Brave New Worlds: The History and Purpose of Alternate Histories

Following last week’s post on the plausibility of The Man in the High Castle, Erstwhile editor Graeme Pente and friend of the blog Travis R. May (Ph.D. student, CU-Boulder) investigate the history of stories with alternate timelines and suggest reasons we tell them.


The Butterfly Effect – “Lorenz attractor yb” (Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons)

“The only way to view the truth of life is to stand apart from it – to see the consequence of every thought, every action. But still we are bound by time and space, unable to steer our destiny.” — Trade Minister Tagomi of the Japanese Pacific States, The Man in the High Castle (2015)



The recent success of the Amazon Original Series The Man in the High Castle, an adaptation of a novel by Philip K. Dick, has produced a renewed public interest in the idea of alternate histories. But what exactly is this strange melding of historical research and speculative fiction? In its most basic form, alternate or counterfactual history is a genre that looks back at our own historical timeline and provocatively posits “what if…?” What if, for example, Franklin Delano Roosevelt had been assassinated in 1933 before he had a chance to implement the New Deal that revitalized a struggling U.S. economy? What if Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia had seized and held Little Round Top, carrying the day at Gettysburg in 1863? What if John “Gentleman Johnny” Burgoyne’s expedition to split the rebellious American colonies along the Hudson had not met disaster at Saratoga in 1777? Authors of fiction have explored all of these intriguing possibilities, and many more besides.

What these alternate history authors have found—or, rather, what they have imagined—is that our world is the sum total of a long series of climactic tipping points. Had any of these crucial events gone the other way—the wrong way, implicitly—the long arc of history would have diverged from that which is familiar to us and developed in very different, often troubling or even dystopian, directions. In the examples cited above, this could entail such dramatic catastrophes as the triumph of the Axis Powers in the Second World War (and the global genocide that this would facilitate), the dissolution of the Union and the rise of an expansionist “Southron” Confederate empire (and the accompanying preservation and revitalization of the institution of slavery), or the stillborn end of the American republic (and the death of the democratic experiment and the American dream). Alternate history, then, serves as a window into worlds that have never been but which are conceivable offshoots of our own, and often it is also a glimpse of nightmares from which we have been mercifully spared.

Origins and Development of Alternate History Writing:

While the modern academic discipline of history first developed in the German states in the nineteenth century, alternate history is primarily an invention of twentieth-century British and American authors of fiction. Sir John Collings Squire, an esteemed British poet, satirist, and literary editor, is sometimes credited with organizing the first collection of alternate histories published in Britain under the title If It Had Happened Otherwise in 1931. This series of essays (many of the contributors to this project, including Winston Churchill, had backgrounds in historical writing) includes alternate histories speculating what would have happened had the French Revolution failed, if John Wilkes Booth had missed Abraham Lincoln, and if the 1926 General Strike had toppled the government of the United Kingdom (resulting in a Communist takeover), among others.

Two decades later, in the early 1950s, the genre migrated across the Atlantic Ocean and put down roots in the United States. Here, it found fertile ground, resulting in the publication of a number of well-regarded alternate history novels. Ward Moore’s influential 1953 work Bring the Jubilee cast an eye back towards one of the darkest hours in American history. Moore constructed a counterfactual world in which Lee’s troops won the Battle of Gettysburg and sacked the provisional federal capital at Philadelphia, precipitating the surrender of the Union on 4 July 1864. Influenced and inspired by Moore’s novel, Philip K. Dick penned The Man in the High Castle, perhaps the most widely read and popular example of the alternate history genre, in 1963. Dick’s tale of an alternate-world Cold War pitting the victorious Greater Nazi Reich and the Empire of Japan against one another in a race for global dominance is a compelling (if unlikely) vision of a world gone mad in nearly every conceivable way.  Subsequently, a number of other authors, including Robert Sobel and Kim Stanley Robinson, have published a wide variety of works dealing with alternate history scenarios. Sobel’s For Want of a Nail (1973) explores the failure of the American Revolution, while Robinson’s The Years of Rice and Salt (2002) is a sweeping epic postulating the rise of China and the Middle East as global powers in a world where the Black Death wiped out the people of Europe entirely in the fourteenth century.

