Nearly every person who reaches adulthood will have likely engaged in the self-reflexive activity of asking the question, “What if?” The question arises from a polemic of nightmare and fantasy (Rosenfeld 11) of regret or nostalgia, for a past more terrible or wonderful than the present. The literary genre of alternate history plays with the same question on a larger scale, asking the “what if?” question to major events in history, and extrapolating possible alternate historical outcomes. The practice of writing alternate history is not a new one, dating back to antiquity with Greek historian Herodotus’ speculation concerning the “possible consequences of the Persians defeating the Greeks at Marathon in the year 490 B.C.E., while the Roman historian Livy wondered how the Roman empire would have fared against the armies of Alexander the Great” (5). Despite this antiquated tradition, it is a genre which has received little attention from academic scholarship (12). Alternate history, even in its more respectable form of historical counterfactual, has been dismissed as “an idle parlor game” (E.H. Carr, in Hellkson, Alternate History 16) and has been “attacked by historians because [it is] untrue” (16). The genre is not without its defenders, although its advocacy is supported by the disciplines of new historicism, social psychology and literary theory rather than traditional historicism. Lubomir Dolezel states that the alternate history is a “useful cognitive strategy” given that “the acquisition of knowledge about the past…is such a complicated task that no available avenue should be left unexplored. If the consideration of counterfactual, possible courses of history can enhance our understanding of actual history, we have no right to ignore this strategy” (800).
Orson Scott Card’s Pastwatch: The Redemption of Christopher Columbus, is how a ‘useful cognitive strategy’ can result in an ‘enhanced understanding’ of the actual discovery of the
Despite the precedent of a general lack of academic interest, alternate history has garnered a good deal of attention recently as a popular phenomenon. Gavriel Rosenfeld cites the decentralization of political ideology in the West, the emergence of postmodernism, recent scientific trends such as chaos theory and evolutionary biology, the advent of cyberspace and virtual reality, the “speculative sensibility” of pop culture (where narratives do not simply mirror reality, but “explore alternatives to it”) and the impact of the entertainment revolution on the popular presentation of history as contributing factors to this popularity (8-10). Rosenfeld’s contributing factors’ share a relativistic outlook which threatens the traditional historic academic enterprise. While empirical thought relegated alternate history to “the field of imaginative literature” (5), postmodern epistemologies can threaten to make all history alternate, seeing traditional historical narratives as “a form of fiction or, at the very least, a narrative which has neither more nor less a claim to authoritative status than any other competing narrative.” (Wain 360). As Ryan observes, ““Since there are no limits to the human imagination…one may then be tempted to conclude that there is no such thing as an impossible world” (31). Likewise, one might be tempted to say that since “historical representation is dependent in practice on the representability of events, and not on their reality as such” (3) then all histories could be considered alternate histories. As Mary Gentle observes, we do not recover the past, but represent it using “a collection of fallible memories, inconvenient documents, disconcerting new facts, and solemn cultural bedtime stories” (Turtledove,
Karen Hellkson’s article, “Toward a Taxonomy of the Alternate History Genre” proves very helpful in this regard. In it she provides ““alternative histories, alternate universes, allohistories…uchronias” and “parahistory” (249) as a list of the synonyms for alternate history, but rejects alternative histories, since “the term ‘alternative history’ has another meaning among historians: histories that approach their subject from a nonstandard position” (249). To this list we can add Marie-Laure Ryan’s “hypotheticals” or “counterfactuals” (19) and Dolozel’s “counterfactual history” (800). I will use the term alternate history simply given its common usage to identify the genre in the popular fiction market. But what identifies a work as an alternate history as opposed to a counterfactual or hypothetical?
Ryan states that if we assume that possible worlds (of which alternate history is a sub-category) are “constructs of the mind, we can classify them according to the mental processes to which they owe their existence” (19). The mental process which predicates alternate history then would be the “hypothetical”, a type of possible world resulting from the “what if?” question. While this helps to discern what makes a possible world an alternate history, it leaves the defining features which separate an alternate history from an alternative history too vague. The “hypothetical” classification could catalog Josephine Tey’s intertextual narrative of Richard III in The Daughter of Time as alternate history.
