Saturday, May 02, 2020

Glyn Morgan & C. Palmer-Patel - Sideways in Time: Critical Essays on Alternate History Fiction

The allure of alternate history is strong. According to the science-fiction author Stephen Baxter in his introduction to this fascinating book, the Roman historian Livy speculated in 35 BCE what would have happened if the conquering general Alexander the Great had not died aged just 32. There's many a revolutionary socialist that have speculated in meetings on the Russian Revolution (or more likely in the pub afterwards) on what would have happened if the German Revolution of 1919 had been successful and Russia not been left isolated. The Marxist historian Chris Harman himself argued in the introduction to his book on the German Revolution that the "starting point for the process of degeneration of the Russian revolution lay outside of Russia. Stalinism, as much as Nazism, was a product of the lost German revolution".

But Alternate History (AH) is not just speculation about the different paths that society could have taken. It is also a way of approaching history itself and, simultaneously, a way of understanding our own society today. The theme is not restricted to science-fiction. There are a great deal of novels that draw their themes from just two world historic events. The American Civil War and the Second World War. Some of the most popular books of the post-war period, from The Man in the High Castle (1962), to SS-GB (1978) to Fatherland (1992), the idea of the Axis power's success in the war has provided ample fodder for author's imagination and enthusiasm for readers. Part of that success has to be that there is a basis to the alternative history. In imagining Britain or America under Nazi occupation we can draw on the very real experiences of France or Belgium (though rarely on the experiences of Poland or Russia).

Central to the idea of AH is the notion of a fixed point in the past where an event leads to multiple outcomes and thus different histories, one of which is our own. In Back to the Future it is that famous 1955 dance. In his book Jingo Terry Pratchett mocked the idea with his theory of the trousers of time as one character experiences on history, but his personal organiser genie reports the other.

Baxter concludes that "alternate histories dealing with choices made by humans will always offer counterfactural insights into the way those choices were made". But he cautions that "all our history takes place against a backdrop of large-scale chance events". As a result, "it need not have been so". Putting this into more academic language editors Glyn Morgan and C. Palmer-Patel argues that AH is "nothing less than an unravelling of our linear and singular notions of history... AH then is not just about history; it is very much also about the present and the future".

This is particularly brought home in an essay in this collection by Jonathan Rayner Forever Being Yamato which explores the way that popular Japanese film, TV series, books and graphic novels have explored the consequences of the Japanese defeat in the Second World War. The end of the War for Japanese was a deeply traumatic experience for the population. The mystical Emperor was shown to be fallible, the country suffered horrendous firestorms and nuclear attacks, followed by occupation. In addition, the reality of Japanese occupation of captured regions in the Pacific shocked millions. Fictional portrayals of the war thus became an opportunity to explore the rights and wrongs of this, and to a certain extent erase the ignoble experiences through discussions of individual comradeship and sacrifice. Even seemingly fantastical examples reflect these themes, a film (from a novel) Lorelei, the Witch of the Pacific Ocean deals with a super-submarine that "is ordered to prevent the dropping of a third atomic bomb on Tokyo". A girl on board has telepathic powers to facilitate this mission, but real problems arise because there are "ultra-nationalist elements in the Japanese Navy" who want the bomb to arise to destroy Japan so a new, "pure state" can arise. It's easy to see how such stories can lead to the blurring of right and wrong in the decisions taken by the actual Japanese military leadership in 1945. Several similar stories deal with trips backward in time by modern warships or, more surprisingly, versions of the Battleship Yamato, herself a symbol of Japanese power. metaphorically propelled into the future. Rayner skilfully navigates both analysis of the stories and their insights into Japanese politics and culture.

One problem that readers often encounter in books like these is that they can be difficult if one is not familiar with the subject matter. Rayner's chapter, like the others in this collection, is an excellent counter-example. I needed no specialist knowledge of Japanese culture to appreciate his analysis. But in two chapters I did have that knowledge. One dealt with a favourite John Wyndham short-story Random Quest and the other with Kim Stanley Robinson's book The Years of Rice and Salt. Robinson's book is perhaps the most important example of AH discussed here. The book deals with a world where the Black Death destroyed European society and allowed the rise of a global civilisation that originates outwards from the Far-East. As a result Robinson's novel allows a discussion of European Colonial history through it's absence. Chris Pak's essay on the book explores the meaning of history in this context and highlights Robinson's own understanding of history. Pak explains that:
Readers are given a sense of these civilisations' development through the experiences of these characters, whose struggle with authority in various guises is both a part of - and sometimes directly contributes to propel - the social changes depicted in each epoch. 
This highlights the influence of left wing ideas on Robinson - this paragraph echoes Marx and Engels in the opening paragraphs of the Communist Manifest. Despite this, Robinson can still fall back, through the use of reincarnation in the novel, on a "great man" theory of history, despite the influence of Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs and Steel on the writer. That said, as Pak highlights, the use of AH can also highlight real, but forgotten history, as in the case of Zheng Hei's voyages of discovery. Thus Years of Rice and Salt actually helps our understanding of our own history, through the use of alternate history.

