By Alex Wallace
I can’t help but have noticed how, since at least Trump was elected, and intensifying with the coming of the pandemic, that the mainstream media and the great social media commentariat have taken a liking to saying that we now live in the alternate universe to some hypothetical ‘real’ timeline. To us in the West, the time of relative peace since the fall of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War seems to be coming to a messy and violent end. Our societies still seem incapable of grasping all of this.
I write this mere days after the storming of the United States Capitol. I live in work in the Virginia suburbs of that city, mere miles away from the madness unfolding in the District. This happened during the first major pandemic of the century (and I hope with all my heart that it is the last). The combination of these two things feels like one of those historical moments that encapsulates a particular historical milieu, like how an enterprising French fashion designer named his new bathing suit after a nuclear testing ground, or gay rights being advanced in a declining empire in deep cooperation with a nationwide miners’ strike. The storming and the pandemic are both world-shattering events, ones that to our immediate instincts seem incomprehensible and terrifying.
We alternate historians deal with world-shattering events with a regularity that is shocking to outsiders. We conjure new nations and new wars and new genocides out of thin air for the sake of intellectual stimulation on an hourly basis, such is the size of our little fandom. So to us, we should feel a bit more intellectually prepared for times when the Prime Minister prorogues Parliament for an unusually long time to ram through legislation or when India is shocked with the largest strike in history.
Consider the following about science fiction from a piece in the New Yorker by Kim Stanley Robinson (who has written many great works of science fiction as well as a great work of alternate history, The Years of Rice and Salt):
“Science-fiction writers don’t know anything more about the future than anyone else. Human history is too unpredictable; from this moment, we could descend into a mass-extinction event or rise into an age of general prosperity. Still, if you read science fiction, you may be a little less surprised by whatever does happen. Often, science fiction traces the ramifications of a single postulated change; readers co-create, judging the writers’ plausibility and ingenuity, interrogating their theories of history. Doing this repeatedly is a kind of training. It can help you feel more oriented in the history we’re making now. This radical spread of possibilities, good to bad, which creates such a profound disorientation; this tentative awareness of the emerging next stage—these are also new feelings in our time.”
Alternate history is at the very least adjacent to science fiction as another branch on the tree of speculative literature; indeed some would argue that it is a form of science fiction. In any case, Robinson makes the argument that thinking about the future creates a theory of history within the science fiction reader that increases their conception of what is possible. In alternate history, I would argue a very similar thing happens when alternate historians think about the past. In many ways, I think they go hand in hand (and I’d argue that the platonic idea of a science fiction fan is one that is also a history buff, but that’s an argument for another time).
To be an accomplished alternate historian, one needs to be very well read on a broad range of historical subjects. Events in one country are indelibly affected by events in other parts of the world; good nonfiction history knows this (as of writing, I just recently finished reading Eugene Rogan’s The Arabs: a History, and he rightly includes discussions of the Iranian Revolution and the Soviet War in Afghanistan, which were not in the Arab World but did have significant effects within it). It also teaches us that history is a systematic way of studying the world, or perhaps a system of systems thereof; all the myriad fields of human endeavor interact with one another to produce the world we live in, as economics and politics and religion and ethnicity form a kaleidoscope of possibilities that changes drastically as the slightest thing is altered.
In other words, practicing alternate history forces us to look at the truly deep causes of events. The policies of governments are not Boltzmann Brains; they do not spring up ex nihilo from the primordial mists of the universe, but are rather the products of a variety of historical trends. When I’m talking about my home country with those from elsewhere, I like to ask them:
“Our civilization started with businessmen at Jamestown and religious nutjobs at Plymouth. Are you really surprised we turned out this way?”
That is a simplification, but one that I think has some truth to it. Speaking solely of my own country, there are so many strange things that can be explained through something nobody would expect.
To exemplify this with recent events, let’s consider the storming of the Capitol. In many ways it exemplifies a very paranoid, dogmatic part of American political discourse that can be perplexing to many here, let alone those from elsewhere. Those of us who have studied American history know of its antecedents in McCarthyism and the Know-Nothings and the variety of populists that have existed in both in my country and in others; take Sam Adams, who was convinced that first the British and then George Washington were going to make white New Englanders into slaves. We learn how governments lose legitimacy and why empires fall; one might make comparisons to the fall of the Soviet Union as the legitimacy of the government has taken a nosedive among certain sections of the population. The research required to ingratiate yourself in alternate history circles does a very good job of building up a case of examples for comparison. It also encourages learning more recent politics; for example, I think Trump is comparable to Berlusconi and, more than anything else, is a wannabe Vladimir Putin. In other words, alternate history encourages a broadmindedness that I think that modern academia does not foster enough; one book by David Epstein has argued that generalists consistently predict the future better than specialists.
Epstein’s argument bolsters Robinson’s point: that examining times other than our own makes us think about the less-than-obvious ways history comes about. Alternate history confronts us with how many of the things we take as ironclad inevitabilities were in fact the products of flukes of geography or of other seeming minutiae. Indeed, it demands we break our orthodoxies; it shows us that Russia is not inevitably doomed to despotism, that Germany was not fated to commit the Holocaust (I’ve seen it said that if you were to ask a European Jew in 1900 who they’d think would commit a genocide against their people, the answer would most likely be either France or Russia), that the indigenous peoples of the Americas and Australia were not ordained to near-annihilation, and that the United States can produce a Jake Featherston or a John Smith as easily as it can a Dwight D. Eisenhower or a Barack Obama. It shows that Europe was never destined to rule the world, but did so through a convenient geography and a need to get to Asia without passing through the Middle East.
Richard J. Evans, the famed historian of Germany, once dismissed alternate history as a parlor game. I would counter him by asking: what’s wrong with parlor games? Truly great ideas have arisen from the coffee houses of Vienna or the salons of Paris. Why should we not use speculation as a way of trying to understand the world? This, I think, is one of the the greatest benefits of practicing alternate history (and I would very much argue that it is an action rather than a passive pursuit): it makes you think deeply about why the things you see around you and on the news are the way they are, and how they could have been so different. In doing so, it exposes us to how history works more broadly, and from there can show us how to fix what appears to be irreparably broken. We live in a terrifyingly uncertain world, one that has never had the reassuring dragon instead of the unnerving snake pit. To interrogate why these things happen, we must understand the systems of the world that have brought them about. Alternate history gives us a small light in the fog, but one that is useful all the same.