Likewise, someone might wish to include Robert Howard’s Conan series as alternate history, given that it takes place in a prehistoric Europe, or the entire Star Trek canon given that the ‘alternate’ future of earth hinges on the “moment of the break” where the warp drive is developed. In those cases though, the secondary world of the narrative is “made familiar through the author’s use of historical cultures from Earth to lend a degree of reality for the reader, a sense of understanding, and a sense of place” (Stypczynski 453). Alternate histories do not employ history merely as a backdrop to narrative events, nor to create a heightened sense of verisimilitude in a pure work of fantasy, but rather the narratives of alternate history “revolve around the basic premise that some event in the past did not occur as we know it did, and thus the present has changed” (Hellekson, Taxonomy 248, italics mine). Dolozel states that ““An ineradicable relationship exists between the historical Napoleon and all fictional Napoleons, between the actual
Based upon this link to the past, Hellekson provides a narrower taxonomical scope for the classification of alternate history. She classifies alternate histories “according to the nature of the historical inquiry, not according to the nature of the story told” (250), and states that alternate history can be systematically categorized within four models of history inquiry: the eschatological, which is “concerned with final events or an ultimate destiny” (Alternate History 97), its opposite the genetic or cause and effect, entropic, wherein the alternate history is never given “permanence”, and the teleological, which “focuses on design or purpose” (Taxonomy, 250). While any of these models may be the focus of an alternate history, “the genetic model lies at the heart of every alternate history because the alternate history relies on cause and effect” (251). For that reason, this paper will focus upon the genetic model, both because it is the most prevalent form of alternate history, and also because it is the main approach taken in the case study of Pastwatch.
Hellekson’s classification system is based upon the “moment of the break” or divergence which causes the alternate history, answering questions such as “When do the great figures of history make the decisions that set them on the path of greatness?” (Card 58). She argues that counterfactuals are practically useful to the study of history because they “foreground the notion of cause and effect that is so important to historians when they construct a narrative” (Alternate History 16). It is primarily the “moment of the break” or “point of divergence…some variable in the historical record [which] would have changed the overall course of historical events” (Rosenfeld 4) which stands as the “one property” by which the fictional universe of alternate history differs from “our own system of reality” (Ryan 33) and therefore from other historical and speculative fiction.
For example, an alternate history does not postulate that the historians “might have got it wrong”, as is the case in The Daughter of Time. Alternate histories create a secondary ontology wherein a single occurrence changes the entire course of that secondary world’s history. To say that Richard III did not murder his cousins is simply an alternative perspective on a set of accepted historical facts. A narrative wherein Richard rescues those self-same victims from the
This idea of cause and effect is expressed in Pastwatch through the character of Tagiri, an African woman whose work utilizes a technology enabling people to observe the past. In Pastwatch, the protagonists are all historians living in a distant future following “a century of war and plague, of drought and flood and famine” (2) in which a technology is achieved whereby people are able to see into the past. At first, the technology allows only for the viewing of “great sweeping changes” (2) but with refinement, allows for closer observation of individual historical figures. The historians involved in this endeavor are referred to as Pastwatch. Tagiri, unlike other historians sees the world “not as a potential future awaiting her manipulation” but as “an irrevocable set of results, and all that could be found was the irrevocable causes that led to the present moment” (20). This idea of time as a linear continuum, or as “time’s arrow…is the metaphor implied in most historical writings” (Hellekson, Alternate History 36), as in the case of Metahistory, where Hayden White describes history as a narrative “sequence of events” which raises speculative questions similar to the “what if?” of the alternate history (6-7).
