Alternate history and the butterfly of doom

A butterfly in the Amazon jungle makes that little extra flutter of its wings and a few weeks later there’s a storm or even a hurricane in the Caribbean that wrecks cities. That’s a little crudely put, but this is the idea behind Edward Lorenz’s chaos theory. In reality, the butterfly’s flapping wing is just as likely to prevent that storm with an equal number of changes both ways. The random nature of the ‘butterfly effect’ makes it impossible to predict which way at any given time.

This equalising idea is a bit boring, so writers tend to opt for the doom scenario, ladling all sorts of dreadful consequences over the butterfly’s head. Closely related is the ‘For the want of a nail’ theory when one tiny missing thing leads to world-changing events. And they’re always bad ones. Erik Durschmied’s The Hinge Factor – How Chance and Stupidity Have Changed History illustrates this point perfectly.

In alternate history, writers can play with these types of ideas to introduce a point of divergence to bring about full-blown complex political, economic and social change. In Ray Bradbury’s A Sound of Thunder, a butterfly is crushed in the time of the dinosaurs by a time-traveller which has the consequence in the ‘present’ of electing a fascist leader instead of  a moderate one.  Alternatively, in a film like Sliding Doors, dealing with a purely personal story, missing a train splits the heroine’s life into two possible timelines, one transforming and the other fatal.

If you’re fascinated by the butterfly of doom as a story device visit TV Tropes.

In our timelime, or OTL as alternate historians abbreviate it, the  poor Red Admiral is known as the butterfly of doom. Writer and lepidopterist, Vladimir Nabokov, mentioned it in his work. The Red Admiral was especially abundant in Russia in one year in the late 19th century; the markings on the underside of its two hind wings seem to read ’1881′. That year, the Russian Tsar Alexander II was assassinated.

Everybody has potential points of divergence in their lives when they make choices. But the butterfly, or missing nail, can make those choices for you.


Alison Morton is the author of Roma Nova thrillers –  INCEPTIO, CARINA (novella), PERFIDITAS, SUCCESSIO,  AURELIA, NEXUS (novella), INSURRECTIO  and RETALIO,  and ROMA NOVA EXTRA, a collection of short stories.  Audiobooks are available for four of the series. Double Identity, a contemporary conspiracy, starts a new series of thrillers. JULIA PRIMA, a new Roma Nova story set in the late 4th century, is now out.

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