck him as something a “less formal and conservative society”, which we might become in 30 years, would produce. He had looked curiously at the porter and the waiter, both Chinese, as if he wasn’t used to seeing that race. And what to make of his remark about the Jackson Administration? He can’t mean “the Tennessee militia general who got us into war with Spain in 1810”. And a “Civil War”? What, a class or sectional struggle. The man is going to be surprised when he reads more of Lingmuir’s book.
The bill is not quite the size of ours. He wonders where the guy got the money for a train fare? Sell a diamond? Rob someone? He was no doubt reading the book to learn more about world he found himself in. He has the narrator’s sympathy.
The bill says
United States Department of Treasury itself, not the United States Bank or one of the State Banks. I’d have to think over the implications of that carefully. In the second place, it was a silver certificate; why, in this other United States, silver must be an acceptable monetary metal; maybe equally so with gold, though I could hardly believe that.
Like regular dollar bills, the bill has a picture of Washington, but it’s a portrait of an older man, not the General who died at the Battle of Germantown in 1777, shot dead by English sniper Patrick Ferguson, the man that invented breech-loading rifles that “smashed Napoleon’s armies”. In this alternate timeline, Washington survived to become President just like the other man pictured on the narrator’s dollar bills: General Benedict Arnold.
It’s a clever alternate history with Piper setting his story in an alternate timeline not our own and without an American Civil War and also giving us a second alternate timeline.
He also takes a scenario I’ve only seen mentioned in military histories, especially of snipers: the possibility of Washington killed by Ferguson. But I’ve never seen another fictional alternate history use that hinge point before. And Piper, subtly, adheres, at least a bit, to the criteria that an alternate history should talk about the effects of an historical moment changing and not just cover the moment.