Hellekson suggests that the “moment of the break” as the defining feature of alternate history can be expressed in three categories. The first, called nexus stories, involve time travel, occur at the moment of the break, and focus on “a crucial point in history, such as a battle or assassination” (250-1). Initially, Pastwatch could be classified as an example of a nexus story. Early on the reader is informed of the narrative’s outcome: “Though Tagiri did not put her own body back in time, it is still true to say that she was the one who stranded Christopher Columbus on the island of Hispaniola and changed the face of history forever…she found a way to reach back and sabotage the European conquest of America” (15). The protagonists are all historians living in a distant future following “a century of war and plague, of drought and flood and famine” (2) in which a technology is achieved whereby people are able to see into the past. At first, the technology allows only for the viewing of “great sweeping changes” (2) but with refinement, allows for closer observation of individual historical figures. Ultimately, Pastwatch develops the technology to physically send humans into the past and thereby not only effect change, but direct it as well.
However, the novel takes a twist and thereby becomes an example of Hellekson’s second category, the true alternate history, which takes place “years after a change in the nexus event, resulting in a radically changed world” (253). A domino series of causes and effects produce narratives set in “worlds dramatically discontinuous with reality” (254). The discontinuity with reality could occur in a world grounded in primary physics, as is the case in Pastwatch. The novel’s reality is a future version of our own, not a parallel universe, although there is a narrative twist to this. The “actual” history of
Finally, Hellekson identifies the parallel worlds story, based in quantum physics, “implies that there was no break—that all events that could have occurred have occurred”(Taxonomy 251-252) but “simultaneously” on timeline(s) parallel to primary history (254). Pastwatch is definitely not a parallel worlds story, as is evidenced by how the present is affected by so radically changing the past; that line of causality simply ceases to exist in a blink of an eye. When evidence is discovered of the Pastwatch project’s intervention, the question is asked: “Had there once been a different history?” to which the answer is “No, two different histories, both of them obliterated by interventions in the past” (397). The obliterated history does not somehow exist on a parallel stream of time, underscoring one of the book’s more poignant themes. In the conversation concerning the choice which will result in this negation of hundreds of years of history, the conclusion about the outcome of the decision is decidedly bleak:
“…anything in their history that the introduction of that machine in our history caused not to happen is utterly and irrevocably lost. We can’t go back into our past and view it because it didn’t happen.”
“But it did happen, because their machine exists.”
No, they said again. Causality can be recursive, but time cannot. Anything that the introduction of their machine caused not to happen, did not in fact happen in time. There is no moment in time in which those events exist.” (216)
The message of Pastwatch is clear in its assessment of the seriousness of such historical counterfactual contemplation. What individuals do, the actions historically taken, contain depth of meaning, a concept of the alternate history which will be explored in depth shortly..
Like the self-reflexive exercise an individual might engage in, the goals and benefits of alternate history are as rich and complex as the primary histories they are based upon, or put very simply, “Alternate history has many uses” (Stirling 149). There are five broad uses I have identified. The first to be examined is that alternate history allows for a virtual redeeming of historical acts deemed terrible or disastrous. M. Elizabeth Ginway argues that the alternate history utilized in Gerson Lodi-Ribeiro and Carla Christina Pereira’s works serves to “redress the omissions of the official history of Brazil, specifically its lack of reference to women and racial minorities” (291). In Pastwatch, issues of gender and race are dealt with throughout the narrative, seen most clearly in Columbus’ inner struggle in response to one of the time-travellers’ challenge to him:
“I will know when you love Christ more than gold,” said Diko. She pointed to the villagers. “It will be when you look at these and see, not slaves, not servants, not strangers, not enemies, but brothers and sisters, your equals in the eyes of God” (338).
