Thursday, March 13, 2008

The Big What If

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The Big What If?: Giving Alternate History a Fair Shake

By Ian Williams

Last year, the Library of America published four novels by the late Philip K. Dick, marking his apotheosis from a writer of science-fiction novels, many of them originally published in pulp paperbacks with lurid covers, into an honored presence in the nation’s literary canon. One of the works thus commemorated is The Man in the High Castle (1962), an outstanding example of the alternate-history genre. Dick, whose enthusiasm for mood-altering pharmaceuticals somewhat challenged his own grasp of the universe, posits an alternative universe in which Frank Frink, a Jewish jewelry maker, lives in a San Francisco that, like the rest of the West Coast, has been occupied by the Japanese after World War II ended in 1945. Dick’s version of America is of a country fractured: a quasi-independent Midwest and a puppet southern Confederacy separate the Japanese West Coast from the Nazi-occupied Atlantic states. In the universe Frink inhabits, the point of historical divergence occurs when the assassination of Franklin D. Roosevelt leaves the United States economically and militarily weak in the face of the Axis assault, opening the door for foreign occupiers.

Even stranger is how many of the characters in this story are themselves reading an alternate-history novel, The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, in which the Allies did win the war. However, in Dick’s characteristically complex, recursive fashion, Grasshopper does not depict our world, but an entirely different one in which the British played a much larger role. This double divergence from the historical record as we know it underscores a fundamental trope of the genre and highlights Dick’s ability to elicit nuanced questions about what we consider to be reality. Dick’s novel, an exemplar of the genre, does a fine job of showing us the world as reflected in a funhouse mirror: it forces us to consider the history we know—or think we know—so well.

• • • • •

All fiction generally explores these questions: If a person or group of people were put in this situation, how would they behave? What would the result be for them? It is the job of the author to run his characters, real or invented, through imagined scenarios—and these scenarios must have enough connections to the world the reader knows to make the novel comprehensible and give it resonance. Even the wildest fantasy or science-fiction novel, taking place in a galaxy far, far away, is forged from very human elements. Closer to alternate history is the historical novel. Like alternate history, the historical novel centers on historical or fictional characters. However, the latter tells a story set in the historical past as understood by contemporary culture and drawn from historical research.

Combining the best of fantasy, science fiction, and historical fiction, alternate history brings a reader back in time to show the exact moments when specific events or individual decisions—even seemingly inconsequential ones—create a familiar, yet alternate, reality. And it is in the tension between what we know has come to pass and what the author offers us as a possibility that alternate history challenges our presuppositions about what victory or destiny—usually defined by the free and affluent—really mean.

But this genre doesn’t only belong to writers of fiction. Writers and historians have been asking what if? questions for a long time. The Roman historian Livy allowed himself an “enjoyable excursion” when he asked, “What would have been the results for Rome if she had been engaged in war with Alexander?” Many critics have taken umbrage at Livy’s flight of fancy, but not as many have quibbled with his patriotic answer—that the otherwise undefeated Alexander the Great would have lost. According to Livy’s History of Rome,

The aspect of Italy would have struck [Alexander the Great] as very different from the India which he traversed in drunken revelry with an intoxicated army; he would have seen in the passes of Apulia and the mountains of Lucania the traces of the recent disaster which befell his house when his uncle Alexander, King of Epirus, perished.

While Livy’s postulation is purely hypothetical (and some would say boastful), this prototype speaks to one of the central issues facing the alternate-history genre today: plausibility. If Livy had gone on to create an alternative account of the career of Alexander the Great, he would have certainly had to explain convincingly why the Macedonian predator had decided to attack Rome rather than Persia. Harry Turtledove, one of today’s masters of alternate history, dismisses Livy’s assessment of who would have won. He suggests that, for an alternate history to work, “the change has to be plausible, something interesting must spring from it, and (not quite so crucial) the audience must have some interest in it.”

Turtledove is outstanding in the genre not only because of his amazing productivity, but because his historical expertise reaches from World War II all the way back to the Byzantine Empire. He began as a historical scholar; his first—and least popular—book was a translation of the Chronicle of Theophanes (1982). Turtledove’s fascination with his original field of study eventually led to the Videssos series based in an “alternative” Byzantine Empire of that name. In the same way that C. S. Forester and Patrick O’Brien mined Royal Navy chronicles for the exploits of Captains Hornblower and Aubrey, Turtledove recycled the minutiae of late Roman and Byzantine history in his fictional series.

