November 1, 2014
Our book club will be reading The Federalist Papers in the spring. These are of course a collection of essays that originally appeared in newspapers in 1787 and 1788, after the Articles of Confederation had failed, and we were trying to decide whether we wanted a strong central government, as would be created by the newly-devised Constitution, or we would instead allow the individual states to wander off on their own as independent entities or members of confederacies. The American people had had enough of authoritarianism, but the carefully limited government put in place after the Revolution wasn't getting the job done. Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay were among the champions for a strong central government, and they took to putting their reasons in print, writing under the pseudonym Publius. Fortunately, they carried the day.
Madison, starting in Federalist #18, discusses the history of groups of small states that tried to function as confederacies, but never really became united, and consequently failed to survive. His first example provides an intriguing scenario for a science fiction writer who enjoys doing alternate history. The Greeks of the classical era, as we all know, were light-years ahead of the rest of the world in science, mathematics, and philosophy. They had indoor plumbing, democratic governments, and a sense of liberty that would have left them feeling perfectly at home in the Arkansas. But they had one problem, which they never overcame. The Hellenic world was composed of independent city-states that were never able to get together. As Madison adroitly points out, they couldn't cooperate, even where everyone stood to profit. They couldn't unite against foreign enemies, and when those were off stage, they tended to go to war with each other.
Eventually, their weakness was exploited by Rome, and they were absorbed into the Empire. Madison doesn't ask what might have happened had they survived. But it's an interesting question. Imagine a world still dominated in the second century B.C.E. by the Greek thirst for knowledge. By people who already knew the world was round. Who were inventing geometry and delving into math. If the Hellenic world survives, we sidestep the Dark Ages. We probably have a printing press a thousand years before the Chinese showed us how to do it. (That would be about the year One.)
My guess is that we get electricity no later than the fourth century, and land on the moon around 550 C.E. If events actually played out that way, where do we suppose we'd be today? Enjoying lifespans that run into centuries? Living in colonies on worlds orbiting nearby stars? Or maybe gone because we weren't smart enough to initiate controls when we first developed artificial intelligence?
Our first inclination is probably to think that the Greeks were unfortunate not to have Hamilton, Madison, and Jay living among them, to show the way politically. But their arguments probably carried the day, not because they were persuasive writers. The Federalist Papers, in fact, are pretty tough going. But the arguments themselves make sense. And they had a substantial number of historical examples to back up their claims. For all that, we still have people today who try to tell us the government is the problem. They're coming for our guns. Or whatever. But fortunately, in 1787, what the Federalists had to say made enough sense that we went ahead and approved the Constitution.
I can't help thinking that had they been born in the classical worlds, the Federalists could not have saved the Greeks anyhow. They wouldn't have had two and a half millennia of Germans and Dutch and Chinese and a lot of other would-be Confederacies, to hold up as examples. Even imperial Rome, at the height of its power, was consistently trying to get by with multiple emperors, representing different areas of the Empire, whose primary purpose for existence inevitably had to do with making war on one another.
Writing alternate history is a pleasant pastime. My first attempt at the genre, "The Tomb," came as the result of an invitation in 1991 from Marvin Greenberg and Gregory Benford to contribute to the anthology What Might Have Been. "The Tomb" is now posted at the website.
Alex and Chase will be back with the release of Coming Home on November 4.