Sailing The Seas Of Time: What If We Took Alternative History Seriously?

by Jim Clarke

Let’s sail back in time for a moment, to the first century AD. Here we find Livy at work on his one great historical text, Ab Urbe Condita, which he intended as a history of Rome from its foundation to his time of writing, when it had become an empire under Augustus. Primarily it is a history of the Roman Republican era therefore, but as with historians then and now, Livy was prone to the occasional digression.

In Book IX, despite insisting that he wished “to digress no more than is necessary from the order of the narrative”, he spends a considerable time considering the question, “What would have been the results for Rome if she had been engaged in war with Alexander?” Livy, being a good patriotic Roman, and having spent his entire life during one of its peaks in power, assures us that Rome would have resisted the man known as Conqueror of the World.

Let’s then follow Livy back to the fourth century BC. Early in the century we find Rome under siege from the Gauls, who sacked the city and besieged the inner capitol for seven months, before being bribed to leave. By the time Alexander was born, in 356 BC, the Gauls were still raiding Latium, modern Lazio, the province in which Rome is located.

It’s worth remembering, too, that Alexander didn’t hang about. He was 20 years old when he assumed the throne of Macedonia. By that time Rome was slowly rebuilding from the Celtic Gaul invasions and beginning to retake towns in Latium and Etruria it had previously held. As Alexander embarked on his extraordinary 12-year career of conquest, Rome was embroiled in its own backyard, fighting the Samnites in a series of wars in Campania.

When Alexander died, aged 32, in the palace of Nebuchadnezzar II in Babylon, having routed the Persians, sacked Persepolis, conquered Egypt, founded the biggest city in the world, crossed the Hindu Kush and taken Samarkand, Rome was still battling the Samnites. It was even humiliated by them in 321 BC at the Battle of the Claudine Forks. This is the force Livy would have us believe would have defeated the Philosopher King. It is not an especially plausible claim, and one wonders what might have happened in reality had Alexander turned West from his Persian campaign rather than continuing into Asia.

It is, in short, one of those apparent hinges of history, a moment in time around which the entirety of the subsequent timeline appears to be contingent. What would our world look like had Alexander taken Rome 23 centuries ago, and had he lived long enough to consolidate a Macedonian empire of the Mediterranean? Livy, by inviting such speculation, bears the honour of inventing alternative history.

Alt-history today has an uneasy relationship with science fiction more generally, though is generally lazily subsumed within its capacious borders. Nevertheless, alt-history has some characteristics which set it apart, not least of which is its interdisciplinary relationship with history, wherein it is known primarily as counterfactual history, or economics, wherein it becomes cliometrics.

Counterfactual history functions as a historiographic approach, restricting itself to hypothetical alternatives to real events, and aims to measure or examine the importance of those events by speculating on the effect of removing or changing them. Cliometrics similarly examines such hypotheticals, but from the perspective of measuring economic, industrial or fiscal impact, as in Robert Fogel’s seminal Railroads and America’s Economic Growth (1964), which speculated that improved canals and roads would have filled the gap economically had there been no railroads.

It may be that the relationship with SF stemmed from the sheer volume of alt-histories written by SF writers in the early to mid-twentieth century, but in fact it has always appealed as a mode of writing to the literati, too. SF historian and novelist Adam Roberts has identified Louis-Napoléon Geoffroy’s 1841 Apocryphal Napoleon as a seminal text in the genre, and is right to do so for a number of reasons, not the least of which is to underline the fact that uchronic speculation extends far beyond the Anglophone world. Among English-speaking writers alone, however, we can trace the tradition back to Nathaniel Hawthorne, and forward to notables like George Steiner, Kingsley Amis, Gore Vidal, Ian McEwan, Peter Ackroyd, and Jonathan Lethem.

As a speculative mode it is not restricted to genre any more than it is to language. It has attracted playwrights such as Noel Coward, Tom Stoppard and Michael Frayn, generated TV and cinema productions, and inspired a whole constellation of journalists, myself included. Intriguingly, one can trace an upswing in counterfactual reportage to the disputed election of George W. Bush in the US Presidential election in 2000, which literally and figuratively hinged on the validity of chads on votes cast in Florida. As a result, journalists rushed to hypothesise what an Al Gore presidency might have looked like, especially in light of the 9/11 attacks soon afterwards, as well as Gore’s noted involvement in environmental causes.

In fact, the 21st century to date might well be considered a high point for uchronia. Journalistic what-if articles proliferated vastly, to the extent that they now appear in publications like Guitar World. And such is the splintering of political perspectives globally that the concept of alternative facts, as accidentally introduced by US Presidential Counsellor Kellyanne Conway in 2017, seems almost to have superseded the concept of alternative histories.