Of course, one might wonder whether the average reader knows enough about the Byzantine Empire to tell if Turtledove is spot on with his plot and characters. Does one need a PhD in a given subject to get at the heart of an alternate history? Not according to Turtledove. He claims that he is able to attract a readership from science fiction and fantasy followers who are unlikely to have taken interest in historical novels set in ancient Byzantium by setting his narratives in analogous empires like Videssos: no prior knowledge of history required.

• • • • •

Many authors in the alternate history genre, including Turtledove, trace their inspiration back to the time travel/alternate-history novel, Lest Darkness Fall (1941) by L. Sprague de Camp. De Camp’s novel follows an American, Martin Padway, who returns to Ostrogothic Italy just as the Roman emperor Justinian, now based in Constantinople, is trying to reclaim it. In a more serious recasting of Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (1889), Padway, marooned in time, uses his knowledge to protect and enrich himself; because he knows the historical significance of innovations like printing, distillation, and double-entry bookkeeping, he is able to alter history even as he lives it.

And, following de Camp’s model, many of today’s alternate-history novels repeat the same pattern: introduce a slight change at a pivotal point—the untimely death of a military commander, for example—and watch how events unfold and build upon each other. That iterative patter is best summed up by a rhyme credited to British poet George Herbert more than four hundred years ago:

For want of a nail the shoe was lost.

For want of a shoe the horse was lost.

For want of a horse the rider was lost.

For want of a rider the battle was lost.

For want of a battle the kingdom was lost.

And all for the want of a horseshoe nail.

Drawing inspiration from this rhyme, Robert Sobel penned the Pulizer Prize-winning For Want of a Nail: If Burgoyne Had Won at Saratoga (1973). Sobel rewrote the history of the American Revolution on the premise that British General John Burgoyne won the Battle of Saratoga in 1777, and, as a result, the rebellious colonies remained a part of the British Empire. Instead of depicting the life stories of individual fictional characters, Sobel offers a unique contribution to the alternate-history genre: an undergraduate-level history textbook—complete with bibliography—that covers the last two centuries of North America under British rule. While For Want of a Nail has been praised as one of the seminal works in the alternate-history genre, many historians dismiss the book as mere science fiction.

As Sobel’s work demonstrates, it tends to be a particular battle that serves as a point of divergence for alternate-history writers (on the uncertainty of victory we would do well to remember the Duke of Wellington’s description of his trouncing of Napoleon at Waterloo: “A damned nice thing . . . the nearest run thing you ever saw in your life.”) In the case of the Battle of Saratoga, had British commander William Howe stuck with the plan and marched north from New York to rendezvous with Burgoyne instead of south to take Philadelphia, that choice could have changed history. It is understandable why battles are often the focus of the genre: They are noisy, well-chronicled events that memorably frame and punctuate the flow of history as taught and studied in schools, and military historians—both amateur and professional—practice war-gaming in which they test alternative outcomes and strategies.

Sir Edward Creasy, in his preface to The Fifteen Decisive Battles of the World (1851), defended this preoccupation with great battles:

For a writer, therefore, of the present day to choose battles for his favourite topic, merely because they were battles, merely because so many myriads of troops were arrayed in them, and so many hundreds or thousands of human beings stabbed, hewed, or shot each other to death during them, would argue strange weakness or depravity of mind. Yet it cannot be denied that a fearful and wonderful interest is attached to these scenes of carnage. There is undeniable greatness in the disciplined courage, and in the love of honor, which make the combatants confront agony and destruction.

But for many writers and readers alike, it’s the spectacle of blood and gore that fascinates them. At the time, Creasy could safely ignore events in East and South Asia because in the high Victorian age of globalization during which he wrote, history was something that the West inflicted on the rest of the world. And it is in the “disciplined courage” and “love of honor” that we find Creasy’s references to the ancient Greeks, just as history in general reflects a Western and classical bias.

So it comes as no surprise to find a heavy Victorian influence on the alternate-history genre. The American Revolution—rewritten with the colonial rebels defeated or at least forced to negotiate an acceptable and durable compromise—is a trope that perhaps plays to nostalgic, Kiplingesque attempts to hold the British Empire together. In The Two Georges: The Novel of an Alternate America (1996), another one of these alternative scenarios, coauthored by Turtledove and actor Richard Dreyfuss, all of contemporary North America exists as a united British dominion, thanks to a reconciliation worked out between George Washington and King George III. Turtledove says, “It was inspired by Dreyfuss’s intense interest in alternate history—and by his notions about what might have been had America all remained in the Empire. He thought the world would be a better place had America stayed in. I just thought it would have been a different place!”

