Monday, February 1, 2016

Editorial: Why the Butterfly Effect is Impossible to Write About

The other day, I saw an article on Mitro's Alternate History Weekly Update about the Butterfly Effect, which is basically that something as small as a butterfly flapping it's wings in Mongolia could cause hurricanes in the Caribbean, to show how a small effect could have massive repercussions down the road. In AH, it's usually done to show that a time traveler going back in time, step on a butterfly in the Jurassic Period will result in a present (to the time travel) totally and inconceivably different from what he was used to. Because the butterfly died, instead of being eaten or dying somewhere else, totally changes the future.

To be frankly honest, I think it's a total pile of... well you get the picture.

Theoretically, it would make sense, I guess (baring in mind that a huge meteor would almost undoubtably would still hit the earth and wipe out the Dinosaurs, so wiping the slate clean). However, the thing about the Butterfly Theory that I don't like as a writer is the fact that it's impossible to totally comprehend the changes that could happen, and therefore it can never be done right.

Example: If a time traveler did go back in time, stepped on a butterfly, and begin the whole cascade of events to make the future different, it would possibly mean that humanity evolved completely differently: language, philosophy, understanding of nature, science, Religion, nationality, races (if either exist). But no one single person, or even a team of people, could comprehend the full change that would occur. And when a writer tries to put that into thought, the only way they can do that is to write it in what the readers comprehend, which is the modern world that they live in, which totally negates the effects of a butterfly effect.

Anyway. When I look at alternate history, I prefer a different metaphor, the "pebble in the pond." You throw one in, and the ripples go outward. In most cases, a simple pebble will a large ripple outwards, but eventually it settles down again. Any fish in the water may be scared away by the pebble, and swim in a different pattern than they originally where, but they are still there, mostly the same, if just in different spots. Of course, you can throw a bigger pebble in, and the ripples would be bigger, at first, but then it calms down again. Then you can throw in a boulder, splash all the water out, and call it a nuclear war. I dunno, the analogy is starting to break down.

Either way, I guess the thing I'm trying to say is that when you write alternate history to be read by other people, it needs to have some connection to the people who want to read it. That's why I personally am not opposed to keeping people who are in OTL in an Alternate History, because it provides a basis point to let people connect with the world you created, and also to show exactly how much things are different. Winston Churchill as a leader of an underground British Resistance? Abraham Lincoln as the founder of a fascist state? Prime Minister Donald Trump?

What I've always been more concerned about with Alt History is plausibility and making sure the story makes the most sense when it's looked at as part of a larger timeline. When you write a TL to be enjoyed by other's, storytelling also comes into effect, and sometimes making a good story is better than making things weird and different for alternate history. And of course, "Rule of Cool" and all that.

I don't totally support the Butterfly Theory, at least at it's most extreme. But I understand that things can and will change in Alternate History. I just don't support changing every single little thing just to prove you are making an alternate history. There are so many other ways to do it, some with just bringing up people who are famous in our history, with some changes to names, manners and/or role in history. Because, well, sometimes Hitler needs a break.

Hah, who am I kidding. He'd still be a dick.

But what do you think? Should the butterflies have prevented this article from being written? Or if you have a topic or idea you would like me to talk about, please leave comments below, email me at, or tell me on Twitter @tbguy1992.


  1. "Prime Minister Donald Trump?"

    That reminds me of a photo of then-governor Rick Perry welcoming President Obama to Texas and somebody on Twitter added the caption, "Texan President Rick Perry Welcomes UK Prime Minister Barack Obama." Fun stuff.

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