Uchronic conditionality is now seeping into our present. It manifests as the secret histories and conspiracy theories to which so many are beholden, and is deconstructing and decentring any coherent understanding of world events. Perhaps the best example of this is Vladislav Surkov, advisor to Russia’s President Putin, whose background as an absurdist theatre director has enabled him to reconstruct Russia’s political and public sphere as one large absurdist theatrical performance.

We can see this trend in current alt-histories. William Gibson’s Agency (2020)is an allohistorical sequel to The Peripheral in which Hilary is President and Brexit never happened. There is a certain element of wish fulfilment in such narratives of course, but it also expresses what Jacques Derrida (and later Mark Fisher) referred to as hauntology, the experience of being haunted by futures which did not occur.

Hauntology now saturates our present, as a result of pervasive alternate histories warring over the past. Like time travellers seeking to change the course of events, today’s political class seek to impose their narratives, myths and ideologies upon previous events, up to and including overt lying. As a result, journals like The Atlantic openly speculate whether Americans in particular are now living in an “alternative” history, while physicists at CERN have been forced to issue denials of the widely believed rumour that their experiments with the Large Hadron Collider projected us into an alternative reality. (Speaking personally, I feel that if we are in an alternative timeline, the first evidence of it was Leicester City winning the EPL soccer title in 2016.)

If counterfactual history and journalism seeks to review the present in light of past contingencies, thereby exploring roads not taken in order to re-examine the significance of events which did occur, SF is not so constrained. Murray Leinster’s seminal story “Sidewise in Time” (1934) introduced to a popular audience the concept of the multiverse, an ontology in which all possible timelines in some sense co-exist and could hypothetically influence one another. This idea had been depicted earlier, not least in HG Wells’s A Modern Utopia (1903), but not to the extent that Leinster mined the idea, with Roman soldiers appearing in Missouri, or ships containing Vikings or Tsarist Russians approaching the US coastline.

Multiversality and parallel universes have remained a popular SF trope, though in the vast majority of instances, authors prefer to present a single variant, a narrative set in a world with a Jonbar point, or moment of deviation from our own recorded history. Like historians, SF authors have tended to gravitate to deviations which explore political or military alternatives to recorded events, though they are also more prone than historians to what we might call the Carlylean ‘big man’ theory of history, given fiction’s need for protagonists.

A spectrum exists in alt-histories, ranging from the great man narratives, such as those which pivot around the existence or otherwise of Jesus Christ or Hitler, and its opposite, which posits a history predicated on huge social and historical movements and trends. Counterfactual historians gravitate much more commonly towards the latter. SF has the additional freedom to collide timelines as in Leinster’s story, and even introduce fantastic elements, such as the ongoing existence of dinosaurs, or alien visitations, or have time travellers seek to interfere with timelines.

In examining alt-histories, certain themes come up again and again, exposing a range of cultural anxieties. Probably by far the most common hypothetical is a Nazi victory in WW2, with very mainstream novels such as Fatherland or Dominion sitting comfortably alongside much more science-fictional treatments like The Man in the High Castle. This theme has not only crossed into factual TV (the BBC have addressed it at least twice) but also can be found in fiction from nations such as Spain, Russia, France, Norway, Israel, and further afield.

Other major streams of alt-history seek to undo or sustain predominant cultural forces in global history. There is a whole sub-genre of uchronia in which Christianity, for some reason, fails to take root, or Christ does not exist. Another fantasises about the persistence of the Roman empire, complete with slavery and crucifixion, into the modern era. A latent fear of Islam has perhaps inspired some of the many narratives in which Charles Martel or Charlemagne are not victorious, or in which the Moors retain Spain or the Ottomans take Vienna.

Some concerns are more local and specific. American alt-histories heavily feature Confederate victory in the Civil War. One of the earliest such speculations was a counterfactual written by Winston Churchill. Indeed, prolific uchronist Harry Turtledove must have written at least a dozen, and an entire volume on Alternative Battles of Gettysburg exists. American alt-history also features concerns over its own existence, featuring timelines in which the USA does not exist, either because it became Amerindian, or Aztec, or Chinese or Viking instead, or because the American Revolution never occurred. Another common trope of a more utopian bent is John F. Kennedy surviving assassination and the subsequent extension of his presidency, a form which expresses very similar aspirations as later journalistic treatments of an Al Gore presidency.