While many alternate historians share that bias toward “Western civilization,” there are also several who counter the lazy ethnocentrism that accepts the present triumph of the West as preordained. For example, in The Years of Rice and Salt (2002), Kim Stanley Robinson imagines a world in which Western Europeans prove uniquely susceptible to bubonic plague, and Mongols and Muslims move in to fill the gap. Asia’s emergence as a global power in the twenty-first century may well inspire more examples of this kind.

• • • • •

While Byzantine or colonial history may attract some to the alternate-history genre, the American Civil War stands as arguably the mother of all armchairhistory obsessions—and the single biggest attraction for readers and writers of alternate history. The Civil War was the first modern war, and its consequences live on in contemporary American politics and society; it is a chapter of our history that resists oblivion. Its campaigns and personalities are endlessly revisited in both fact and fiction. Enthusiasts from across the nation annually don costumes and pick up rifles to reenact its critical battles: Bull Run, Antietam, Vicksburg. “If I’m writing on the Byzantine period,” Turtledove confesses, “I can be confident I know more about it than my readers. For the Civil War, I really have to get it right; there are lots of detail people. The upside is that your target audience has the background you need.”

And of all the gruesome spectacles of the Civil War, the bloodbath of Gettysburg attracts the most attention from writers of alternate history, most notably Winston Churchill, who authored If Lee Had Not Won the Battle of Gettysburg (1930), and Newt Gingrich and William Forstchen, who co-authored Gettysburg (2003), Grant Comes East (2004), and Never Call Retreat (2005). Ward Moore, whose Bring the Jubilee (1953) provided inspiration for Dick’s The Man in the High Castle, can also be counted among the ranks. Moore’s novel depicts a defeated and humiliated North suffering under the yoke of a resurgent and industrialized South, theorizing that a Union loss at Gettysburg would have ensured the North’s ultimate defeat.

Even though several of these writers admit to the implausibility of their premise, conceding that the North had the economic and military means to survive regardless of a defeat at Gettysburg, one still detects in their works a lingering sentimentalism for the Southern cause. Alternate histories of the Civil War ask readers to surmise that Southern victory was every bit as possible as Northern victory, and that only a few critical battles could have changed the outcome. In this light, it may be appropriate to place these fictional works in the same tradition as the film The Birth of a Nation (1915) and the novel Gone with the Wind (1936), both of which romanticize the Confederate cause and construe the South as a “noble loser.”

Kevin Willmott’s 2004 “mockumentary” C. S. A: The Confederate States of America stands this sentimentalist tradition on its head. In Willmott’s film, Confederate Secretary of State Judah P. Benjamin goes to Europe and successfully persuades Britain and France to join actively with the Confederate cause. The North is defeated, and the slave market is mainstreamed into the Northern economy. The specific consequences of such an outcome are shockingly and imaginatively depicted. Commodities such as Aunt Jemima pancakes, Uncle Ben rice, and Darkie toothpaste flourish a century after the war’s end. Wilmott pastiches W. D. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation, showing the full racist overtones, including a vignette of the capture of Abraham Lincoln disguised as black, and adding TV home-shopping-network sales of slaves and live reality shows in which escaped slaves are hunted down by the law.

“The romanticizing of the Confederate loss was one of my big targets,” said Willmott in a recent interview. He argues that

it has been one of the ways to remove people from the pain of slavery and the whole idea of the film was to put slavery back in front as the cause of the Civil War. We wanted to make people feel uncomfortable with the history—because they should be. So we showed the images connected with slavery, dogs chasing slaves, whipping. We wanted to find a way to make it as uncomfortable, as nervous and as painful as it should feel.

He goes on to say, “People ask, ‘well, do you think that they would still have slavery in a technological industrial society?’ And the answer is Yes! It was not about money. It was about keeping power.” He points out that in our real history, “Keeping blacks out of the money economy and reducing their buying power was also bad economics. But it was something deeper than economics; it was about white privilege, identity, things that are more important than money.”

By the logic of Willmott’s film, the Confederacy—or at least its ideology—actually did win the Civil War. As if to make his point, most electoral maps would support his thesis that the “so-called War Between the States” remains unfinished business. Willmott insists, “My view of the South winning the Civil War is based not so much on ‘What if?’ but ‘What is!’ . . . The Confederacy lost their way of life for a little while—but not for long . . . they exported segregation into the North: subjugated Blacks, chain gangs, peonage, the Klan, and lynching.”

