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Counterfactual history and historical fiction

In her book, “Telling it like it wasn’t: The counterfactual imagination in history and fiction,” Catherine Gallagher usefully distinguishes between three sorts of historical speculation:

1. Counterfactual histories which are “generally analytical rather than narrative” and “indicate multiple possibilities that went unrealized rather than to trace out single historical alternative trajectories in detail.”

2. Alternate histories, which “describe one continuous sequence of departures from the historical record, thereby inventing a long counterfactual nearrative with a correspondingly divergent fictional world, while drawing the dramatis personae exclusively form the actual historical record.”

3. Alternate-history novels, which “invent not only alternative-history trajectories but also fictional characters . . . presenting in detail the social, cultural, technological, psychological, and emotional totalities that result from the alterations.”

A few years ago we considered (also here) Niall Ferguson (in his pre-John Yoo phase), who edited a book of counterfactual histories and wrote a thoughtful essay on the subject.

And around that time I also expressed my view that a common feature of the best alternate-history novels is that the alternate world is not “real,” in the context of the stories themselves:

The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick. In this book, which takes place in a world in which the Allies lost World War II, hints keep peeking through that the world inhabited by the characters is not reality. Our world is real, and the novel’s characters are living in a fake world (which is imperfectly perceived by the title character, who is thus so dangerous to those in power). It’s a more complex twist on the theme of Time out of Joint, but ultimately the same idea: the people in the novel are living in a fake world which can come apart around them as they recognize that it is a shared illusion.

Sort of like The Matrix in reverse. It is a standard theme that our world is fake, there is an underlying truth, etc. Dick turns this around. (Actually, I’ve never seen The Matrix but this is what I’m imagining it’s about.)

Pavane by Keith Roberts. In this classic, the Catholics regained control of England in the 1500s, leading to a much different twentieth-century world. The backstory, eventually revealed in the novel, is that the masters of our real world had seen the risks of nuclear weapons and had rerun history to give humankind an opportunity to develop without modern science and thus get some more time to figure things out before having to deal with potential species-ending warfare.

Bring the Jubilee by Ward Moore, which describes a United States in which the Confederates had won the battle of Gettysburg and then the Civil War. In this one, the pattern of Pavane is reversed, sort of, in that the original world was the one described in most of the novel (the “alternative” history) but then, through some time-traveling mishaps, the story ends up in our reality.

In discussing these examples, I argued that the thrill or interest of alternate-history novels comes from playing off the fact that our world is the real one. We also discussed this point here and here.

Gallagher’s book didn’t bring up this particular issue of the role of the real world in alternate-history fiction, but it contained lots of other interesting ideas, and I recommend it. Among other things, Gallagher considers why certain alternative scenarios seem to have such strong appeal. She discusses how the scenario of Nazi-occupied Britain has been so popular, even though according to historians, this was never gonna happen: apparently the Germans never even had a serious invasion plan.

In 2016, by coincidence (I assume), two books with similar titles and similar topics came out at the same time: Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead, and Underground Airlines by Ben Winters. I remember reading the reviews when they came out, but it’s only recently that I read the books themselves. I liked them both a lot.

The two books are both alternate-history novels about American slavery, but they have some differences. As the titles suggest, Railroad takes place in the past (or, I guess, I should say, the “past,” as it’s an alternative version with some fantastical or steampunk elements), whereas Airlines takes place in an alternative “present.” Also, Whitehead is a literature writer and Winters is a genre (mystery and science fiction) writer, and this is reflected in their styles. Both books have a lot of plot, but Airlines is more plot-driven.

Anyway, both these books, in addition to being readable, thought-provoking, memorable, and funny—they both had great deadpan humor—had this feature that the real world is what’s real.

In Railroad this came about because the fantastical elements stood out from the rest of the story: the very ridiculousness of the “railroad” setup was a reminder of the groundedness of real life. Unlike the sort of alternate history that tries to convince you that, yes, it really could’ve happened this way, Railroad introduces an implausible foreground in order to render the background more plausible.

Airlines is different: there, the alternative world is treated more realistically with all sorts of little details that both connect the story to the real world and emphasize the differences—but the running joke of the novel is how this alternative world has the same sort of racism and racial inequality we see in the modern-day United States. The message, then, is that this is who we are: this aspect of real world is so real that even a massive change in purportedly pivotal historical events does not change it.

P.S. Here are good reviews of the three books mentioned above.

Telling it like it wasn’t, reviewed by Michael Wood.

The Underground Railroad, reviewed by Jay Nordlinger.

Underground Airlines, reviewed by Laura Miller.

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