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Alternative History’s Distorted Mirror

Aidan Harte

Aidan Harte

If the discussion panel on Alternative History (AH) at this year’s Octocon was an exercise in navel gazing, I can only say that the view proved illuminating. Like every other sub-genre, AH has evolved an intimidating jargon – Points of Departure, Jonbar Hinges, Butterfly Effects and, lest we forget, Alien Space Bats – so elaborate indeed that it can be a distraction from the real question: Why is AH popular?

On the face of it, it seems foolish if not actually perverse. It’s as though a group enters the drawing room to find Colonel Mustard bludgeoned to death with a candlestick and, while everyone is trying to figure out whodunit, one oddball in the corner is wondering who’d be on the ground if Colonel Mustard had never been born. Why, when we find it so hard to understand why the things that did happen happened, do we tease ourselves asking about things that didn’t. The impulse must come from those basic emotions, regret and relief. Everyone has said to themselves at one time or another something like “If only I had done it, I’d be rich,” or “Thank God I didn’t marry him.” AH answers a deep need.

Little Bighorn

But let’s admit from the outset that there can be something ridiculous about the exercise. Who can forget the introduction of Owen Wilson’s character in The Royal Tenenbaums. Eli Cash, “the assistant professor of English Literature at Brooks College”, dressed, bizarrely, as a cowboy, explains the premise of his hit novel at a press conference: The Custer Fight by Charles Marion Russell‘Well, everyone knows Custer died at Little Bighorn. What this book presupposes is… maybe he didn’t?’ In a single line, Wes Anderson tells us Eli Cash is a dreamer and a charlatan. There is a suggestion too that Cash has taken this sensationalist subject for cynical reasons.

There’s something to this. It’s very easy to come up with an eye-catching AH premise– what if the Spanish Armada succeeded? – but much harder to deliver a rounded story based on it. And for every success like Keith Roberts’ Pavane, there are, inevitably, many more failures. So what is that is what separates a bad Twilight Zone episode from something great like Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policemen’s Union? To answer that we need, predictably enough, to start with a little history.

The History of Alternative History

Bring The Jubilee (cover)In a speculative mood, the 18th Century historian, Edward Gibbon, asks what if the Moors hadn’t been turned back at Tours. Perhaps “the Arabian fleet might have sailed without a naval combat into the mouth of the Thames. Perhaps the interpretation of the Koran would now be taught in the schools of Oxford, and her pulpits might demonstrate to a circumcised people the sanctity and truth of the revelation of Mahomet.” Later, that most historically aware of leaders, Winston Churchill, wrote an essay asking what if the Union had lost at Gettysburg, and although that tantalising scenario inspired Ward Moore’s classic Bring the Jubilee, neither Gibbon or Churchill were trying to write literature; they were speculating on how an event could have been otherwise to acquire insight to why it wasn’t.

Counterfactuals have been a scholarly tool used since Herodotus to interrogate our fundamental assumptions about the world we live in and how it came to be. Some historians champion them (most recently Niall Ferguson); others doubt their validity. The controversy needn’t detain us because authors are drawn to AH for very different reasons.

The Distorted Mirror

The Man in the High Castle (cover)Like Horror, AH is always revealing of contemporary concerns. If the rise of China is on our collective mind, you’ll see that reflected on the book shelves. It’s no surprise then that the Nazis, the boogeymen of the modern age, used to dominate AH. Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds has glorious predecessors – Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle, Robert Harris’ Fatherland and Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America. But AH also reveals what we mean by History, which is, after all, a notoriously difficult butterfly to pin down. Some go along with Arnold J Toynbee’s and say that, “History is just one damned thing after another.” But that won’t do. History is fluid. It has own trends. William Gibson and Neal Stephenson will write a totally different type of AH to H.G. Wells and Jules Verne because history was something quite different to the Victorians.

Twilight of the Gods

In the early 19th century, Thomas Carlyle believed he was stating the obvious when he said, “The history of the world is but the biography of great men,”” but soon the first objections were raised. Herbert Spenser said of the Great Man, “Before he can remake his society, his society must make him.” Tolstoy goes further, calling him “history’s slave”. Over the next century, Great Men are in retreat, and the statisticians, economists and sociologists encroach. Hegel, Nietzsche, and then Spengler attempt conservation measures. Irenicon (cover)Unfortunately these champions for the beset species were all German and, after WWI, the Great Man becomes officially endangered. After WWII, extinct. Today if a historian can bring himself to talk about Shaka Zulu or John of Arc, he will certainly balance it with reference to the social conditions that made their rise possible, the environments that shaped them.