Like Willmott and other masters of the genre, Turtledove animates his alternate histories by deploying real historical knowledge. Turtledove is yet another writer who extrapolates from the premise of Southern victory, but his explanation is more convincing than many. “In late summer [18]62,” he said in an interview,

the U.K. was trembling on the edge of recognizing the Confederacy. The British government even sent up a trial balloon saying that the Confederates had built an army and navy and were building a nation, too. Then news of Antietam arrived, and the government had second thoughts, especially after the Emancipation Proclamation, which changed the whole moral nature of the war.

Why did Antietam turn the tide? As Turtledove explains, the Union narrowly won Antietam with the aid of Confederate battle plans discovered in a messenger’s cigars. For Abraham Lincoln, that victory at Antietam gave him the political leverage to emancipate the slaves and recast the war as a moral contest rather than an economic one. Turtledove summarizes the historical turn of events this way: “The fate of the country teetered on three lost cigars.” And it is those seemingly inconsequential three cigars that Turtledove seizes upon as the divergence point in his Southern Victory series, a series of eleven volumes with perhaps more volumes to come.

Turtledove’s method brings history to life. It reveals the personal, political, and socioeconomic motivations of his characters while challenging readers’ assumptions about the motives and morality of players in real history. His multivolume alternate history poses a serious challenge to notions of American exceptionalism that have crept into the minds of scholars, politicians, and laypeople alike—including, significantly, the historiographical presumption that the Union’s victory was inevitable and necessarily a good thing.

• • • • •

Even though alternate history has its legions of fans, the genre faces some daunting circumstances posed by the short historical memory of the reading and viewing public. Symptomatic was the experience of Robert Harris, whose novel Fatherland (1992) also presupposes a Nazi victory. In this story, the Third Reich survived because after discovering that the British had broken the Enigma code, it successfully starved Great Britain into submission. Harris imaginatively recreates a mature, Nazi-dominated society in which most Germans comfortably enjoy the fruits of victory. The hero of Fatherland is Xavier March, an honest German cop who, in 1964, discovers in Berlin the evidence of a crime and begins to investigate. The crime is the Holocaust, and in this universe, what Hitler had predicted about the Armenian genocide of 1915 has come true. The so-called “final solution” to what the Nazis called “the Jewish question” was indeed final: no one remembered it.

As Harris recounts in an article for the Independent, the TriStar film studio “optioned it and then dropped out when their market research showed that their target audience not only didn’t know who had won World War II, they didn’t know what World War II was.” Of course, the narrative loses its edge if the audience is largely unaware of what happened. Readers unfamiliar with what the original looks like are unlikely to appreciate the nuances inherent in a distorted version of that original.

Indeed, the problem of historical illiteracy is compounded the further back in time—and the farther away in distance—a novel is set. Hence, contrafactual Axis and Confederate victories and, less frequently, defeat or reconciliation of the American Revolution are standard themes for the genre, because American readers certainly are more likely to be aware of the real history behind these events. A general audience is less apt to know or care about medieval or European history. As for ancient Middle Eastern or Far Eastern history, those are realms of knowledge for only an erudite few.

Further complicating alternate history’s struggle for widespread appreciation is the temptation of writers to abuse their poetic license in order to make a point. For example, in this respect Philip Roth’s The Plot against America: A Novel (2004) is deeply flawed. Its depiction of an upsurge of domestic Nazism reinforces the point made by many writers that these things could happen here, and that the Germans were not unique in their perverse embrace of fascism. But Roth’s work fails the test of verisimilitude by missing the historical elephant in the living room: His American Nazis persecuted the Jews, but for the Ku Klux Klan and other reactionary Americans, Jews were peripheral targets. In their race war, American blacks were subject to discrimination, humiliation, and lynchings that were as bad if not worse than what happened to Jews in Germany before the “final solution” was unleashed.

• • • • •

For some purist historians, such as E. P. Thompson, straying from what did happen to what could have happened is “unhistorical shit.” With this critique, Thompson reveals his Marxist disdain for anything other than the inexorability of the class struggle. Or perhaps he simply sees history as the grinding of the wheels of fate: Why consider what could have been when we struggle to understand what actually was? Certainly the historical record is anything but complete, and alternate history can help us better understand not only history but human motivation. In alternate history no inevitability of historical development is granted. The genre puts human deeds, the moment of decision, in the forefront; even if that actor is a fabrication, the moment is one that someone could have grasped, and, in doing so, altered our very existence. In response to this assertion, some, like Thompson, may ask: But what about historical determinism? I would respond that the author does the determining here and, in doing so, subverts the notion that history occurs independently of human action, that it is a matter of chance or coincidence.

