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Jim Clarke

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.


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.



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 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:

Faith in the Future, or, Does Religion Have a Place in Science Fiction?

by Jim Clarke

I write this while in lockdown due to the global Coronavirus pandemic, amusing myself by reading Dune and Nnedi Okorafor. Perhaps, when you read this, the lockdowns will have been lifted. This period, stuck at home and making the most of it by catching up on reading what I like, reminds me of being a doctoral student at Trinity College Dublin. What would any sensible person do, if they had access to a copyright library holding millions of volumes, and most of their thesis written? Obviously, borrow and read as many SF novels as possible!

No more than people today can foresee how the world will look or function post-Corona, I had no idea where my policy of bulk-reading science fiction would lead. The human mind is probably the world’s greatest ever pattern recognition system, and I got tripped up when I noticed, in about the third novel in a row, that the protagonist (or antagonist, very often) was a Catholic priest, specifically a Jesuit.

In novel after novel, I found priests in space. Priests converting aliens. Priests condemning aliens. Priests who were scientists and priests who were bitterly opposed to science. There were robot popes. There were alternate histories where the Reformation never happened and the Vatican ruled supreme over the globe. Sometimes they even dominated the entire galaxy. A kernel of an idea formed. Perhaps there might be an academic curio in this, a novelty paper about the prevalence of Jesuits in space, or more broadly on the relationship between SF and Catholicism? I vowed to explore further. I borrowed some more novels. Over seven years later, I published my findings: Science Fiction and Catholicism: The Rise and Fall of the Robot Papacy (Gylphi, 2019).

What began as a side-project, a thin veil of legitimacy to justify reading hundreds of SF novels, had spiralled into a 100,000 word monograph. And even that was highly selective. It could have been three times as long. What surprised me during those years was that almost no one had written about this. Or to put it another way, my own pattern recognition wasn’t astonishing, but the fact that apparently so few other scholars had spotted the pattern was.

There is, of course, a reason for this. Unlike SF writers, who habitually incorporate the existence of religion into their work, SF scholars are often extremely antipathetic. For some, immersed in a tradition of Marxism, SF by definition must be kept pure from the taint of religion, a kind of exercise in Enlightenment values, narrowly defined. Those values are perhaps best expressed by British journalist Francis Wheen in his excellent book How Mumbo-Jumbo Conquered the World. Wheen’s theme is that the values of the Enlightenment are in retreat in the modern era. He defines those values as “an insistence on intellectual autonomy, a rejection of tradition and authority as the infallible sources of truth, a loathing for bigotry and persecution, a commitment to free inquiry, a belief that (in Francis Bacon’s words) knowledge is indeed power”.

These are of course fine values, indeed firmly intertwined with the Enlightenment period. But concomitant with them, in some eyes anyway, is the idea that they are antipathetical to religion in almost all forms. God, it seems, is unreasonable, and faith in God or Gods all the more so. The perception, however, that the main thinkers of the Enlightenment were atheist is somewhat erroneous. D’Holbach and Diderot certainly were and proudly so. It becomes fuzzier when people ascribe atheism to philosophers like David Hume or Spinoza, however. Both, after all, vigorously defended themselves against the accusation. However, there is a broad perspective, running from the Enlightenment period, or indeed even earlier, through to the critics of contemporary and recent SF, that the Enlightenment and religion are diametrically opposed, because they utilise different methods to pursue similar aims.

In this sense, Enlightenment values such as free inquiry are apparently not possible if an ancient text defines the parameters of research, and there is little point in pursuing knowledge if it has already been delivered in revelatory form. As James McGrath has acknowledged, “Both religion and science fiction tell stories that reflect on the place of human beings in the universe, good vs. evil, humanity’s future, and at times about the very nature of existence itself.” In proposing answers derived from revelation, religion relies upon transcendental authority, whereas science proposes provisional answers derived from the scientific method of observation, investigation, experimentation and analysis.

As a result, religion can be cast as antipathetic to knowledge, and hence to scientific inquiry, and ultimately to SF, the literary form which pursues ideas and which predicates itself on the propagation of science and the emulation of the scientific method in its production. This position is well summarised by the critic Paul Kincaid: “If we recognize SF as a literature forged in the rationalist revolution of the Renaissance and tempered in the secularist revolution of the enlightenment, then … as religion becomes a major issue in the world … a literature espousing rationalism and secularism seems more and more out of step with the world.”