This has proved challenging for authors because great social forces don’t necessarily make great stories. New trends in history will, in like manner, influence tomorrow’s Alternative Historians. Following the work of Jarred Diamond, no one can pretend ignorance to the massive effect geography and climate has on history. He has compellingly described how it was not racial superiority that led Europeans to conquer the world, but Guns, Germs and Steel. We can expect this insight to colour future Alternative Histories. It’s certainly something I been bearing in mind writing The Warring States, the sequel to Irenicon.

The It’s A Wonderful Life Rule

One reason AH keeps coming back is that deep down in every author is a Panglossian smartarse. “Oh, you think killing Hitler would have solved everything, do you? Well, let’s try it, shall we? Uh oh: Stalin unopposed overruns western as well as eastern Europe, and America pre-emptively launches a nuclear strike. World War III, goodbye world. Nice going.” Authors take cruel delight in demonstrating how “easy fixes” have terrible consequences. In AH, only the Law of Unexpected Consequences is absolute.

Think Big

Reader be warned: when the point of departure from our timeline is recent the writer is trying to make a political point but, unless that writer is Robert Heinlien, that’s not going to be much fun for you. It’s much more interesting when writers think big. Who isn’t bored catatonic hearing that 9/11 “changed everything”. If it doesn’t occur, the last decade is different. This isn’t to discount its importance, but simply to say that things will be radically different if we have a different outcome in 1945, and if 1066 goes down differently, there might be no planes in the air, no skyscrapers for them to crash into, still less a reason to: if downtown Manhattan is still an Algonquian fishing village, it’ll make a lousy terrorist target.

Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell (cover)Again, coming up with a change point is the easy part – just flip a history book upside down – what counts is how the writer develops it. And in exploring this alternative world, ultimately, he or she better say something about this world. Otherwise it isn’t likely to be worth the reader’s time, alternate or otherwise.

For my money and for all of these reasons, the most successful recent AH is Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell. A wonderful premise – what if magic comes to Regency England – is explored in a wholly original way. But, again, it’s not the high concept that is special about Clarke’s fantasy, nor is it her delightfully deft impersonation of the era’s prose. Rather, it’s how she enters via her distorted mirror into the spirit of the age, and says something profound about the struggle between sense and sensibility in the national character. But there are so many others who’ve taken on the challenges of AH and produced gems – so if you haven’t looked into a distorted mirror lately, give it a try. And if you’re finding it hard to suspend your disbelief, consider this: if Roger Penrose is wrong and the multiverse exists, all history is alternative.

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6 Comments

  1. Jared says:

    Great post!

    I think Chruchill deserves more credit for writing literature. His essay, “If Lee had not won the Battle of Gettysburg” is a sneaky piece of work. It is written from the POV of the alternate history, and speculates how *our* history would’ve worked – that’s closer to the distorted mirror than a purely academic exercise!

  2. Julia says:

    I was just blogging about this concept recently. I really enjoy your take on it. In fact, I am writing my novel based off a similar concept: “What if the messianic figure that changes the world had created a positivist religion (i.e. based on science) instead of a mystic one? What would our society be like if its religious institutions were founded on positivism and post-enlightenment thinking? How would this even go about happening?”
    Thanks for your insight.

    • Aidan Harte says:

      Thanks Jared. You’re right, I definitely short-changed the old bulldog.

      Julia, it’s a big contentious question. Just remember that what really matters is your answer.
      It’s certainly timely. There’s a widespread assumption these days that religion and reason are by definition inimical; but even a cursory reading of William James shows the complacency of that view.
      It might be an idea to find some non-hysterical literature on 17th century Freemasonry – which admittedly might be difficult as the subject sets many mouths frothing.
      Forget about silly handshakes and fancy dress, their laudable ambition was to combine newly-coined values of the Enlightenment with the core-wisdom of several ancient traditions. Long before TV told us it was cool, the lodges were open to all creeds. This embracing attitude, much more than the secrecy and barmy ritual, is the reason so many monolithic institutions demonized them.
      Good luck.

  3. […] me onto two panels. The first was on Alternative History. If you missed it, read my article on Fantasy Faction. I confess that I felt slightly hypocritical taking part in a deconstruction of this […]

  4. Fatherland and Pavane were enormous influences on me; I learned that you could experiment with alternative, rather the fantastical realities. This appeals to me as a historian; It allows us to explore outside set boundaries, but with many familiar elements which makes the whole thing even more unnerving. Kingsley Amis’s The Alteratinon is terrifying for this reason.

    I write thrillers with an alternate history background to set up a contrast with what we expect to be read and to explore mirrored gender roles.

    Also, it’s fun. 😉

  5. Wonderful and very thought provoking post!
    AH has worked very well in comic books. Manhattan Projects and East of West are very good reads. Rick Remender’s Black Science has a kind of AH spin as well with parallel worlds where events occurred differently than our own timeline.

    While AH has been around for quite some time, it does seem to be more popular today than it in the past.

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