Historical determinism—that is, the assumption that the course of events is always inevitable—also fails to account for the occasions when the man was not found and the absence altered history. The death of King Harold II at the Battle of Hastings in 1066 left no recognized native heir to come forward, with profound consequences for both England and, eventually, our modern world. Would Great Britain and, later, the United States have moved on to become global powers? If the English had lost at Hastings but Harold II had survived, would Duke William’s victory have been so assured or his conquest of the island so complete? There is clearly a role for individuals in history, and there are strong ground for assuming that the absence of key individuals, such as Lenin, Hitler, Churchill, or Roosevelt, would have profoundly altered history’s course.

The best examples of alternate history not only play off these individuals, but also make demands on readers’ knowledge. Indeed, readers of alternate histories must reconcile the two universes, generate a third one that combines what they know and what they are now learning. This genre can even challenge and inspire readers to discover more history on their own. Sir Edward Creasy anticipated these salutary effects when he wrote, “Most valuable also is the mental discipline which is thus acquired, and by which we are trained not only to observe what has been, and what is, but also to ponder on what might have been.”

Therefore, I won’t bother to defend historical imagination from the literary puritans who affect disdain for genre forms. If genre writing is to be dismissed, what are we to do with established mainstream writers such as Margaret Atwood, George Orwell, or Philip Roth? A strong case can be made for relating the best examples of the alternate-history genre to more respectable literary forms. Utopian and dystopian fiction—long regarded as politically and socially important, even prophetic—come to mind. The difference between Plato’s Republic or Thomas More’s Utopia and Turtledove’s Southern Victory series, though, is that Plato and More set up their politico-literary experiments on a clean, white tableau, not worrying too much about how they came into existence. And the forms their imaginary societies take exclude historical contingency and reflect an implicit authoritarian tone. Turtledove’s works, in spite of their pulp reputation, avoid such deficiencies.

The best examples of dystopian fiction, such as Orwell’s 1984, are valuable precisely because they provoke readers to confront the present, rather than granting them an escape into an idealized or futuristic world. Orwell accomplishes this, in large part, because his novel does suggest a historical divergence (albeit vaguely specified) during World War II. Many readers are able to relate to 1984’s Winston Smith, in part, because of a shared history. The fictional world of 1984 was not as far away from the actual world of 1949 (when the novel was published) as it seemed.

Compare 1984 to Dick’s The Man in the High Castle. Dick’s novel, like Orwell’s, allows us gaze upon the history we take for granted from another vantage point. More than simply reflecting on a hypothetical historical contingency, the novel implicitly forces the reader to confront the fact that things could very easily have been different. The American defeat of the British during the American Revolution and the Allied victory in World War II were anything but inevitable, and history—far from being something preordained by God or fate—rested on the decisions of a few individuals.

If the Library of America’s choice to install Philip K. Dick among the greats truly signifies alternate history’s transition from pulp novel to literature, then the literary world should rejoice. Alternate-history fiction deserves not only literary respect, but also the respect withheld by some academic historians. And— who knows?—perhaps the genre’s rise to prominence will compel the reading public to look back into our own culture’s literary past and ask the question: Why do we canonize the books that we do? And, under different circumstances, might our choices have been any different? •


Sam Thornton said...

A recent Philip K. Dick convert, I hadn't heard of Harry Turtledove. I'll try him out.

On the "alternative history" idea, what if the obverse of the infinity of future worlds idea is also true?

According to some, each decision point in the present leads to a couple new future universes in which alternate choices play out. The obverse would be an infinity of past universes driven by different choices which all converged to produce exactly this moment in time and no other.

Changes made in the past, in this scenario, simply wouldn't make a difference for the present.

Deadline Pundit said...

I think you will enjoy Harry T! And Robert Harris's Fatherland.
A lot of time travel stories assume that there is sort of momentum to the time stream, that events force themselves back to the mainstream, and a strictly materialist vision, in the Marxist sense willhave social and economic factors outweigh individual factors.

In in most cases a missing nail is unlikely to have had much effect on history anyway but the skill and thrill of alternate history is to find the eventful nail!