This week UnHerd begins a series of ‘alt histories’. For your reading pleasure, our finest contributors will be deliberately making things up about the past. But, then, that’s was alternate or ‘counterfactual’ history is — the exploration of things that could have happened, even though they didn’t.
But their non-historicity being the case, what’s the point of writing about them?
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If history teaches us anything it’s that we should expect the unexpected. But history, unlike the news, is something that’s already happened. Historians, unlike journalists, see events in the rearview mirror. As a result, they’re rather prone to deterministic explanations. For instance, there’s the Whig view of history with its narratives of ever-increasing freedom. Marxists, meanwhile, situate historical events within an overarching process of class struggle. Indeed, from millenarians to environmentalists to the friends and foes of the Anglosphere, everyone’s trying to bend the arc of history.
They can’t all be right, but they can all be wrong. That’s not just because of the dodgy interpretations they put on historical events, but also the significance they attach to them. Even if a particular development is accurately interpreted, it doesn’t lend much credence to your favoured narrative if it could have easily gone another way.
Just because we can be certain that something did happen it doesn’t mean that it had to happen. And that’s why alt history is so valuable. If we accept that the past could have followed a different path, then perhaps we won’t be quite so blasé about the future.
The historian E.H. Carr was was not a fan of alt history:
“…one can always play a parlour game with the might-have-beens of history. But they have nothing to do with determinism; for the determinist will only reply that, for these things to have happened, the causes would also have had to be different. Nor have they anything to do with history.”
Of course, being a Marxist, he would say that, wouldn’t he? An ideologically-trammelled thought process is pre-determined by where it starts from. The same, however, cannot be said for what happens outside our heads. That’s why Carr’s contemporary, Hugh Trevor-Roper, believed that one can’t fully understand a period of history without considering all the other ways it might have turned out.
For instance, why didn’t the Roman Empire conquer the German lands beyond the Rhine? A determinist might reach for some geographical explanation — the territory was inhospitable and the locals scary. And yet similar obstacles didn’t stop the the Romans from assimilating Britannia, so why not Germania too?
Well, because three Roman legions were wiped out at the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest, that’s why — and there was nothing pre-determined about that catastrophe. It required the mother of all ambushes, made possible by the extreme cunning of the German chieftain Arminius and the extreme gullibility of the Roman commander Varus. It could easily not have happened – and thus, untraumatised by such an unexpected and total defeat, the Romans might have extended the northern frontier to the Elbe or beyond.
What would a Romanised Germania have meant for the rest of history? It’s impossible to say, but we can imagine an unRomanised Gaul. The existence of France (and the French language) as we know it today depends on the fact that, two thousand years ago, the Romans conquered Gaul, but not Germania. Had things gone differently, French (and therefore British and therefore American) history would have developed along a very different path.
What this example also tells us is just how much of history depends on the character, abilities and decisions of particular individuals (contrast the ruthless brilliance of Julius Caesar in the case of Gaul with the trusting foolishness of Varus in the case of Germania). There’s something called the great man theory of history. It’s was a 19th Century idea and deeply unfashionable today, but while the individuals who change the course of history aren’t necessarily ‘great’ or, indeed, men — there’s no doubting their existence.
They don’t have to be heroes or villains. In fact, they don’t have to have much authority of any kind. Their impact doesn’t even have to be the result of a deliberate decision. They just have to do the right (wrong) thing in the right (wrong) place at the right (wrong) time. For instance, someone, somewhere, did something that introduced the Covid-19 virus to the human population. Whether that was eating a bowl of bat soup or dropping a test tube in a laboratory we’ll probably never know; but whatever it was, it made all the difference.
That’s why we can’t leave alt history to the historians alone. While some of them might see merit in exploring counterfactuals, their commitment to academic rigour acts as a constraint upon their speculations. Quite right too, but there’s also a case for letting our imaginations run riot — and for that we need story-tellers.
The Plot Against America, is a critically acclaimed TV adaptation of Philip Roth’s novel of the same name. The point of divergence from our actual history comes when the isolationist Charles Lindbergh becomes President in 1940. It’s a warning that no country is immune to tyranny.
The rise to power of a populist celebrity has obvious contemporary resonances. Too obvious, perhaps. In drawing parallels we shouldn’t overlook differences. I also have my doubts about alt history as wish-fulfilment. Curtis Sittenfeld had a best-seller this year with her novel Rodham — which re-imagines Hillary Clinton’s life and career if she had never married Bill. Amazingly, it turns out that she does better (in politics) without him — which, for a politician so inept in real life that she lost an election to Donald Trump, is stretching credulity.
Another example of alt history as political therapy is Ian McEwan’s Machines Like Me (2019). The novel’s setting is 1980s London. But in this version of history, Alan Turing has survived the homophobic persecution of 1950s and, as a result, the progress of technology has been greatly accelerated – with dramatic consequences. For instance, the Argentinians have AI-enhanced Exocet missiles and therefore win the Falklands War. Margaret Thatcher is thus defeated at the next election — by, er, Tony Benn. (Imagine an alt history in which a left-wing writer manages to portray our first female Prime Minister without humiliating her.)
