What-Iffings of Futures Past: Some Reflections on Counterfactual Fiction

By Seth Studer

Historians don’t really like to deal with counterfactuals, with what might have been. They want to talk about history. How the hell do you know…what might have been? Who knows? Well, I know certain things.

– Robert McNamara, The Fog of War 

1. Different, but the Same

In college, I frequently attempted to diffuse the awkwardness of a first date by describing counterfactual U.S. elections. Attempting to impress my date, I didn’t confine myself to the obvious reversals (Nixon in 1960, Gore in 2000). I described how Dewey in 1948, Humphrey in 1968, or Bush in 1992 could have happened, detailing both the electoral math and the historical consequences.

I did not go on many second dates.

A&8_Political_MapWhat if I had suppressed my urge to share these speculations over coffee at the Java House? What if we’d gone to Starbucks instead? What if I had waited until the fourth or fifth date before retrieving those counterfactual electoral maps from my backpack and explaining how a 1948 Dewey victory would have rendered the modern Republican party unrecognizable? Would I be married to someone else today? Would I be single and living in Angola (or East Sudan, a nation that exists in this scenario)?

Such speculation is pointless, because under no conditions would I have suppressed my enthusiasm for alternate history. Not because my enthusiasm is irrepressible, but because any alternative scenario is impossible. What was is, inalterably: this is the first principle of historical analysis. The fact of the past always takes precedence. Conditions for alterity never were. There is no plausible alternate history.

Our grammar disagrees with the best practices of historical scholarship. The subjunctive mood allows for speculation backward and then forward. In philosophy, counterfactual theory is a thing, although it rarely addresses Confederate victories or missing Hitlers[1]. Literary scholars take counterfactual fiction seriously, but questions of how these fictions work – or how the cultural, political, and even grammatical constructions of counterfactuality work – supersede questions of if they work.

And that’s good, because counterfactual histories never work. Unless you narrow your parameters to banal observations (e.g., “if George H.W. Bush died in 1990, Dan Quayle would have become president”), you cannot arrange historical events in any pattern other than their own. Too many factors were/are in play. The past is inert. So what matters in good counterfactual fiction is not a rigorously executed chain of historical causality, but a balance of plausibility and novelty that favors the latter (e.g., “if George H.W. Bush died in 1990, Dan Quayle would have become president, the Soviet Union would have remained intact, and the United States would have been annexed by Canada”).

The best counterfactual fiction adheres to two principles: first, alter as little as possible for the greatest impact. E.g., assassinating Reagan in 1981 changes a lot with a single bullet. Second, make the consequences of your alteration plausible. E.g., kill Reagan, and you might stop neoliberal economic reforms and forestall the end of the Cold War. On its face, that’s a plausible, high-stakes counterfactual. But if American neoliberalism and Soviet collapse were inevitable even without Reagan, the scenario packs less of a punch.

Alternate-HistoryConsequently, alternate history relies on great men and big events, not broad historical forces. An exhausting plurality of counterfactual novels fiddles with World War II (“what if the Nazis won?!”) or the American Civil War (“what if the South won?!”). After that, counterfactualists find easy work riffing on 1492, assassinations, colonial maps, and close elections. Altogether, these subjects surely account for 80% of counterfactual fiction[2]. Because all alternate histories are inherently implausible, a counterfactualist’s goal is not plausibility. His goal is to blunt his scenario’s inherent implausibility. The best counterfactual speculation adheres to the inflexibility of history. No matter how many players you shift in the foreground, the background – economic, social, and material forces – remains. Alternate history should be different, but the same.

Compare alternate history’s most prolific practitioner, Harry Turtledove, to Philip Roth’s counterfactual novel, The Plot Against America (2004). Turtledove’s interventions in Byzantine decline, Euro-American First Contact, the American Civil War, and WWII have massive ramifications, wholly altering the course of history. Special attention is given to great  men: generals, explorers, heads of state. Sometimes aliens get involved. Roth’s novel, meanwhile, posits an improbable Charles Lindbergh presidency that realigns U.S.-Nazi relations. The narrative structure is memoir: a fictional Roth, situated in the present, remembers his Jewish childhood in Newark. He was a minor figure with only a civilian’s access FDR, Lindbergh, and Hitler. By the novel’s end, the world has not substantially changed. History is not irrecoverably altered by Roth’s (fairly significant) alteration; it simply takes a detour around and back to its natural course.

My favorite counterfactual scenario reverses the Vietnam War, a major event in American cultural memory. Consider the following: sometime after Mao assumes power in China, the U.S. intelligence community decides that Ho Chi Minh should be “Asia’s Tito,” an independent Communist leader who helps contain China and the Soviet Union (the U.S. briefly flirted with this policy, which adds the requisite dash of plausibility). This policy hastens French withdrawal and unifies Vietnam. Fifty-eight thousand Americans and millions of Vietnamese do not die. The 1960s are less tumultuous. But Europe and Asia will still recover from WWII by 1970; financialization will occur in all developed economies; the Soviet Union will either weaken or liberalize; economic and demographic realities will force China open; competition will push the U.S. toward China. Secularization, decolonization, civil rights, perestroika, Islamic extremism, and the rise of the BRICs are all inevitable. The dates and details are different, but averting the Vietnam War – an event that affected millions – ultimately changes very little for the billions now living. A seemingly large event is, in the long run, pretty small.

