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Alternatives and reality

I saw this cartoon from Randall Munroe, and it reminded me of something I wrote awhile ago.

The quick story is that I don’t think the alternative histories within alternative histories are completely arbitrary. It seems to me that there’s a common theme in the best alternative history stories, a recognition that our world is the true one and that the people in the stories are living in a fake world. This is related to the idea that the real world is overdetermined, so these alternatives can’t ultimately make sense. From that perspective, characters living within an alternative history are always at risk of realizing that their world is not real, and the alternative histories they themselves construct can be ways of channeling that recognition.

I was also thinking about this again the other day when rereading T. J. Shippey’s excellent The Road to Middle Earth. Tolkien put in a huge amount of effort into rationalizing his world, not just in its own context (internal consistency) but also making it fit into our world. It seems that he felt that a completely invented world would not ultimately make sense; it was necessary for his world to be reconstructed, or discovered, and for that it had to be real.


  1. Joachim says:

    One of my favorite xkcd comics is Settled:

    It’s a cool example of statistical inference. Evidence accumulates for a null hypothesis without any new data coming in. The only thing that changes over time is the expectation under the counterfactual.

  2. Steve says:

    Is the world over-determined or is our history of it over-determined. I can’t tell the history of any event in U.S. history without seeing its connections to slavery, Puritanism, Westward expansion, and so on. So, any historical event quickly looks over-determined, but is that really a function of the way the world is or is it a function of how we think about and do history (primarily in a narrative form where everything is connected to everything else). I do think the tension you are highlighting is very interesting. Alternative histories help us think about how single events could have gone differently and changed the course of events. So the outcome of history is precarious, but then we start to think about how many other events also needed to change. So, Pickett’s Charge succeeds and Gettysburg goes to the South, but Grant has already taken the Mississippi, and someone has to break the Naval blockade, and so on. Thus, historical outcomes aren’t so precarious. But, again is that really a function of how the world is or have I just connected so many different events in my exposition of history that I can’t imagine different outcomes.

    • Martha (Smith) says:

      Then there’s the question about what the world would be like if your parents had never met, or …

    • jim says:

      “Thus, historical outcomes aren’t so precarious.”

      Yes, agreed, that’s probably the case most of the time. In the US Civil War, the big surprise was that it took the union so long to win. The south had little industrial base and was populated largely by slaves, thus had a serious shortage of fighting men.

      I was in another discussion recently: what would have happened if Microsoft had won it’s case against the justice department and Apple had collapsed before the iPod and iPhone? OMG!!! Of course, Apple wouldn’t be here, but not much else would be different. We’d still have smartphones and tablets and music services.

  3. Manuel says:

    I’m not sure that our world is the “real” one in The Man in the High Castle. After all, Dick was all about questioning the “real” nature of reality. I always thought of this kind of works as explorations of causal paths using counterfactuals, isolating one casual factor (or a very reduced set of them), changing it, and trying to follow the effects. In order to do this, you have to be pretty sure that only the relevant factors change and all the rest remain as they were. So it seemed natural to me that instead of building all the details of a fictional world, authors chose to start with the world we know, saving themselves and the readers hundreds of pages consisting of just background-conditions world-building.

  4. Thanatos Savehn says:

    I too have been re-reading ANW’s masterpiece. We want to get to the end of the story but can’t escape that which produced it. Shame that.

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