Anna McFarlane's essay on Lavie Tidhar's novel Osama also demonstrates this. In Osama the main character lives in an alternate timeline where the events of 9/11 didn't happen but are depicted in a series of in-universe fictional books. Through one of those books Tidhar gives the reader a chance to share an all-knowing moment, but also gives us a sense of the way history actually happens:
What if the Cairo Conference of 1921 went ahead as planned, with Churchill and T.E. Lawrence and Gertrude Bell dividing up the Middle East for the British? What if they chose a Hashemite King to rule Iraq, and would that have led to a revolution in the nineteen fifties? Or, what if the French war in Indochina somehow led to American involvement in Vietnam? Or if the British held on to their colonies in Africa after the Second World War... A series of simple decisions made in hotel rooms and offices that led to a completely different world.
But, explains McFarlane, this linear historical narrative is taken apart by Tidhar's book:
The circular nature of time in the novel reinforces its deviation from alternate history. Alternate histories tend to find a moment in the past from which to extrapolate, representing history as a linear process that emerges from the outcome of significant events... By creating a character trapped within cyclical time and a novel with a cyclical structure, Tidhar suggests the importance of affect after 9/11- the importance of terror, and the emotional impact of the attacks - means that events are not experienced in linear time but inflict a traumatic break with the past that demands a repeated return to the traumatic site and prevents historical progress.
Anyone with knowledge of US imperialism's actions since 9/11 will appreciate that sense of historic blindness which dismissed historical context and allowed military (and political) decisions to be governed by reaction to a single event, seemingly out of its time.

Karen Hellekson says AH allows "querying of notions of history, including its nature, its purpose and its outcome". This is echoed by the editors in their afterword who write that AH  "has depicted a vast amount of possible timelines, what these texts have in common is the idea that - through the depiction of a slightly different timeline - AH reflects on and reveals the nature of our current reality". While this is undoubtedly true, it is also problematic. Hellekson makes the interesting point that many stories of AH rely on various forms of "temporal police" who correct time-lines. This implies that there is a correct history that must be protected.

History is both the things that happen, and something that is created. The process of creation is contested ideologically. Several essays and the editors contrasted the "great man" theory of history to the Tolstoyan model of "millions of small events". But history is both those things and more. The aforementioned Russian Revolution was the consequence of millions of small actions made by living, breathing men and women. But there was also the singular role of Lenin, who, at crucial moments was able to turn the Bolshevik organisation in specific ways. These helped and encouraged the Revolution to take a specific course, culminating in the seizure of power in October 1917. That outcome might well not have happened if the German government had not allowed Lenin through on a sealed train. But it also might not have happened even with Lenin there. The fact that Lenin and the Bolsheviks to consciously attempted to shape history in the course of 1917 meant that the outcome became more likely. But not inevitable. Lenin was a "great man" but he was a factor in a specific moment, not someone who through sheer force of will could change the course of history.

This is worth dwelling on because, if there is a weakness in this collection it is that there isn't a real sense of what history is. In his essay on Robinson's Years of Rice and Salt, Pak notes the way that Zheng Hei's oceanic explorations were curtailed as a result of internal political conflicts in the Chinese state, he fails to draw this out as an example of how history is shaped by the growth of economic forces, shaping wider political interests and coming into conflict with existing political structures. Sometimes history does move forward, but it can also be held back and there in lies the real historical tale. I also felt that Alternate History isn't just fictional. We have examples from our own history. Marx and Engels, for example, contrasted the failure of the 1848 Revolution in German to the success of Bourgeois revolutions elsewhere to explain the differing historical evolution of political structures, economic and technology in European countries.

Perhaps I am being a little unfair. AH is not just about trying to definitely understand history and that's not what the editors of this book set out to do. AH also allows us to do other things. We can imagine other futures that aren't just about what might have happened if the Nazis had won. A great example of this is William Morris' novel News from Nowhere which, through the medium of time travel allows Morris to tell the story of how the Revolution was successful. We can also, in the example of Random Quest, enjoy a romantic love story taking place over different time-lines (though at the same time using it to see how ideas of gender, power and romance themselves have changed since the 1950s).

As such I recommend Glyn Morgan and C. Palmer-Patel's book. For fans of science-fiction (and Alternate History in general) there are lots of insights from the various authors into specific books, films and series, as well as some interesting new ones to try. Most importantly the authors all help us understand how the AH genre itself stimulates and encourages us to think about our own history, and our place in it.

Related Reviews

Mendlesohn - The Pleasant Profession of Robert A. Heinlein
Robinson - The Years of Rice and Salt

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