The scope of potential subjects and projects for alternate history, it would seem, is limited only by the imagination of the authors.  In this regard it is most dissimilar from the history that inspires it: while many alternate history writers scrupulously research their historical topic and especially the divergence point where their tale branches off from the main historical narrative, from there they are free to speculate to their heart’s desire. Modern academic historians, on the other hand, are constrained by available evidence and the parameters of what was (so far as they are able to determine), not what might have been. Even so, the writing of alternate history cuts to the heart of an important historical concept: the idea of historical contingency. The departure points and subsequent diverging pseudo-historical narratives produced by the authors of the genre highlight the interconnectedness of historical developments and fatally undermine triumphal, nationalist teleologies and assumptions of historical inevitability. In other words, alternate history writers, like most of their historian counterparts, share a belief that our present world is the sum total of a near infinite series of historical developments and interactions. Had even one event in the chronological chain been interrupted or unfolded differently, our world may have developed along very different lines.

Connections to Science Fiction:

It is no coincidence that several of the most influential works of alternate history were written by science fiction writers. Dick, while never a household name, is perhaps most well-known as the author of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968), the story that would later be adapted into the critically-acclaimed Ridley Scott science fiction film Blade Runner in 1982. Alternate history often is directly tied to issues that reside within the domain of science fiction. In particular, it deals with multiverse theory—simply the idea that there are multiple universes parallel to our own, each the result of an action transpiring differently than in our continuity. And alternate history can explore time travel. In The Terminator (1984)—as well as its sequel Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991)—alternate history becomes a key plot device amidst the familiar science fiction preoccupation with time travel. The artificial intelligence network Skynet sends a cyborg assassin to the past (our present) in order to alter the future (the machines’ present) by killing the human resistance leader in utero. Alternate history also shares with time travel an overriding concern with chaos theory and the butterfly effect—the notion that small, even seemingly inconsequential actions made within the past can reverberate and echo through time, producing vastly different outcomes and different futures. For example, a craven time-traveling Tyrannosaurus hunter steps on a butterfly in the Cretaceous Period and inadvertently but irrevocably alters the time stream in the present in Ray Bradbury’s classic short story, “A Sound of Thunder” (1952).

Although these science fiction connections are sometimes implicit in alternate history (the idea that changes in the past would produce very different future trajectories of history squares nicely with both chaos theory and alternate history, for example), in other cases they are overtly brought to the fore. In Moore’s Bring the Jubilee, the protagonist (a meddling historian, no less) who resides in an alternate future dominated by the Confederate victory utilizes a time machine to travel back to observe the Civil War. Once there, he inadvertently dooms the Confederate cause at Gettysburg, thereby altering the course of history and bringing about our own time stream. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle, on the other hand, deals with the idea of multiple parallel universes: by use of a classical Chinese divination text, the I Ching, characters within the novel are able to detect the existence of another, seemingly better universe (possibly, although not necessarily, our own) where the Allied forces triumphed over the Axis during the war. This tantalizing prospect and the thought that it might be possible to escape the fascist nightmare of their own world take the form of a fictional novel within the novel (or, in the continuity of the show, a series of film reels within the film) titled The Grasshopper Lies Heavy. This title refers to a biblical verse from Ecclesiastes, the book perhaps most famous for its contention that “nothing is new under the sun.” In the continuity of The Man in the High Castle, this would seem to be a literal truth: all possible outcomes are represented in different time streams, a potentially unending cascade of alternate histories and parallel universes.

Although alternate history may not be merely a sub-genre of science fiction, and it is certainly possible to imagine alternate history approaches that eschew the questions and trappings of science fiction, it would seem that both genres of fiction deal with visions of humanity not as it is currently, but as it could be or could have been. Often, these visions and the moral judgments the authors pass on their subjects say as much about our own world as those being imagined, reflecting both the relative merits and shortcomings of the societies in which they were produced.