Cultural specificity extends further. In addition to Nazi domination fears, English alt-histories feature communist regimes or isolation in the face of a unified Europe. French alt-histories dream of Napoleonic victories, global domination or German invasion, Nazi or otherwise. Russian ones fantasise about Tsarist or White Russian defeat of the Bolsheviks. Israeli ones imagine defeating Rome at Masada, alternatively located homelands or defeat in the Six Day War. Polish ones have nightmares of Soviet takeover (as do the Swedes and Finns), and Brazilian ones dream of alternative World Cup soccer results.

Perhaps due to its linguistic isolation, Hungarian alt-history is intriguingly diverse, iterating a wide range of common uchronic tropes including the earliest known Nazi victory uchronia in global literature, as well as examples of Catholic hegemony and national success in revolutions, but also features uniquely Magyar visions, such as the existence of a Hungarian fascist African colony in a Nazi-dominated world. Ádám Gerencsér’s authoritative article delineates this particular national progression through alternative timelines.

The historical fantasies of different cultures thus express both latent societal anxieties and utopian aspirations left unfulfilled. Only by taking such a macro-view are the real secret histories unveiled. The prevalence of alt-histories which unwrite the Reformation, depicting theocratic global oppression by the Vatican, identify Anglophone SF’s generic anxiety about Catholicism in particular, and revelatory forms of knowledge in general, as I’ve written previously.

What is interesting in relation to this vast welter of alternative histories is the relative lack of identity politics or marginalised identities in uchronic fiction. Almost none deal with, for example, the idea of decriminalisation of homosexuality in earlier decades or centuries. And while African-American concerns, often manifested in terms of earlier slavery emancipation or civil rights, can often be found, Africa itself as a geographic region and collection of cultures remains as politically marginalised and economically depressed in alternative timelines as it is in our own. Afrofuturism may be one of the most vibrant of recent SF sub-genres, but its ideas of a black imaginary do not appear to have yet manifested significantly in terms of alt-histories relating to African success.

Within SF, which has historically been a significantly male-dominated enterprise, alt-history seems to be an exceptionally male interest, with few female creators operating in the mode. Nevertheless, feminist concerns have fared marginally better. One intriguing phenomenon is the significance of Hilary Rodham Clinton in such narratives. The protagonist of Rodham, last year’s alt-history by Curtis Sittenfeld, in which she forges her own legal and political career without Bill, is simultaneously the repository of other aspirations, such as Pamela Sargent’s vision of Hilary as astronaut, or David Bean’s more prosaic imagining of her as presidential candidate in 2008 instead of Barack Obama.

Mike Resnick’s excellent collection Alternative Presidents envisages not one but two separate female presidents in the 19th century, ushering in a much earlier era of universal suffrage and female emancipation. And back in 1983, Neil Ferguson imagined an alt-history which features Marilyn Monroe as president.

Beyond US politics, feminist alt-histories tend towards the darker end of uchronic possibilities. Michael Grant’s Soldier Girl series imagines a universal draft during the Second World War, for example. Joanna Russ’s highly influential The Female Man (1975) goes further again, including a world in which a plague wiped out men, thus leading to female hegemony and autonomy. This likely influenced the creation of Fumi Yoshinaga’s Ōoku, a long-running manga series in which Japanese women lead politics and industry following the death of most men from a plague during the Tokugawa shogunate in the 17th century.

Russ’s novel, of course, is on the cusp of alt-history and slipstream, as it features both alternative timelines (Jeanine comes from a world where the Great Depression never ended) and other worlds. Its multiversal hybridity is what permits Russ to explore a multiplicity of gender-related encounters, and by extension identify potential directions in our own world.

The lack of gay or African alt-histories may in fact be because, like Russ, authors have found it preferable to explore hypotheticals in a slipstream rather than strictly uchronic mode. Certainly, Grace Dillon has written about Native American slipstream narratives which date back to Gerald Vizenor’s reconstruction of George Custer from hero to imperialist in a narrative featuring literal rebirths.

William Faulkner is believed to have once said that “the stupidest words in the language are ‘What if?’”, but it is worth recalling that all fiction is, in a sense, an exploration of hypotheticals, including his own. The inherent appeal of alt-history is in part the guilty pleasure of exploring the roads not taken, but it is also, as historians and economists have found, a useful mode of inquiry as well as creativity.

In imagining the nightmare of living in a victorious global Reich, we become better equipped to understand both the contingencies which led to its rise to power, and the contingencies which defeated it. We are also reminded of the dystopian potential in our own past which was averted. Similarly, the utopian potential of alt-history, the reminder that we could have brought ourselves to a better present, refocuses us on the fact that the future starts today, and as Hemingway once wrote, “what will happen in all the other days that ever come can depend on what you do today.”

