Posts Tagged ‘Bring the Jubilee’

ed Niall Ferguson: Virtual History

October 26, 2019

41w7zIAhyvL._AC_UY218_ML3_   As a lifelong reader of SF, I’ve always enjoyed what I’ve known as alternative futures, although some now call them counterfactuals: works where writers imagine what the world would be like if things had gone differently at some point in the past. I suppose the current classic example is Philip Dick’s The Man in the High Castle, in which the Axis powers were victorious in the Second World War, but there are numerous other examples. A couple of my favourites are Ward Moore’s Bring the Jubilee, in which the Confederacy won the American Civil War, and Katharine Burdekin’s Swastika Night, a dark tale set after seven centuries of Nazi power in Europe.

So I came back hopefully to this book which I last read twenty yers ago, only to be seriously disappointed. Niall Ferguson is a historian, albeit one with a far too right-wing take on things for me, and he provides a wide-ranging introductory essay to the subject, offering a taxonomy of counterfactual history, rubbishing Marx along the way, of course. Ultimately I found it impenetrable stuff, with its – no doubt simplified for the general reader – theories of history, and probably of no real interest to anyone except academic historians. In a paperback aimed at the general reader, it was incredibly self-indulgent.

None of the following chapters is fiction. Various historians tackle various moments which they have deemed crucial in history and survey the evidence and reflect on how things might have gone differently and what the consequences might have been. I found that the further they went back into the past the less relevant or interesting they were, so alternative outcomes to the English Civil War or the American revolution or the history of Ireland and Home Rule were tiresome. When they got on to the First and Second World Wars they were more interesting, but I did find myself wondering what historians would make of such musings.

The chapter on what the world might have been like if the Soviet Union had not collapsed was silly, because it was written far too close to the actual events, and the canter through an alternative past three centuries as an afterword failed because it was too telescoped.

I found myself thinking about how fiction does all of this so differently: history has happened, so re-imagining it is a futile exercise in many ways, whereas the fictional imagining of how it might actually have been to live in such alternate universes is creative and entertaining, as well as having the power to make readers think. Rather than being blinded by a snowstorm of hypothetical details in which historians have to locate names we know in order to remain anchored in their subject, we follow real people and daily lives and relationships in those altered worlds. Life in a world that has been under Nazi rule for centuries is grim, yet people have to live, and they still have minds and imagination, still think and act and desire. To hear in passing in that novel that there was once a race called the Jews, and then for the speaker to move on to something else straight away, has a chill-factor that no historian can generate… How Americans live their daily lives in a California occupied by the Japanese is an interesting, entertaining and thought-provoking act of the imagination.

The most interesting thing in this entire book was Dostoevsky’s comment on Brexit:

‘A man can wish upon himself, in full awareness, something harmful, stupid and even completely idiotic… in order to establish his right to wish for the most idiotic things.’

Counterfactuals, or alternative histories

February 20, 2015

We are reading about our own era, our own time, but the world is not ours: it’s slightly different, or greatly different, but things have changed, and we are mesmerised, drawn in to see what happens, why it is like this. There has been a fair amount written about alternative histories recently; it’s a genre I’ve always enjoyed, so it’s time to share my thoughts and recommendations…

At the obvious level, such writings are fantasy: that world is never going to exist. The novel is entertainment, often very good entertainment – and yet it is more. It is thought-provoking in the reader because it reflects the consequences of a different choice at some time in our past, and as humans we make choices all the time. It may reflect a different outcome to an action or an event, an effect of chance, and we are reminded that we are at the mercy of events, at the mercy of our own flawed decisions. On the micro level this is the story of our life, and on the macro level it becomes history.

There are some wonderful novels which consider ‘what if’, such as a successful Spanish Armada conquering England in 1588 (Pavane, by Keith Roberts), the Reformation never happening (Kingsley AmisThe Alteration), the Confederacy wins the American Civil War (Ward Moore’s Bring The Jubilee), the Nazis succeed in building their thousand-year Reich (Swastika Night by Katharine Burdekin), the Axis Powers win the Second World War (The Man in the High Castle by Philip Dick), Christian fundamentalists take power in the USA (The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood. I also have a whole collection of short stories written a century ago imagining the various possible outcomes of the coming Great War between Britain and Germany.

Historians have mocked the value and significance of alternative histories. I don’t see why; it’s hardly encroaching on their territory. But they have made the valid point that there are many factors involved in a chain of events, that no one, single change can be that powerful in isolation – for instance, the First World War would have happened even if Princip’s bullets had missed their target, the Second World War would have happened even if Hitler had been assassinated…

On that last question, I’m reminded of a fascinating novel La Part de l’Autre by Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt, which I don’t think has been translated into English. It’s about a young Austrian would be art student; it begins as a single story but forks into two different tracks and becomes two parallel novels in the same book. One track follows Adolf Hitler (for it is he) through failure as an artist, experiences in the great war, into politics and the rest is history. The second track imagines that same student a successful artist who serves in the Great War and comes home to develop a successful career as an artist; events gradually diverge from the ones we know: Hitler’s life as an artist has a public effect, the Second World War still happens though without his help, but still provoked by the injustices of the Treaty of Versailles… It’s not a brilliant novel, but it is fascinating and compelling precisely because the author has written the two diverting stories in parallel so we can see the gradual unfolding and diverging of the alternate history before our eyes.

For me, such writing is entertaining, and it’s valid as an exercise in humans reflecting on themselves, their choices and their errors and the consequences of these, and, as a citizen, I could wish that certain people did an awful more of that.

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