What I’d like to question is whether that is indeed the only way to recognise SF? Certainly it seems to be the dominant way that critics have recognised it. Farah Mendelsohn, in a rare instance of a critic acknowledging religion in SF, notes that “SF is full of stories in which superstition is defeated by explanation; the immaterial is tamed by manifestation.” If religion must appear in SF, it must do so in order to be a whipping boy, a straw man opponent against the march of rationalist progress, as it does in Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End. But this is not the entirety of SF by any means.

For sure, a lot of SF authors have indeed been ardent atheists, or at the least, tended to show a greater faith in science than in any revelatory belief system. H.G. Wells loudly proclaimed his atheism and socialism to anyone who would listen, and this can easily be detected in the forms of utopia he expressed in his less interesting novels. In America, the maturing pulp tradition under the editorial eye of firstly Hugo Gernsback and later John Campbell firmly located the stories they fostered in a milieu that envisioned technological answers to all of humanity’s problems. The atom bomb blew a sizeable hole in this vision, no less than in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but it was decades later, with the advent of JG Ballard and the New Wave, before SF finally adopted a less than cheerleading position on scientific development.

SF came to prominence as a popular literary genre in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries alongside the rise of professional science, and insofar that it too sought to speculate about ontological possibilities and often featured scientific development and a positive attitude to mechanism and technology in its content, SF allied itself closely to science in any developing cultural arguments. In a culture slowly emerging from the legacy of Christian hegemony, SF came to associate itself with a progressivist, even radical, perception that science could and would supplant religion as the guiding societal and cultural ontology. In Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End (1953), this stance is illustrated by the alien overlord Karellen’s dismissive speech about the religious Wainwright:

“You will find men like him in all the world’s religions. They know that we represent reason and science, and, however confident they may be in their beliefs, they fear that we will overthrow their gods. Not necessarily through any deliberate act, but in a subtler fashion. Science can destroy religion by ignoring it as well as by disproving its tenets.”

Even the very title of Clarke’s novel suggests an arrogant progressivism; the scientific miracles offered by mankind’s alien mentors are, rather than simply swapping a faith in one higher power for another, presented as growing up out of a lengthy cultural adolescence that is defined at least in part by its religiosity. And yet, it is curious that in so many of Clarke’s novels, a certain transcendental mode is achieved which, though often argued away as a secular sense of wonder (or sensawunda), often specifically identifies Buddhism as exempt from its inherent antipathy to religion. Even Childhood’s End permits Buddhism to survive as a faith when all others fail in the face of the rational alien overlord. Buddhism too permeates The Fountains of Paradise, the 2001 cycle and many of his short stories too. We lose something important by reading Clarke solely through the prism of atheism. Not for nothing was he praised by the Dalai Lama and once accused of being a canny theologian by the geneticist J.B.S. Haldane.

But not all SF authors are as atheistic as Arthur. And even he, slyly, often referred to himself as pantheist or crypto-Buddhist. Leaving aside the whole welter of consciously religious SF, written by adherents of various faiths, there are reams of SF classics in which religious themes and the issue of faith are not present as mere whipping boys for atheism, but as a central motif and concern. To take three of the greatest mid-60s English language SF novels, Roger Zelazny’s Lord of Light may posit advanced humans playing at Gods via technology, but the religious milieu is foregrounded much more so than the techno-explanation. Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land introduces the idea of an alien religion, a theme also explored by Philip José Farmer among others. And Frank Herbert’s Dune, the best-selling SF novel of all time, presents a Messiah, syncretically generated from a combination of Jesuitism, Arab Islam and the Zen Buddhism which Herbert himself followed.

One might have thought that these three novels, appearing within a few short years, might have put to bed the idea that SF was intrinsically incompatible with religion. But it seems that every generation must reconsider the carefully policed borderlines of SF. In 1974, Theodore Sturgeon was moved to write in justification of the presence of religion in SF: “religion and science fiction are no strangers to one another, and the willingness of science fiction writers to delve into it, to invent and extrapolate and regroup ideas and concepts in this as in all other areas of human growth and change, delights me and is the source of my true love for the mad breed.”