2. Different, Not the Same

Last month, British novelist D.J. Taylor listed his ten favorite counterfactual novels for the Guardian. Half of Taylor’s picks tamper with WWII and adjacent events. These novels, including Roth’s Plot Against America, represent the best of a bad sub-genre. Taylor himself offers a fun twist on the WWII changaroo in his new novel, The Windsor Faction (unread by me). Playing to our recent (and weird) obsession with interwar England, Taylor keeps the rascally Edward VIII on the throne (sadly for fans of Masterpiece and that movie with Colin Firth, Wallis Simpson is apparently dead: this is how Taylor sidesteps abdication)[3]. Edward VIII foils his government’s attempts to undermine Hitler, because…well, once you stray too far from the premise of a counterfactual novel, things tend to get stupid. Unless you get very, very far from the premise, which is what the best novel on Taylor’s list – Kingsley Amis’s The Alteration – does.

alteration2Here’s The Alteration in a sentence (spoiler alert): a prepubescent English boy is recruited to be a castrato roughly 450 years after Martin Luther became Pope Germanius I, an event that blunted and contained the Protestant Reformation. The title’s “alteration” refers to both counterfactuality and castration. Most of the novel involves the castrato plot, set in 1976; Amis’s historical alterations and their consequences are background material.

The Alteration is not the sexiest or most exciting counterfactual novel you’ll read, but it may be (ahem) the ballsiest. Not content to reverse world wars, Amis essentially reverses Western civilization[4]. He wants an alternate history that is actually different.

So ask yourself: what is the most important event of the past thousand years (in the West, anyway)? The correct answer is surely the convergence of five or so mega-events, all of which occurred within a 100-year period: Euro-American First Contact, the scientific revolution, the proliferation of print culture, the rise of merchant capitalism, and European colonial hegemony. Smack dab in the middle of these mega-events is the Protestant Reformation, which is directly implicated in or bolstered by all of them. You needn’t agree with Max Weber to know that Protestantism was a prime vector for European modernity. And compared to capitalism, print culture, or First Contact, Luther’s break with Rome is a reasonably simple event to reverse.

But the Reformation is the very definition of an inevitable event. Would-be Reformers had always existed. Luther simply appeared at the right time. Amis knows this. How does he get away with his massive alteration? First, unlike most counterfactualists, he distances his narrative from his counterfactual premise. Amis is more interested in his alternate 1976, where England is Catholic and castrati still sing, than in an alternate Diet of Worms. Luther became Pope a long time ago, under conditions that are plausible only in a blur.

Second, Amis is not especially worried about plausibility. The novel is full of humor, absurdities, and inside jokes. In an odd moment, Amis’s protagonist reads a counterfactual version of Philip K. Dick’s Man in the High Castle, in which Pope Germanius I remained Martin Luther the Reformer[5]. Dick’s real-life Man in the High Castle (1962) is the gold standard (hey, what if we’d never ended the gold standard??) of WWII revision. Like Roth and Amis, Dick circumvents the problem of plausibility through distance: he does not observe counterfactual events up close or as they occur. The Alteration‘s fictional Dick is one of numerous devices Amis uses to suspend plausibility, distracting the reader with irony and levity.

alterationFinally, Amis allows for historical inevitability. A small reformation still occurs and anti-Catholic radicals (called Schismatics) still find refuge in North America. Without a capital-R Reformation, global capitalism and modern technology are inhibited. But they appear, albeit in atavistic form. European colonialism is severely stunted, but there are still colonies. Amis retains enough history to authenticate his massive alteration. In most plausible alternate histories, little things change but big things remain the same. The South wins the war, but the slave economy is still doomed. In Amis’s novel, little things persist but the big thing – the trajectory of Western civilization sans Martin Luther – is totally altered.

With a few deft literary maneuvers, Amis imagines vast political, economic, and cultural realignments simply by altering a few 16th century events, all while allowing for history’s inflexibility. In this respect, The Alteration is arguably the most successful counterfactual novel ever written. The result, however, is an unsatisfying novel to most fans of the genre: people like me, who obsess over “what if” scenarios and purchase terrible short story anthologies edited by Harry Turtledove. We don’t want irony or levity or distance. We don’t want alternate histories that acknowledge the impossibility of alternate history. We want options. We want great men: kings and generals and presidents. In other words, we want men and women, great or small, to have a singular impact. We want our votes to count. We want to save Kennedy, elect Gore, kill Hitler, prevent the Vietnam War. We don’t want to be alone, anonymous and without agency, faceless amid the currents of history.

Amis succeeds only because he neuters these desires. In the final pages of The Alteration, the castration that Amis’s heroes have fought so hard to prevent occurs. It occurs in a bizarre and wholly unexpected context, but it occurs nonetheless. It was inevitable. There can be no different ending.


[/1] These rigorous counterfactual inquiries, while interesting, are too abstract (“if x then not y”) and too narrow (“if president dies, vice president succeeds him”) to describe what would’ve happened if JFK survived and why that would’ve been awesome and/or terrible.

[/2] Too few counterfactual novels tinker with World War I. British neutrality is a fascinating and plausible scenario.

[/3] Cultural historians will one day study the Obama-era fascination with Edwardian English aristocracy and Wallis Simpson alongside the Reagan era’s Australia fixation and the fact that everyone stopped playing Guitar Hero the moment George W. Bush stopped being president.

[/4] Many counterfactualist authors have attempted similarly seismic shifts, with mixed results. Turtledove’s attempt is literally seismic, fulfilling Barry Goldwater’s dream of detaching the eastern seaboard from the rest of North America.

[/5] This is a device Dick actually uses in Man in the High Castle: characters read a counterfactual novel-within-the-novel whose plot aligns with actual history. Amis playfully uses Dick as a nexus of counterfactual paradoxes. 


5 thoughts on “What-Iffings of Futures Past: Some Reflections on Counterfactual Fiction”

  1. That’s so true. Interest in failed/failing states during a recession and neighboring black nations in the run-up to Clinton’s election (which was framed as a black victory, Clinton “the first black president”)?


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