Why We Tell Alternate Histories:

Aside from providing a means for writers to exercise their creative chops, alternate histories serve a number of purposes, not the least of which is to render our present more palatable. Most alternate histories suggest, at least implicitly, that our timeline is the “right” timeline—that any past divergence would result in an ugly disfigurement of the present. Thus, in the three literary examples cited in the introduction, the alternate history of each presents a timeline in which some of Americans’ worst fears are realized: the United States under an oppressive Axis occupation, the United States marginalized and slavery preserved by a victorious Confederate States of America, and the United States prevented from existing.

Alternate histories such as The Man in the High Castle serve to reinforce our sense of ourselves—they confirm the things we believe about ourselves and the values we hold. Under Nazi and Japanese occupations, for instance, American values are thrown into sharper relief. Freedom of speech and of movement, the right to vote, the right to assembly, the right to own firearms, and the right to a fair trial by jury under due process are just a few of the ways in which the occupations curtail American life as we know it. Furthermore, the show presents Americans with many of the nobler attributes we tend to ascribe to ourselves. The protagonists in the Resistance risk life and limb to secure films that offer the promise of a freer world (i.e., in which the Allies won the war). African-American resistance fighters struggle alongside their white fellows in a vision of cooperation more harmonious than the actual 1962. And though there are American collaborators who buttress the German and Japanese occupations, they are punished for supporting a regime committed to eugenics and socially humiliated, respectively.

Alternate histories seem always to take a more nightmarish vision of society rather than offering a better world, thus affirming present conditions. In part, this is a matter of storytelling. It is difficult to play on tensions to drive a dramatic story in a harmonious society. As a result, utopian visions tend to end up as mere descriptions of the good society, which serve more as critiques of the present and blueprints for the future than they do as high drama. These societies are often separated from the present by time – usually in a not-so-distant future, as is the case in Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward (1888) and William Morris’s News from Nowhere (1890)—or they are separated from the present by space—usually in uncharted territory somewhere on Earth, as in Sir Thomas More’s foundational Utopia (1516) and Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Herland (1915).

The closest alternate histories have come to offering a better version of events is in some of Quentin Tarantino’s recent films. Both Inglourious Basterds (2009) and Django Unchained (2012) present alternate histories in which some sense of justice is realized rather than fears. In the latter, a freedman metes out death to a particularly vicious slaveholder and his underlings, while in the former Jewish soldiers shoot Hitler’s face to smithereens. These revenge fantasies offer the audience some catharsis over moments of evil in our past through a retributive justice. However, in both instances, a great deal of suffering has already occurred. Neither alternate history prevents the evil it seeks to address: the American soldiers don’t get Hitler until 1944, meaning the Holocaust is still ongoing, and Django settles a personal score rather than striking at the institution of slavery.

Thus, whether envisioning the endurance of our values in the face of great adversity or offering (minor) historical correctives through punitive justice, alternate histories are ultimately reassuring. In this way, they can be stultifying, as they ignore the shortcomings of the present and suggest a teleological view—that our timeline is the “right” one, closing off the possibility of better, more just alternatives to our own world. Moreover, while they do note the importance of historical contingency, alternate histories tend to place undue emphasis upon particular moments or people in history—one critical battle or one person’s death produces a world vastly different from our own. Though turning points make a story more dramatic, almost all historians will point to the multiplicity of circumstances and causes necessary to produce any particular outcome in history. That is, for example, a successful assassination of FDR and the absence of the New Deal would not be enough to produce Axis victories in the Pacific and European theaters as well as the defeat and occupation of the United States. History and humans are (thankfully) more complex.

One thought on “Brave New Worlds: The History and Purpose of Alternate Histories

  1. Pingback: The Imaginative History of “The Man in the High Castle” | Erstwhile: A History Blog

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