Sturgeon, writing nearly a decade after Dune, insisted that SF should accommodate what he called the “infrarational”, a supralogical mode which includes religion. The infrarational, he wrote, is “that source of belief, faith, and motive which exists beside and above reason. So conditioned have we been by Aristotle, Kant, and Freud that we tend to believe that any force, object, or problem will yield to rational processes; when they don’t, we blame the process and call up yet more logic. The infrarational, however, is a very large component in us, and while reason calls it ignorance and stupidity (viz, trying to talk someone out of a fear of the dark or of snakes), it is neither. It is the infrarational, source of many of our motivations and the tint reservoir of much of our thinking. We will never succeed in reaching our optimum as a species until we learn the nature of the infrarational. We may fail as a species unless we do.”

However, we may still be failing as a species. In late April, Nnedi Okorafor took to social media after reading one too many well-meaning tweets that praised her novel Lagoon: “I wake up to someone saying Lagoon is an ‘amazing fantasy story’. Whyyyyy is it so hard for people to say my name and science fiction?? What is that? “Unfamiliar cultures” does not equal fantasy. “Different spiritual worldview” does not equal fantasy. Check yourself. If the story has aliens in it invading Lagos, it’s science fiction. And that’s my TED Talk for today.” Does the presence of aliens alone designate SF? Even according to Marxist critic Darko Suvin, aliens would qualify as a novum, his defining characteristic of SF. Yet there appears to be confusion among Okorafor’s fans. This is, perhaps, understandable, since mainstream critics like Gary Wolfe and Alexandra Alter have firmly, and perhaps sloppily, located Okorafor within the fantasy genre. Clearly Okorafor, quite legitimately, sees herself as writing in both genres, or perhaps even across them.

Her earliest novel, The Shadow Speaker, is set in a post-apocalyptic future with alien planets, but also has a peace bomb made with magic, and features many religious references. Zahrah the Windseeker, which won the Wole Soyinka prize in 2008, features magical children who express some of the myths of West Africa. Who Fears Death, her first adult novel, won the 2011 World Fantasy Award and obtained nominations for the Locus and the Nebula, despite its post-apocalyptic setting. Again it features magic and African mythology strongly. Akata Witch, as the title suggests, again features a magical female child protagonist. It is arguable, therefore, that Lagoon’s appearance in 2014 was a paradigm shift of sorts for Okorafor, from fantasy to more science fictional material. Certainly, the Binti trilogy which followed, with its space travel, tentacled aliens and Hugo and Nebula awards, is indisputably SF.

She is hardly the first writer to move seamlessly between fantastical sub-genres, and she has recognised in the past that she writes on the borders of cultures, which perhaps inspires her ability to traverse those carefully-policed genre borders also. She told NPR in 2016: “That’s very much a part of my identity, and it’s also very much a reason why I think I ended up writing science fiction and fantasy because I live on these borders – and these borders that allow me to see from multiple perspectives and kind of take things in and then kind of process certain ideas and certain stories in a very unique way. And that has led me to write this strange fiction that I write, which really isn’t that strange if you really look at it through a sort of skewed lens.”

That skewed lens seems to be throwing some of her fans, who seem incapable of acknowledging a SF novel from an author who had previously delivered fantasy novels inspired by the mythology of her Nigerian heritage. However, they are in good company, no less purblind to the obvious than those critics who insist that religion is misplaced in SF. Perhaps the critics are the more culpable because theirs is a willing blindness to the necessity of the infrarational. It is a necessity that has been explored by Frank Herbert, and Nnedi Okorafor, and a myriad other SF writers. SF inflected not only by Catholicism, but by Buddhism, Hinduism, Mormonism, Islam, Judaism and any number of indigenous belief systems has existed for a very long time and continues to thrive today.

The origin myth of SF told by many of its critics is erroneous. The Enlightenment was mostly the product of religious minds, and was not antipathetic to religion, though religion was often antipathetic to it at times. The scientific method is a method for closing in on truth, not a faith-based belief system in itself as so often misunderstood. And insofar as SF emulates that method, it is not the in-house literature of ardent atheists, but of all future-focused readers interested in speculation and ideas.

It’s time for the logical fallacy to come to an end. SF is not only the legacy of HG Wells but also of CS Lewis. At its best, in novels like Dune or Lagoon, it embraces the infrarational which Sturgeon wrote about, the “different spiritual worldview” which some of Okorafor’s readers, and many SF critics, find uneasy. Yet religion is an inherent part of SF – not its totality, but far from something to be denied or excluded. It’s okay to have some faith in the future.



Arthur C. Clarke, Childhood’s End, London: Ballantine, 1953.

Arthur C. Clarke, The Fountains of Paradise, London: Gollancz, 1979.

