Saturday, 21 March 2009

What If?

Almost everyone who has an interest in history has, at some point, wondered ‘what if…’ Martin Lane investigates.

What if Hitler had won World War Two, or if Napoleon had been victorious at the battle of Waterloo? How would our lives now be different today if President Kennedy had not been shot on that fateful day in Dallas on November 22, 1963?

This undoubted appeal has even seen former Prime Ministers be drawn into the possible ‘what ifs’ of history.

Winston Churchill, an avid history writer as well as politician, once pondered how life would be different if the South had not engaged in the battle of Gettysburg, a turning point of the American Civil war.

Churchill said “the quaint conceit of imagining what would have happened if some important or unimportant event had settled itself differently has become so fashionable that I am encouraged to enter upon an absurd speculation.”

All these scenarios and countless more are still being mulled over on a daily basis by hundreds of alternate history fans.

Science fiction writer and critic Paul Kincaid said: “anyone who studies history is going to be struck by the number of times chance played a part,

Over the last few years the internet has breathed new life into alternate history allowing a community of ‘what if’ devotees to exchange scenarios and worlds that never existed.

“You cannot look, for instance, at the Second World War without at least once wondering what might have happened if Hitler had won,” said Mr Kincaid.

Mr Kincaid thinks that the area has become intrinsically linked to science fiction saying; “Alternate histories combine, to my mind, the most fascinating aspects
of science fiction and of historical fiction.”

Aliens, Space Bats and Other magic

Online fanzines and discussion boards such as have been running for several years now and the subjects that they discuss vary dramatically. currently has nearly 7,000 members debating the way history could have turned out, however they are also discussing things that are miles away from academic counterfactuals.

One section of the board is named “Aliens, Space Bats and Other magic.” Here members such as ‘NomadicSky’ ponder deep questions such as what would have happened if the minds of the Beatles had been transported from 1968 into the bodies of the Spice girls back in 1998!

“Just think of how the Beatles will feel, not to mention the fact that two of them have older versions still living!” he said.

This is just one of hundreds of similar questions; another example is put forward by board member ‘Kneze’ who wants to know who would be victorious: Sigourney Weavers’ Aliens or Hitler’s Nazis?

He says: “In August 1936 a Queen ‘Chestburster’ pops out of a random SS man as he is eating dinner in his home in Berlin, what happens next?”

Fellow member ‘Wanderlust’ replies: “I can't see how the aliens will cross the North Sea or the Atlantic, unless an aquatic alien gets ‘hand waved’ into existence.

“So Britain, Australia, Canada, NZ, Japan and the US should be okay, most likely reeling from the horror spreading across Eurasia but too scared to get involved.” She adds.

So to our relief Wanderlust spares Britain from the Alien attack in this alternate reality but perhaps these sci-fi worlds are one of the reasons why academics have been reluctant to embrace ‘what if’ scenarios?

History or Sci-fi?

Perhaps alternate history is now more at home as an off-shoot of science fiction rather than as the neglected cousin of historical literature.

Author of an alternate history website John Reilly feels it has become linked to science fiction.

Mr Reilly said: “the failure of the classical science fiction world to materialize, forced the imagination to find another outlet.”

Himself a ‘Star Trek’ fan, Mr Reilly first became interested in alternate history after watching an episode of the show;

“Remember that Star Trek episode about the planet about to be destroyed, the only planet in the star system whose people never had spaceflight?

“The story turned on the idea that they had developed time travel instead, and disappeared into their own past when they realized their sun was about to go nova” he added.

Alternate histories have also percolated through into popular culture. The recent success of the computer game ‘Fall Out 3’ set in a post apocalyptic world is a good example.

The Fall Out series shows how an alternate reality can develop and take on new life of its own away from the initial point of divergence.

Films such as The Butterfly effect starring Ashton Kutcher have also highlighted how even the smallest change can have a dramatic impact on future events.

The success of mainstream films and games has to some extent re-awakened the academic community to the usefulness of alternate history.

Academic Role

Dubbed ‘counterfactual history’ by highbrow intellectuals this new life been seized upon by historians. Critic Paul Kincaid said; “collections of counterfactuals by historians have started to be marketed to a mainstream audience.”

Yet often where academics are concerned these alternate histories are looked down on. The historian Edward Carr famously described it as an “idle parlour game” back in 1961.

Nearly 50 years on from this now infamous statement, more academics are open to the role of the counterfactual.

Southampton University History Professor Mark Stoyle admits to having little personal interest in counterfactual history but still feels they are becoming more important to academics.

Prof Stoyle said; “Alternative histories are rapidly becoming much more popular because they provide a different perspective.”

It is this different way of approaching the subject that attracts certain historian to the counterfactual factual approach.

Gavriel Rosenfeld a History professor at Fairfield University, Connecticut, said: “alternate history is a wonderful tool for understanding the dynamics of collective memory and also the forces of historical causality”

Still, Mr Rosenfeld who is also the author of “The World Hitler Never Made, Alternate History and the Memory of Nazism” agrees that a variety of people are interested in his work.

“It ranges from Highbrow intellectuals to gutter trolling consumers of schlock fiction,” he said.

Yet to the wider world alternate history, or to use the academic term, counterfactuals, may still be simply an entertaining pass time rather than enlightening.

While promoting on of his latest articles online, ‘Disraelia: A Counterfactual History, 1848-2008’ historian Walter Laquer met with some harsh criticism:

Critic Barry Larking said: “I find this 'what if' approach to history for practical purposes useless and in turns, dangerous.

“Essentially what Mr Laquer has created is an illusionary narrative which actually does nothing to develop a useful understanding of the present” added Mr Larking.

Academics argue that ‘counterfactual history’ is separate from the alternate histories that sci-fi fans indulge in. Perhaps it is because they fear that they will be placed in the same bracket as ardent sci-fi fans, or become ‘trekkies’ of history that still inhibits the academic?


Michael said...

can we have some more tyre/wheel based articles please, they are my favourite.

Grey Wolf said...

Interesting, but saying that a focus on ASB puts academics off more serious AH is a bit like saying that the existence of rap would stop people from studying Mozart.

Best Regards
Grey Wolf

Wanderlust said...

Interesting points, and I'd agree when you say that Alternate History has been lumed in - almst ghettoised - with sci-fi, but that's been going on for far longer than our humble site. When I got my first Harry Turtledove novel, for instance, it was in the sci-fi and fantasy section og WH Smith's. Yes, I am the infamous Wanderlust in question, and I'd like to say I do more than imagine sci-fi scenarios with the Aliens in WW2 :). However my most successful story had Ireland occupying England after the arrival of the Spanish Armada, so probably not much of an improvement. Lastly, I'm female, not male ;)

Martin Lane said...

Thanks for the feedback guys,

I can see your point here Grey Wolf but I think that many academics don't believe that the general public could make that distinction.

Sorry about that Wanderlust, I've corrected my mistake! I agree that AH is linked to sci-fi but don't think it's a bad thing. After all the market for these 'popular' alternate realities is far greater than that of perhaps more traditional/academic AH.