Wednesday, 28 April 2021

Alternate facts make bad alternate history

There is a long tradition of American conservatives penning tales of Alternate History:
  • former Speaker of the House Newt Gingritch took a stab at the genre with his Second World War counterfactual 1945,  
  • Republican Congressman James Rogan (CA-27) tackled the 1968 Democratic Convention in his novel On To Chicago,
  • and shortly before Donald Trump left office, his “1776 Commission on American History” tabled its report.
    Former speaker of the
    house Newt Gingrich
    tackled alternate history 
    with the novel 1945.
    (Image via Wikipedia)

    This may seem like a cheap shot at the much-maligned 1776 Commission Report, but the stated purpose of the commission was to counteract the academic demythologizing of American history. The authors of the report took issue with schools teaching a more complete narrative of American history that includes the experiences of enslaved people, of Indigenous Peoples, and of women. It is argued here that any understanding of history that excludes those narratives is no history at all; it is alternate facts.

    The flaws, misinterpretations, and outright falsehoods held in the commission’s report are illustrative of the flaws in what is referred to as “Patriotic History,” and these flaws are integral to understanding why there have been so many terrible alternate history novels written by those of a conservative bent in the past quarter century. 

    “Patriotic History” of the sort peddled by the 1776 Commission is a version of history that allows no space for critical examination of the nation’s founding stories. Within this paradigm, the nation cannot be allowed to be anything but perfect, heroic historical figures may be flawed but only in forgivable ways.

    Alternate history is a genre that tackles counterfactual narratives based on divergence from recorded events in the past; but without a solid foundation of factual history, these narratives are built on sand. Moreover, by imagining ways that history might have reasonably played out differently carries with it the implication that the nation might be better than it is now, and that there is no predetermined national destiny. In these ways, good alternate history is anathema to “Patriotic History.”

    The genre is rife with dismal failures written by authors whose worldview is informed by “Patriotic
    Orson Scott Card's
    Pastwatch sanitizes
    the crimes of 
    Christopher Columbus.
    (Image via Wikipedia)

    History.” Orson Scott Card’s amateurish Pastwatch starts from the premise that Christopher Columbus wasn’t that bad a guy (despite all the genocide), and posits a historical divergence in which time travelers trying to stop an ecological crisis wiped out all those Indigenous folk with genetically engineered viruses. America celebrates Columbus Day, so any “patriot” must therefore believe — as it appears Card does — in a sanctified and sanitized version of colonialism.

    More recently, The Gordian Protocol by David Weber and Jacob Holo, involves a historian going back in time and learning that (just as he suspected) the oppression of women was just fine and dandy. In the understanding of events promoted by the book, Women’s Liberation — a movement that stood in opposition to dominant power structures — must be defined as being on the wrong side of “Patriotic History.”

    Even one of the better Alternate History works written by a very conservative author, Another Girl, Another Planet by Lou Antonelli, only really works when it avoids history altogether. When it is a big outer space adventure, it’s relatively engaging. But the version of history depicted in the novel involves weird depictions of Barack Obama as a feckless Marxist ideologue; not so much a counterfactual as a motivated smear job.

    Obviously, the conservative movement has no monopoly on the mythologization of history. The rewriting of history to legitimize the authority of the dominant class is a time-honoured tradition among monarchies, authoritarian regimes, and racialized caste systems. But explicitly politicized left-wing Alternate History is in a minority, and often the left-wing authors working in the genre today
    If you start from the premise
    that the Civil War was about
    "states rights," rather than slavery,
    your history is too fake already.
    (Image via DailyProgress)

    have a more nuanced view of the past.

    America can only again be made great if you believe America was great at some point in the past. For those paying attention to the evidence, it basically never was if you include the narratives of women, workers, marginalized folk in general.

    Those whose worldview is already informed by a warped interpretation of history are unlikely to provide a convincing narrative of how events might unfold. Decent alternate history can only be built on a foundation of real facts.

    Alternate facts make for terrible alternate history.

    Footnote:
    *Just to be clear, for the purposes of this discussion, we are confining ourselves to the strictest definition of alternate history; that being a genre that focuses only on events that might have occurred if historical figures made different decisions. Although stories with aliens, wizards, superheroes, dragons or the anachronistic invention of super-steam technology are sometimes classed as alternate history 
    they are not relevant to this discussion (Some of these mis-classified stories are splendid, and we do not imply anything negative about those stories by excluding them from this narrow definition).

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