Jim Clarke, Science Fiction and Catholicism: The Rise and Fall of the Robot Papacy, Canterbury: Gylphi, 2019.

Robert Heinlein, Stranger in a Strange Land, New York: G.P. Putnam’s, 1961.

Frank Herbert, Dune, Boston: Chilton Books, 1965.

Paul Kincaid, “Fiction since 1992”, in The Routledge Companion to Science Fiction, London: Routledge, 2003.

Farah Mendelsohn, “Religion and Science Fiction”, in Cambridge Companion to Science Fiction, Eds. Edward James and Farah Mendelsohn, Cambridge: CUP, 2003.

Nnedi Okorafor, Lagoon, London: Hodder & Stoughton, 2014.

Theodore Sturgeon, “Science Fiction, Morals, and Religion”, in Science Fiction, Today and Tomorrow, Ed. Reginald Bretnor, New York: Harper & Row, 1974.

Francis Wheen, How Mumbo-Jumbo Conquered the World, London: Fourth Estate, 2004.

Roger Zelazny, Lord of Light, New York: Doubleday, 1967.



Jim Clarke is a Senior Lecturer in English and Journalism at Coventry University, where he teaches SF. He is the author of The Aesthetics of Anthony Burgess (2017) and Science Fiction and Catholicism (2019). 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:

Can Science Fiction be Conservative?

by Jim Clarke

O, weep for Adonais for he is dead! The great defender of the Western literary canon, Harold Bloom, recently passed away aged 89, after a lifetime of arguing the legitimacy of studying what he considered to be the greatest works of literary merit emanating from Western culture. Bloom was a formidable figure, ferociously learned, astonishingly well-read, and the author of some 40 books. His obituaries were perhaps coloured by this range and breadth of his knowledge even after his death, because they were tentatively scornful, much less critical than one might expect from the obituary of someone who spent a lifetime defending the concept of Western culture and a core canon therein.

Bloom’s core list would be unlikely to attract many supporters today, a mere quarter century after he created it. Indeed, he himself even disowned the appendices, often treated as an ultimate TBR list by many, because he felt they distracted from his actual intention of defining the characteristics of the Western literary tradition. Bloom’s list of worthies, the 26 writers The Western Canon focuses on, are almost all white, and mostly male. He can be regarded as an unashamed elitist, disregarding literary traditions of lowly or pulp origins, as SF might be considered.

Indeed, in the nearly 600 dense pages of 1994’s The Western Canon, there are precisely two references to science fiction in the main body of the text, both relating, somewhat bizarrely, to the estranging quality of Milton’s Paradise Lost. Bloom did not appear to consider a genre with such pulp origins sufficiently high-brow to enter his sacred canon. Well, that’s not quite true. What’s more true is that he recognised quality SF without necessarily recognising it as SF.

Hidden in those discarded appendices are a wide range of texts many would regard as science fictional. Perhaps we might dismiss book 18 of the Iliad, wherein Thetis visits Hephaestus’s forge and witnesses his golden servant-robots, as too much of a stretch to be thought of as classical era SF. We might similarly consider Leonardo’s notebooks to be ill-fitting.  But more plausibly, Thomas More’s Utopia is included. And what of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein? Or the tales of Edgar Allen Poe? In what he calls the Chaotic Age (what most of us call modernity), his list includes Calvino’s Invisible Cities, David Lindsay’s A Voyage to Arcturus, Kafka’s Amerika, and Sinclair Lewis’s It Can’t Happen Here, all often cited as SF texts by scholars.

The case is effectively closed when we encounter HG Wells, Capek’s RUR, and War with the Newts, Lem’s Solaris, Huxley’s Brave New World, Orwell’s 1984, Le Guin’s Left Hand of Darkness and Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker on Bloom’s extended list. The elitist Yale scholar’s apparent disregard for the genre of SF did not extend to excluding excellent SF texts from his canon. Similar applies to the more commonly identified sectors considered underregarded by canonical approaches to literature. Four of his 26 featured authors are women, and his extended canon includes African, Arabic, Yiddish and Caribbean authors. It could even be argued that, despite an predominance of pale, stale males, Bloom’s purview of what Western literature warrants preservation and attention is unexpectedly broad.