Samantha Mills once wrote a wonderful short story, entitled “Strange Waters”, which was not an alt-history but rather was set on a planet where the ocean is temporal and keeps washing the protagonist’s fishing boat up in the same port but in different years. Alt-history is our own version of her boat in strange waters, allowing us to sail the seas of time back to Livy, to Alexander, back even to timelines in which Neanderthals rather than we Homo Sapiens inherited the earth.

Alt-history reinforces the miraculous contingency of our existences, perhaps best expressed by Doctor Manhattan in Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen (1986),when the godlike superhero realises that the likelihood of his former lover Laurie’s very existence is so preposterous that it counts as a “thermodynamic miracle”, and if her existence is so miraculously contingent, then so is that of all humanity.

There is of course a frisson in envisaging our own destruction, especially if it extends to our entire society or culture or way of being. This is the warning of alt-history, that latent in our present are the dark pasts we have averted. But equally latent are the glorious utopian presents we failed to realise. From those we can take comfort and inspiration. And there is always the possibility, expressed in fictions like The Man in the High Castle or R.A. Lafferty’s clever short story “The Three Armageddons of Enniscorthy Sweeny” (1977), that the alternative histories we can imagine may in some way ultimately affect our own present and futures.

In such reflexive alt-histories, multiversal timelines intersect and clash. This offers us a way of thinking ourselves out of our own contemporary impasse, where alternate timelines seem to exist in the realities described by opposing politicians, a phenomenon sometimes referred to as “one screen, two movies”. Often, as in Stephen Baxter’s Time’s Tapestry series or Keith William Andrews’s Freedom’s Rangers novels, it seems as if warring factions are trying to delete one another, and their perspectives, from history itself. And, as in Joanna Russ’s novel or The Man in the High Castle, SF alt-histories suggest that what we might consider to be psychosis may actually transpire to be a mode of enlightenment.

By considering the contingency of our own history, and questioning consensus narratives, especially echo chamber consensuses, we need not plunge into the morass of fake secret histories or conspiracy theories. Instead, alt-history teaches us how to question our own assumptions about our centrality in our own histories, and attain the critical distance to examine our timeline objectively. What we find offensive or anxious about alt-histories can help reveal what people from another timeline might find appalling about our own. This is a route to a better future, though we will have to navigate choppy and strange waters to get there.

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Further Reading

Stephen Baxter, Time’s Tapestry series, 2006 onwards.

Philip K. Dick, The Man in the High Castle, 1962.

Grace Dillon, ed., Walking the Clouds: An Anthology of Indigenous Science Fiction, 2012.

Robert Fogel, Railroads and America’s Economic Growth,1964.

William Gibson, Agency, 2020.

Louis-Napoléon Geoffroy, Apocryphal Napoleon, 1841.

Michael Grant’s Soldier Girl series, 2016 onwards.

Robert Harris, Fatherland, 1992.

Karen Hellekson, The Alternate History: Refiguring Historical Time, 2001.

R.A. Lafferty, “The Three Armageddons of Enniscorthy Sweeny”, 1977.

Murray Leinster,“Sidewise in Time”, 1934.

Livy, Ab Urbe Condita.

Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons, Watchmen, 1986-7.

Glyn Morgan and Charul Palmer Patel, eds., Sideways in Time: Critical Essays on Alternate History Fiction, 2019.

Salvador Murguia, ed., Trumping Truth: Essays on the Destructive Power of “Alternative Facts”, 2019.

Mike Resnick, ed., Alternative Presidents, 1992.

Joanna Russ, The Female Man, 1975.

C.J. Sansom, Dominion, 2012.

Curtis Sittenfeld, Rodham, 2020.

J.C. Squire, ed., If It Had Happened Otherwise, 1931 (Contains Churchill’s alt-Gettysburg, as well as uchronias by G.K. Chesterton, Hillaire Belloc and Andre Maurois).

Brian M. Thomsen and Martin H. Greenberg, eds., Alternate Gettysburgs, 2002.

Gerald Vizenor, “Custer on the Slipstream”, 1978.

H.G. Wells, A Modern Utopia, 1903.

Fumi Yoshinaga, Ōoku, 2005 onwards.

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Bio:

Jim Clarke has taught literature at universities in Ireland, the UK and Belarus. He is the author of The Aesthetics of Anthony Burgess (2017) and Science Fiction and Catholicism (2019), and blogs at www.jimclarke.net. He has written on Anthony Burgess, JG Ballard, Iain M. Banks and many other SF authors, and is also co-investigator of the Ponying the Slovos project, which explores how invented literary languages function in translation and adaptation: https://ponyingtheslovos.coventry.domains

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