Las Casas speculated upon what the outcome might have been had the indigenous peoples been allowed to convert to Christianity (11), and repeatedly denounces the Spanish colonists as false Christians. In Pastwatch, the actual injustices observed by Las Casas find hypothetical solutions. The transformation of the
Secondly, alternate history forms a unique discourse on the academic study of actual history. Stypczynski sees value in alternate history as “a form of comparison and contrasting through which a fuller understanding of history can be reached” (463). This goes beyond the obvious possibility that a reader of an alternate history may be inspired to do research into the actual history the counterfactual is based upon. The alternate history collection Worlds That Weren’t features short essays following each story detailing actual historical details, while Card provides an annotated bibliography of his sources at the end of Pastwatch. However, the alternate history can also achieve this end intertextually. From the simple statement that “History is not prelude” (15) which evokes Stephen Jay Gould’s idea of Time’s Arrow to the observation which supports his idea of Time’s Cycle (10-16), which supposes history as “a chaotic system” wherein “details…shift endlessly, but the overall shape remains constant” (40), Pastwatch refers to the challenges of traditional historical discourse repeatedly. Even the critique of the alternate history genre by traditional historicism is addressed in an argument between a superior Pastwatch officer and an idealistic subordinate, who is told that “Pastwatch watches the past…we don’t speculate on what might have been…there’s no way to test it, and it would have no value even if you got it right” (126). In agreement with Hellekson, for whom the genre is “a critique of the metaphors we use to discuss history” (Taxonomy 255), the subordinate replies to the accusation that he has not “caught the vision of what Passwatch is all about” with a very new historicist response, ““I haven’t…I want to change the vision.” (151).
Thirdly, as S.M. Stirling notes in the essay, “Why Then, There” alternate histories have the ability to “revive literary worlds that time has rendered otherwise inaccessible to us” (149). Farmer’s short story would again be an example, perhaps being indicative of tales of voyagers and adventurers who were said to have sailed off the edge of a flat earth. It could be stated, as Stirling observes that such conclusions or speculations are “still available to us through historical fiction” but also notes that this approach is “is sadly limiting in some respects; the “end” of the larger story is fixed and we know how it comes out” (151). By contrast, alternate history provides insight to a mindset where “horizons are infinite and nothing is fixed in stone…In other words, a world larger and better suited to the classic adventure story than ours” (151).
Fourthly, alternate histories can amplify the causal inferences of historical events (Roese & Olson 36). Dolozel stresses that “the precariousness of certain historical situations comes to the fore only if counterfactual outcomes are considered” (801), given shape in a discussion in Pastwatch where Tagiri’s focus on slavery as the worst possible evil is challenged by a teammate who studied the progression of human sacrifice to slavery in the ancient world (92). Later on, the possibility of a united Meso-American nation, possessing the technology of iron and advanced seafaring ship construction is explored, who might have eventually crossed the Atlantic to conquer Europe—but instead of enslaving it as the Spaniards did, using captives for human sacrifice (167). The question is not given a simple answer, but maintains and even in some ways strengthens the moral and ethical complexity, given that the reader is forced to some degree to ponder the same issues the fictional characters do.
Rosenfeld produces a fifth possibility for alternate history to act as commentary upon the contemporary reality (11). When linked to Hellekson’s observation that “alternate history as a genre speculates about such topics as the nature of time and linearity…and the role of individuals in the history-making process” (Taxonomy 254), this idea demonstrates that despite its sweeping historical scope and global or national concerns, alternate history is ultimately also about the individual people involved. In Pastwatch, Tagiri’s quest to save the Tainos from extermination and slavery is transformed from a broad, sweeping, generalized speculation to considerations more personal and self-reflexive:
“What if some stranger from a faraway place came and stole my son from me and made a slave of him, and I never saw him again? What if a conquering army from a place unheard of came and murdered my husband and raped my daughter? And what if, in some other place, happy people watched us as it happened, and did nothing to help us, for fear it might endanger their own happiness? What would I think of them? What kind of people would they be?” (51)
This fifth use for alternate history is also the one which the previous four functions serve to support. In and of themselves, they are arguably merely mental gymnastics. They are, perhaps examples of Dolozel’s “useful cognitive strategy” (800), but each begs the question for whom, and to what purpose? It must be readily admitted that “all counterfactuals are necessarily false, insofar as their antecedents refer to some state of affairs that was not so” (Roese & Olson 3). No one has suggested that the consequent of an alternate history’s mutated reality is that it has actually become so in our physical world. No one would suggest that speculating about
If the consequence sought by alternate history is not to make a truth statement about the past but rather the present, then the assessment of what makes the statement true or false changes. The polemic of alternate and real history becomes secondary. Alternate histories should not be evaluated according to the rules of logic or traditional historicism, but rather should be considered in a social-psychological framework (Roese & Olson 4). As Rosenfeld observes, “Biases, fears, wishes, the desire to avoid guilt, the quest for vindication” are all driving forces in the creation of speculative accounts of history (12). He suggests that “the genre’s appeal may ultimately be rooted in deeper human urges”, exploring the past “less for its own sake than to utilize it instrumentally to comment upon the state of the contemporary world” (11).