What we can be sure of is that Bloom was not engaged in tokenism. As many of his obituaries noted, he railed while alive against what he called the “school of resentment” that he saw coming to prominence in literature departments of universities. This school was defined by its predeliction for identity politics over other considerations, including aesthetics, which Bloom himself cherished above all. For Bloom this was a category error. As he saw it, the resenters were engaging in progressivist activism under the mask of aesthetic analysis of literature. Indeed, he says as much in The Western Canon:

“Either there were aesthetic values, or there are only the overdeterminations of race, class, and gender,” he writes.” You must choose, for if you believe that all value ascribed to poems or plays or novels and stories is only a mystification in the service of the ruling class, then why should you read at all rather than go forth to serve the desperate needs of the exploited classes? The idea that you benefit the insulted and injured by reading someone of their own origins rather than reading Shakespeare is one of the oddest illusions ever promoted by or in our schools.”

Of course, Bloom faced significant pushback on this position. In fact, his doorstop of a recommended reading list was only one salvo in a battle which had already been going on for some time within Anglophone academia in particular. The canon wars, as they are now known, raged mightily in the late 80s and early 90s, as progressive scholars sought to diversify and ‘decolonise’ literature curricula in American schools and universities, while scholars like Harold Bloom fought back in defence of the concept of the traditional literary canon.

His namesake (but no relation) the political philosopher Allan Bloom had been motivated, as early as 1987, to publish The Closing of the American Mind, in which he argued that encroaching cultural relativism in education was not merely shortchanging students but actively eroding American democracy. This so-called ‘dumbing down’ argument extended far beyond an attempt to preserve literature as a bastion of dead white guys. Allan Bloom railed against cultural relativism in all forms, condemning for example the teaching of rock and pop music in the place of classical music. His provocative attempt to conserve his understanding of Western culture, and by overt extension Western civilisation, was accompanied by similar screeds by other scholars, such as ED Hirsch’s Cultural Literacy (1987), Roger Kimball’s Tenured Radicals (1990) and Dinesh D’Souza’s Illiberal Education (1991).

These writers traced the cultural relativism back to the counterculture of the Sixties, when various forms of activism and liberation, primarily identity-based, inspired educators to challenge the concept and content of established cultural canons for the first time. Driven on by French poststructuralist thinkers like Foucault, Derrida and Althusser, who were simultaneously derided by Allan Bloom as second-rate philosophers, new faculty entering American universities began the war on Western Civilisation, which went overground in the general public’s eyes when US presidential candidate Jesse Jackson joined students at prestigious Stanford university to chant “Hey, Ho! Western Culture’s got to go!”

By the time Harold Bloom entered the fray in 1994 with his lengthy treatise in favour of reading authors like Milton, Shakespeare, Emily Dickinson and Samuel Beckett, it was almost the final sally forth for the conservative position. Bloom himself knew that the argument had to some extent been lost. A mere four years later, he acknowledged this defeat, in an article for the Boston Review.

Referencing Thucydides’ famous account of the Spartan commander Leonidas at the Battle of Thermopylae, Bloom mischievously claimed “They have the numbers, we, the heights.” Ranked against him, like the hordes of Persians against those famous 300 Spartans, were “the multiculturalists, the hordes of camp- followers afflicted by the French diseases, the mock-feminists, the commissars, the gender-and-power freaks, the hosts of new historicists and old materialists.” Bloom was of course an avid and familiar reader of the classics. He knew the lesson of Thermopylae. Leonidas and his men held out bravely against vastly larger forces. But ultimately, they lost.

I reprise these hoary old academic arguments at some length primarily because the scale of the defeat is no less total than that at Thermopylae, as Bloom foresaw. Young scholars and readers of literature nowadays, studying the humanities not only in America but across the entire world, are entirely familiar with diversity quotas in curricula, decolonised perspectives and the essential centrality of identity concerns in any scholarly attempt to analyse or examine cultural outputs. They are perhaps aware that in ye olden tymes of yore, white men sought to triage their own cultural work above all others, and to the exclusion of all others, or so they are taught. They are perhaps less aware that a mere generation ago, these issues were still a matter of hot cultural debate. Nowadays, they seem entirely settled.

And if there ever was a literary genre in which the issues were argued first and settled first, it was science fiction. Even as the canon wars were raging, scholars like Tom Moylan were proposing that not only was science fiction fundamentally utopian, but that it actually functioned as a literary arm of politically progressive activism. In the previous decade, Darko Suvin had identified Marxist estrangement as a core descriptor of the genre itself.

