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. 

Dainty Mouths & Big Burgers: Liberating Japanese Women

Ochobo level: Achieved

Japanese Burger joint Freshness Burger had a problem. Their largest burger, the “Classic” was a huge hit, but only among men. What was going on? Well the burger is enormous and in order to eat it you have to unhinge your jaw and get a little (a lot) messy. According to the campaign video, this was a deal breaker for Japanese women:

“For Japanese women, having “ochobo,” a small and modest mouth, is regarded as attractive. In public, a large open mouth is regarded as ugly and rude. It is therefore considered good manners to cover the mouth when opening it. This means they are denied the wild pleasure of taking mouth sized bites of this big tasty burger freely in public. Freshness burger decided to challenge this convention.”

How? By introducing the “Liberation Wrapper,” which covers a woman’s face with the image of a smiling closed mouth, allowing her to get down to the business of burger eating without looking unladylike. According to Freshness Burger sales of their Classic Burger have gone up 213% among women since the introduction of the Liberation Wrapper.

This campaign is getting buzz because it hits an internet trifecta, clever advertising, yet another bizarre thing Japanese people do (it’s officially filed under “weird” on msn), and gender politics. To the first and second I say yes and, what is “weird” anyway? To the third, obviously it’s troubling that women are hiding themselves behind paper masks to conform to expectations about “dainty” and “demure” mouths while men are free to scarf down burgers as messily as they like.

Maybe the Japanese just need a role model to teach them that ladies can eat burgers without shame. And no one makes a better role model for burger eating than America.  So let’s check in with some liberated American women to see how they eat a burger. Ladies?

Kate Upton for Carls Jr








Okay…not exactly what I was looking for but at least her face isn’t covered I guess. Let’s try again.

Still from Carls Jr Pulled Pork ad









Screen Shot 2013-11-05 at 10.16.39 AM








Well obviously this just isn’t a burger ad so there’s no problem with…

Paris Hilton for Carls Jr










You’ve got to be kidding me.

Clearly Carls Jr is the problem here, I’m sure if we check out some ads from other…what’s that? Burger King too?












Surely Arby’s, (home of the roast beef sandwich ®), would never…











Bun-boobs? Really?!? I give up.

To Faithful Warriors Comes Their Rest

By Kindred Winecoff

My family are evangelical fundamentalist Protestant Reformed Christians. Only two of those descriptors applies to me now (guess which!), but Halloween remains a weird time of year for me. Because of religiously-motivated conscientious objections on my  parents’ part I never had the typical American experience — dress up as something scary — when I was young, and so I never really bothered with the arrested development ritual — dress up as something funny and/or sexy — since I’ve been old. So Oct. 31 is not a big deal for me, except insofar as it inconveniences me, and I’m a bit suspicious of anyone over the age of 20 or so who still geeks out on it.

As far as I can recall, I was only permitted by my parents to trick-or-treat once. I was dressed as the Old Testament David. My neighborhood cohort, ghouls and ghosts and glow-in-the-dark skeletons, were not intimidated by my (fake) slingshot. I did not encounter any Goliaths. As I remember it I ran home in tears before collecting any candy.

My parents eventually realized that This Would Not Do. You don’t take a slingshot to gunfight. But they also could not let me celebrate the Devil’s holiday in style. Solution: a church-sponsored “All Saints’ Day” party, on November 1, wherein all the kids dressed up as Moses or Joshua or something (not too many good dress-up characters from the New Testament), got candy, and everyone had a wholesome time. It was a win-win. The church parties not only had candy but also games. Most of my friends were there, whereas trick-or-treating is pretty anonymous. There wasn’t anything scary, except for the spiritual warfare stuff that I didn’t really understand. Some of the less-observant kids got to celebrate two candy-receiving holidays in a row! And the parents seemed to enjoy themselves.

But! There was a subversive undertone that I did not appreciate as a child, and in fact did not know until just this week. All Saints’ Day was a Papist gyp. It originated in the 7th century, when Boniface IV consecrated the Roman Pantheon to the (alleged) Blessed Virgin and the Christian martyrs. My evangelical fundamentalist Protestant Reformed parents were bribing me with candy to celebrate the usurpation by a heretical egomaniac of a pagan monument! Strange brew.

Later, apparently, Byzantium tried to usurp the previous usurpation. This involved a shift from “all martyrs” to “all saints”. Wikipedia has the simple story. It was only a matter of time before there was slippage from the Orthodox to the Episcopalians, so the Protestant usurpation was not original to my family’s (Presbyterian) church. Around the turn of the 20th century the Anglican bishop William Walshow How wrote the lyric of one of my favorite Christian hymns to commemorate the day, which was shortly later set to a gorgeous martial tune. One of the better of the style, in a very strong field:

Secession Anxiety

By Seth Studer

1. Impostors

Okay, so feeling perpetually lost and out of the loop is a symptom of grad school. My department, like so many others, has the 2008 New York Times article on “Impostor Syndrome” posted in the grad student lounge. In my case, however, grad school merely exacerbated a preexisting condition. I am always out of the loop. I am always behind. These feelings are especially acute regarding technology. Unlike most of my middle-class peers, I grew up without video games or computers; my first experience with the Internet was relatively late (boo-hoo, I know). And I never caught up. I didn’t realize Cupertino, CA was an important place until I purchased my first iPhone in 2012 and read the clock, which was set to Cupertino time (my wife had to explain Google to me). Worst of all, my ability to navigate the Internet’s black markets is severely limited. My last illegal download probably occurred sometime in 2004; I never really figured out how BitTorrent worked. That same year, I went through a significant break-up with a girl from California. I felt two steps behind the entire world.

Time heals all wounds and grad school consumes all time, so I got over the break-up and never learned BitTorrent. But imagine my horror last week when I learned that some tech guy (is he important? how would I know?!) at Y Combinator’s Startup School conference (is that important??) advocated for Silicon Valley’s secession from the Union. Secession! I scanned two full pages of headlines on GoogleNews, each heralding with alarm Silicon Valley’s intention to secede.

I slouched in my chair, despondent.

Cool computers from California were dumping me.

Y Combinator's Startup School 2014
Y Combinator’s Startup School 2014

Balaji Srinivasan might put it differently. I’m not being dumped, I’m “opting-out.” I live in the “Paper Belt.” Borrowing language from Albert O. Hirschman, Srinivasan would say I’m “loyal” (perhaps against my own will), that I’m not utilizing my “voice” and I refuse to “exit.” Srinivasan’s speech at the 2013 Startup School, an annual conference for techie entrepreneurs, was covered in the most dramatic language: it was “brazen.” The Valley was “roused.” Srinivasan had proposed a “city-state” (Valley-state?). Practically every article covering the speech scolded Srinivasan’s (or the Valley’s) hubris. But they also emphasized his militant language: he described Godfather-style violence against industries, spoke of hit lists against American cities, and discouraged all-out war with the United States only because “they have aircraft carriers, we don’t.” Subtext: “not yet!” Is an arms race brewing? Srinivasan suggested that 3-D printers could be used to build drones. He spoke admiringly about Peter Thiel, whose investments in seasteading test the limits of U.S. sovereignty. So Thiel is the John Calhoun to Srinivasan’s Siliconfederacy. And make no mistake, Srinivasan is proposing secession. That word appears in every. single. headline.

Except that in his speech, Srinivasan never once used the words “secession” or “secede.”

Responses to the speech in tech and industry blogs were mild. The first response (apparently written as the speech ended) came from CNET’s Nick Statt, who called Srinivasan’s vision “utopian,” akin to Thiel’s. For Statt, the speech’s content was speculative. A few other tech blogs chimed in. At some point, the word “secession” was dropped, and then larger blogs and media began reporting the speech. By then, the coverage was absolutely fevered. Srinivasan had declared the intent to secede on behalf of his entire industry.

“Secession” is a tricky and troubling word in the United States. Beyond its most obvious association – the American Civil War – secession stirs imaginations and tests loyalties. For many African-Americans, “secession” is code for anti-black violence. In parts of the South and in Texas, patriotism requires fierce commitment to both the nation and the right to secede from it. In its history, South Carolina has threatened secession at least three times. New England considered secession before the War of 1812, as did New York City during the Civil War. And as much as I’d like to treat the Union Army 1861 – 1865 as the fourth branch of government, forever settling the issue, secession remains an improbable but available option to any group of malcontent Americans.

Mostly it’s all talk. But the language of secession is powerful: conservative populists (with no Canada to flee to) use it to excite supporters and agitate opponents. Political commentators are tantalized by it, gleeful that Todd Palin or Rick Perry might have a little secessionist in them. Most Americans are fascinated by secessionist movements beyond our borders: the end of the Cold War was a riot of new atlases. George Clooney couldn’t stay away from South Sudan. I’m always kind of rooting for Quebec to secede from Canada, even though I think the results would be disastrous. Break-ups are messy and fun to watch.

And this is why so many bloggers and journalists appended the word “secession” to what is essentially a TED Talk. Secession gets a reaction. It sends a chill down your spine.

2. “…the point is to change it.”

Srinivasan’s speech is not a call to secession, and the crowd is hardly raucous. Srinivasan is advocating “exit” over “voice” (terms borrowed from Hirschman), and he describes the plasticity of those strategies. Exit can take various forms. Secession is one, although Srinivasan seems ambivalent about nation-building. He emphasizes emigration. But no GoogleNews headline declared “Silicon Valley Emigrates!” (Sidebar: this critique is a substantive, not alarmist, take on the emigration issue. It introduces two other terms Srinivasan doesn’t use: expat and exurb.) Still, even his immigration/emigration language is problematic. He makes emigration sound easy. Given his biography, he surely understands it is not. He describes a society in which people “opt in” or “opt out” of whatever superior social format the startups create. If you like it, come. If you don’t, go. Hirschman’s notion of “loyalty” – especially involuntary loyalty – is left unexamined. “Voice” (change from within) is dismissed.

Once he adds “exit” to the already full lexicon of terms to describe post-analogue life, Srinivasan’s speech is merely confident speculation. Smart. Predicting the future of new technologies in public is foolish; if you must, it’s better to be broad and speculative (like Srinivasan) than narrow and specific (Paul Krugman). Srinivasan’s voice has that cocky patter common among tech industry males, a patter that grows more assured in close proximity to Cupertino. But his tone is cautious. He is generous with the parameters of “opting in,” allowing for degrees: someone as digitally illiterate as me can “opt in,” partially. On the one hand, I have no idea how to pirate Sherlock. On the other, I would literally incinerate a $100 banknote on the first day of every month rather than pay for cable television. Consequently, I pay slightly less than $100 each month to Amazon, Hulu, and Netflix for content. According to Srinivasan, that means something.

The best moment in the speech comes at the beginning, when Srinivasan unfavorably compares the U.S. government to Microsoft. The comparison is more apt than he lets on: as a software company, Microsoft’s market share remains enormous. In developing nations, their share of the smartphone market is a threat to Apple. Whatever sexy, streamlined product Silicon Valley rolls out, Microsoft will accommodate it or produce a crappier version (at profit). Much like the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park, Microsoft finds a way. Heck, I’m using MSWord on my refurbished MacBook right now. Quantity, ubiquity, monopoly, saturation: the virtues that made Bill Gates rich are the same virtues that made America a global superpower.

The Independent Liberaltarian Tax Shelter of Silica
The Independent Liberaltarian Tax Shelter of Silica

Srinivasan’s conception of American power is skewed. His “hit list” (LA, NYC, Boston, DC) overstates reality: China has altered Hollywood’s business model far more than Cupertino has. The U.S. dollar and the U.S. government aren’t realistic targets. Yes, newspapers are dead (thanks for that, btw!). Yes, higher ed is on shaky ground (but demand is still high, and universities aren’t newspapers). His hit list also focuses disproportionately on media, culture, and government, hardly the only sources of U.S. power. Where’s the exit from agribusiness? Big energy? The pharmaceutical industry? Can I 3-D print my own car? Sure, I can screw Columbia Pictures into charging Netflix less than they’d charge Regal Cinemas for White House Down. Viva la sécession! So how can I screw Monsanto? I don’t want to join a hyper-organic CSA, I want to do to Monsanto what Netflix did to Blockbuster! Where’s the start-up for that?

I’m sure it’s coming.

Thiel’s seasteading has always reminded me of George Pullman’s well-intended experiment with a totally corporate community. The politics differ, but both projects begin with the way things ought to be, rather than the way things are. Srinivasan isn’t as radical as Thiel, but both rely too much on “obsolescence” as an operative concept. Obsolescence in software and obsolescence in government are two different things. I doubt whether obsolescence is even applicable to societies or cultures. And whatever your political grievances against the United States, “voice” is surely preferable to “exit.”

Whenever my thoughts or temper turn radical, I remind myself of Benjamin Disraeli’s haunting declaration: England cannot begin again. I’ll happily accept new tools and new programs, but they must accommodate rather than abandon what is. Most problems and conflicts in the world are embedded in social and cultural institutions that only change incrementally. Srinivasan describes small nations like Estonia that innovate, and argues for more; he doesn’t mention the many small nations whose institutions are totally dysfunctional. Meanwhile, nations like China and the United States are not obsolete by any measure. Their preexisting governments, policies, and laws can accommodate gradual, stable change. Technological innovation must be part of that. Industrialism ended the Atlantic slave trade and made abolition possible – over time. But changing a whole culture is like building a medieval cathedral: you pass the work down from generation to generation, enduring the pace. I mean, it’s been 150 years and the South still goes on about secession.