Therefore, the fifth purpose of alternate history is the social-psychological benefit of underscoring the importance of the individual in history, wherein the objective truth value of counterfactual propositions are largely ignored, “in favor of examining their perceived plausibility and meaningfulness to the individual” (Roese & Olson 6).. As Hellekson puts it:
“readers of the alternate history come away with their own lives sharpened and enriched by the realization that history is something possible for an individual to shape. The psychological effects of reading the alternate history are important; it could have happened otherwise, save for a personal choice. The personal thus becomes the universal, and individuals find themselves making a difference in the context of historical movement” (Taxonomy 255).
Once again, Pastwatch serves us well as a case study. When Tagiri is told, “You can’t change the past, but you’ve changed the present, and these people are no longer forgotten” she responds “It isn’t enough” (35). This challenge is issued to the modern reader; in light of reading not only the alternate history of Pastwatch but also Las Casas’ A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies with its grotesque catalogue of the horrors inflicted by the Spaniards upon the indigenous peoples of the
Another question Pastwatch asks of the present reader, with Card relating to Las Casas once again, concerns the relationship between church and state; what would the effect of the Christian religion have been upon the lifestyle of the Taino people had issues of power, economy and state not been involved? If the faith had spread but not the colonial culture, what might the religion of the Taino have evolved into? These questions are especially pertinent to modern readers living in the Western world at a time when religious rhetoric is being used within the political arena to justify aggressive foreign policies. Card makes his point in an understated but compelling fashion:
“And what is that?” demanded
“I’m not sure,” said Cristoforo. “Christians, I think.” (378)
The alternate history’s ability to make commentary on current situations and to challenge readers to see themselves as active agents in the current construction of history is arguably its greatest strength. In the case of actual history, such as Las Casas’ account, the reader might deem the atrocities committed against the Latin American peoples as something which has happened in the past, which we can do nothing about. There is a sense of escapism where one can excuse themselves of blame or responsibility. Alternate history reminds the reader that a different outcome might have been arrived at if a different decision were made at different points in history.
When this fifth function is brought to bear upon the first four functions of the alternate history, they become tools toward clarifying the fifth. The first, to redress past wrongs can become an opportunity to identify and engage current actions of injustice, such as ongoing racism or gender inequality. The second could call the traditional historicist to account for more than cataloguing trivia, but to create social commentary based upon the knowledge of the past. The third, to regain lost literary perspectives could serve to help readers to normalize elements of the past which may have become excessively valorized or vilified; being able to understand that the actions of a person being a product of their time is helpful in the current context of critically reading propaganda or advertising that marginalizes certain groups. And fourth, if alternate history can help to bring gravity to the outcome of historical decisions, it can by association do the same for discerning possible outcomes for current ones.
So to summarize, alternate history is a genre of historical fiction and a sub-genre of science fiction which posits a point of divergence in the past which changes the outcome of what we would refer to as primary history. The types of alternate histories can be identified by their temporal relationship to this divergence. The divergence and its outcomes have a number of functions, the primary of which is social-psychological in function which acts as a means for modern readers to meditate upon primary history in a way which causes the reader to reflect upon their own place in the act of history making, and perhaps challenge them to act upon that knowledge in their contemporary world. While it might be stated that this advocates a return to the “dissemination of literary knowledge for the express purpose of enhancing the moral sensibilities of the nation’s readers” (Womack 594), the complex and sometimes ambiguous stance of alternate history resists such appropriation. While Card’s Pastwatch deals with Christian morality and posits a utopian outcome to the time traveler’s decisions, alternate history, as was stated at the outset, can deal in both nightmares and fantasies, and as such, allows readers to explore the complex chronicles of histories that might have been, never were, and yet may be.
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