Practitioners of SF were hardly divorced from the interests of scholars either. The New Wave, which came to prominence alongside the 60s counterculture and can in some ways be seen as analogous to it, was overt in its aspirations to transgress not only established cultural and literary norms, but established genre traditions too. Out went Tolkienian fantasy – too Christian, inherently racist – and the space opera narratives of a previous generation were abandoned for pessimistic inner space narratives, in which psychological insight and experimentalism reigned.

But the genre that the New Wave were writing in response to had in their turn thought themselves to be at the vanguard of progressivism. The aspirations of space travel, and the ever-present technophilia of the kind of SF fostered and promoted by firstly Hugo Gernsback and later John Campbell in the US pulps was not a backward-looking endorsement of the status quo but a radical attempt to imagine into being a future-focused, technologically enhanced existence via literature.

They too had been influenced in their turn by earlier writers, most especially the utopian fictions of the late 19th century. Texts like Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward (1887) were so influential over the general public that his socialist ideas for a future 21st century led people to create hundreds of Bellamy clubs to bring his ideas to fruition. For those, like me, who consider SF proper to have become fully established as a literary genre only alongside the development of professionalised science and engineering, this brings us back to the very origins of SF itself.

So has SF always been progressive? Yes, insofar that its future focus predicates it towards topics and ideas which envisage different, better existences (or warn against possible worse ones.) In this sense, it is the truest emanation of the cultural revolution that began back in the Age of Enlightenment, in its attachment to the idea that our existence, assisted by science, ratchets ever forward. But that is not the same as saying that it has always been progressive in the contemporary political understanding of the term. Far from it.

As Jeanette Ng’s acceptance speech for John W. Campbell award for the Best New Writer at this year’s Worldcon in Dublin indicates, the progressivism of the past is far from sufficiently enlightened for many readers and writers of SF today. Condemning the genre-definer after whom her award was named, she slammed the history of SF as “Stale. Sterile. Male. White.” This is an intriguing set of critiques worth examining, especially in light of its mostly enthusiastic reception.

Stale is a legitimate value judgement, though one Harold Bloom would no doubt resist. Every cultural product is of its time and may go stale eventually. Sterile is much less easy to justify. Ng writes in the genre that Campbell helped to bring into being. She is ultimately, like it or no, his cultural offspring in that sense. Male and white are identity descriptors, teetering on the brink of discriminatory judgement. The audience that enthusiastically cheered Ng’s speech was, by odd curiosity, also largely male and white, as SF audiences often tend to be.

With Campbell denounced as a “fucking fascist” from the podium, it was perhaps inevitable that the award was almost instantly renamed. If he was a fascist, and by contemporary standards he certainly held unsavoury views about women and Jewish people in particular, then he was far from alone in his generation. Modernist scholars are well aware of this particular minefield of judging past luminaries through current political perspectives. Ezra Pound, TS Eliot, WB Yeats, Wyndham Lewis, Knut Hamsen and a host of other highly regarded writers all harboured fascist sympathies in that time.

So extensive were those views among the literati of the 1930s that critics like Mark Antcliff have questioned whether Modernism and Fascism might even be considered somewhat synonymous. Is it then truly impossible to disentangle John Campbell, the revolutionary author and editor of SF, from John Campbell, the man with the unsavoury views on Jews and women? Is it not possible to hold two simultaneous perspectives that each have validity? This is the kind of unnuanced judgement Jeanette Ng proffered, and the kind of ideological argument that our current culture wars force us into.

Harold Bloom’s warning from The Western Canon now becomes salutory. We do not right the wrongs of the past by consciously overdetermining race, class or gender. And the best way to serve exploited classes is indeed to serve them without mediation, rather than via some spurious ‘decolonising’ of an entity which by definition was never colonised in the first place. But that is beside the point.

Only an utterly blinkered individual would refuse, on grounds of race or gender, to read the scintillating SF emerging from writers like Cixin Liu or NK Jemisin, or movements like Afrofuturism or Ricepunk. Ng is perfectly correct to note that SF has evolved into a much broader and different space in our contemporary globalised world, with new audiences and authors from far beyond the genre’s Anglo-American origins.

Which brings me back to my rhetorical question – can SF be conservative? This is a term no less loaded than its mirror image, progressive. SF has never sought to conserve anything. It has always aimed to radically envisage different realities and new futures. And as scientific discovery unveils new technologies and understandings of how our world and universe work, so does it render older SF defunct. Where are the Martians of Edgar Rice Burroughs or Philip K Dick? We now know they never were and never could be.