McEwen also supposes that Turing would have created an artificial, but conscious, mind — and, furthermore, one housed within an artificial, but lifelike, human body. It’s true that Turing and his colleagues really did think that artificial intelligence was within reach; but, genius though he was, he turned out to be colossally wrong about that. A more insightful novel might have explored how — or if — he would have realised his error.
For an ‘alt technology’ novel that does convince, I’d recommend Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go (2005). This one’s set in a late 20th century England where medical science has taken a different and disturbing turn. Individuals are cloned and their ‘offspring’ — in effect, their twin siblings — raised in secluded institutions. Eventually, in young adulthood, the clones make a series of compulsory ‘donations’ — the basis of medical treatment for their ‘models’. Just how science and society developed in this direction, we’re never really told. Ishiguro keeps most of the details from us — and what he does reveal comes slowly. In this way, the readers’ experience parallels that of the clones, whose story this is.
In its mannered intimacy, Ishiguro’s prose creates a world as confined and claustrophobic as that imposed upon the protagonists, but without ever hiding the entire universe contained within each and every human being. And thus we’re lead gently by the hand to the story’s devastating conclusion.
Ishiguro’s minimalist approach is one way to do alt history — the other is to go all out and show us events unfolding on an epic scale. Instead of describing one small corner of the altered world, we get the panoramic view. Indeed, we might see the consequences of a point of divergence playing out over decades or even centuries. I’ve previously written about Pavane by Keith Roberts in which the Catholic Church defeats the Reformation and goes on to deliberately slow down the pace of technological change — with justification, perhaps.
The Man in the High Castle by Philip K Dick is set in a world in which the Germany and Japan win the Second World War and divide America between them. But more than that, the author shows us parallel realities. There is, for instance, a story within the story — a banned book in which the Allies won the war — except not as they did in our timeline.
Then there’s the master of the maximalist approach — Harry Turtledove. In his novel How Few Remain (1997) a missing message from General Lee is recovered by the Confederacy (instead of falling into Union hands, as it did in reality). From that small change, the author develops — in lavish detail — a timeline that extends into the 1940s. It’s not just that the South wins the Civil War, but that the two sides (the Confederate States and the rump United States) go on to fight the First and Second World Wars on America soil. By the end of eleventh novel in the series, the North nukes the South and America is finally reunified, sort of.
Fully fictional alt history can therefore go where scholarly investigation can’t. While there’s merit in examining the immediate consequences of a counterfactual, there’s only so far a serious historian can take the speculation. Once you get into second or third order effects, the mounting uncertainties overwhelm academic credibility. The novelist, though, can keep going — perhaps into the far future.
This allows us to ask an important question, which is whether the underlying forces of history would eventually reassert themselves. Even if certain details were changed, with short-term consequences, would the world end up in much the same place over the longer-term? For the historical determinist the answer is yes. If ‘great men’ like Julius Caesar or Martin Luther had died in infancy, there’d have been other Caesars, other Luthers. As for wars, some of them could have gone the other way, but for how long would that truly matter? Consider the Wars of the Roses, for instance. How many of us today know — or care — which side won?
But at this point we need to let science intrude upon the humanities. Chaos theory, for instance, teaches us that tiny differences in starting conditions can create hugely different outcomes. It’s a phenomenon known as the butterfly effect — so-called because, conceivably, the flap of butterfly’s wings on one side of the world could lead to a hurricane on the other. If that seems far fetched, then think about the comet that wiped out the dinosaurs. With the slightest change to its starting trajectory, it would have missed Earth and human history wouldn’t have happened at all.
The determinists, therefore, have missed something rather big. While the passage of time may erase some events, others are magnified.
A Sound of Thunder is a short story by Ray Bradbury. It’s a sci-fi scenario in which big game hunters travel back in time to shoot dinosaurs. The trip organisers are very careful about not altering the past. For instance, the only animals that get shot are ones that were about to die anyway. Furthermore, the time travellers are told to stick to a special raised platform, so that they don’t even leave footprints behind. But then on one trip, a hunter panics — he steps off the platform and crushes an insect. When he gets back home, he finds that his carelessness has changed the course history — and not for the better. A fascistic presidential candidate who was all set to lose the election is now the winner. Oops.
That crushed insect, by the way, was a butterfly.
This then is what I think alt history teaches us about real history: not that it is without pattern or meaning, but that it is fragile.
The things that we may regard as progress or count as our achievements, hang by a thread — a sequence of events, anyone of which could have turned out differently.
That’s worth bearing in mind as we congratulate ourselves on our comforts and liberties. That they were gained at all was not inevitable — and nor is their survival.
Whether or not one sees the hand of providence at work in human history, we should never take what we’ve got for granted.