Yearning for the SF of the past therefore runs the risk of becoming somewhat hauntological, to use Derrida’s term. We become haunted by nostalgia for futures that never came to pass. Such things are impossible to conserve, because they never were. But if we accept the argument that SF should aim to accommodate wide-ranging perspectives in order to inspire readers from global cultures, then we must also accept that some among the predominantly white male fandom attending Worldcon may also require authors representing them too. Directing them to authors of the past is simply hauntological.

There is room in the vast halls of SF, to paraphrase what HG Wells once wrote to James Joyce, for us all to be wrong. Despite the astonishingly prescient writings of authors like Arthur C Clarke and JG Ballard, most SF will not prove to be predictive of the future, and indeed nor does it aim to be. The divisive votes for, inter alia, Donald Trump as US President and Brexit in Britain indicate that we live in increasingly polarised societies with world views that often radically clash within the same societies. SF will inevitably emerge from all of these perspectives, and it is only the ideologues among us who view SF as adjunct to political activism who will refuse to engage with writing from alternative viewpoints.

SF may not seek to conserve, but in some ways it has always been conservative. It is, as I have argued in my recent book Science Fiction and Catholicism, deeply anti-Catholic as a genre and always has been. This is by definition a reactionary position. Similarly, the political arguments that can be derived from authors like Robert Heinlein or Jerry Pournelle are notably militaristic and imperialist.

One particular text I have found intriguing in the context of considering the possibility of conservative SF, amid the welter of dystopian SF warnings about the possibility of future theocratic rule, is Robert Charles Wilson’s Julian Comstock. Wilson’s vision is of a future theocratic America ruled by an imperium, the kind of territory familiar to us from Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale.

In his novel, a new emperor comes to power with a radical yet antiquated vision. Like the Emperor Julian of antiquity, he seeks conservatively to turn back the clock and reinstate a previous mode of governance and thinking. For the classical Julian this was an attempt to displace Christianity with the old Gods of ancient Rome. For Wilson’s hero, it is an attempt to rehabilitate the technology and liberal polity of the 20th century, which has been disowned and lost in his future theocracy, itself a throwback to the 19th century.

The tools of radicalism, liberalism and progressivism in other words may be used to propagate a profoundly conservative world, Wilson argues. He also argues the contrast, that it is possible to seek to conserve radical and progressive world views. Julian Comstock’s reign fails ultimately because he spends too much of his time haunted by the forbidden archives of the banned 20th century. For those who view SF as an adjunct to progressive activism, this can be read as a call to arms, when in fact it is a warning. As John Campbell begins to be memory-holed out of SF history, it is worth recalling that in such divided societies as we now live in, those tactics may operate in two directions.

Harold Bloom’s Western Canon was condemned as an attempt to preserve a narrow and antiquated view of culture, when in fact it had hidden within it a broad range of texts from all sorts of eras, authors, cultures and perspectives, including SF. We dismiss the past at our peril, but fetishizing it is in itself a hauntological danger. SF needs to be both progressive and conservative all at once. Perhaps in doing so, it can also help to dream of futures which could lead our wider polities out of their current destructive polarisation.



Antcliff, Mark, “Fascism, Modernism and Modernity”, The Art Bulletin Vol. 84, No. 1 (Mar., 2002), pp. 148-169.

Atwood, Margaret, The Handmaid’s Tale, 1986.

Bellamy, Edward, Looking Backward: 2000-1887, 1888.

Bloom, Allan, The Closing of the American Mind, 1987.

Bloom, Harold, The Western Canon, 1994.

Bloom Harold, “They Have The Numbers, We, The Heights”, Boston Review, April 1st 1998.

Clarke, Jim, Science Fiction and Catholicism, 2019.

Derrida, Jacques, Spectres of Marx, 1993.

Moylan, Tom, Demand the Impossible: Science Fiction and the Utopian Imagination, 1986.

Ng, Jeanette, “Acceptance Speech”, Worldcon, Dublin, August 18th, 2019.

Suvin, Darko, Metamorphoses of Science Fiction: On the Poetics and History of a Literary Genre, 1979.

Wilson, Robert Charles, Julian Comstock: A Story of 22nd Century America, 2009.



Jim Clarke is a Senior Lecturer in English and Journalism at Coventry University, where he teaches SF. He is the author of The Aesthetics of Anthony Burgess (2017) and Science Fiction and Catholicism (2019). 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: