April 13, 2004

Alternate Universe SF as a form of Intellectual Masturbation

Once upon a time, when I was a bit younger and a good deal more smart-assed, I used to call alternate universe SF "intellectual masturbation." I felt it was quick, harmless, moderately pleasant and ultimately completely empty and unfulfilling. However, much like the teenage boy who would like to substitute a real, living girlfriend for his right hand and some smut magazines, I regularly pleasured myself with volumes of speculative revisionism in the privacy of my own room, despite a desire for more sophisticated entertainments. Since those days, I have mellowed somewhat. I no longer hold such negative views of alternate history fiction, but I also don't read it very much anymore.

Thus, I was somewhat amused to come across this article from last Wednesday's Guardian by one Tristram Hunt, who "teaches history at Queen Mary College, London." I found it from my hit logs, because of a link posted to me from a rec.arts.sf.written discussion:

Pasting over the past

Far from being a harmless intellectual pursuit, 'what if' history is pushing a dangerous rightwing agenda

Citing as their inspiration the Gwyneth Paltrow character in the film Sliding Doors, a ragged bunch of rightwing historians have clubbed together to issue a new compendium of "what if" essays. Conrad Black, a man facing a few counter-factuals of his own, asks: what if the Japanese had not attacked Pearl Harbor? David Frum, the former Bush speech-writer, wonders: what if Al Gore had won the 2000 presidential election (I thought he did). And John Adamson indulges the dream of Cambridge dons down the centuries: what if Charles I had won the English civil war? [...]

The conservatives who contribute to this literature portray themselves as battling against the dominant but flawed ideologies of Marxist and Whig history. Such analyses of the past, they say, never allow for the role of accident and serendipity. Instead, the past is presented as a series of milestones in an advance towards communism or liberal democracy. It is the calling of these modern iconoclasts to reintroduce the crooked timber of humanity back into history.

The unfortunate truth is that, rather than constituting a rebel grouping, "what if" history is eerily close to the mainstream of modern scholarship. The past 20 years has witnessed a brutal collapse in what was once called social history. The rigorous, data-based study of class, inequality, work patterns and gender relations has fallen away in the face of cultural history and post-modern inquiry. [...]

Instead, what we are offered in the postmodern world of contingency and irony is a series of biographical discourses in which one narrative is as valid as another. One history is as good as another and with it the blurring of factual, counter-factual and fiction. All history is "what if" history.

No doubt, new right legionaries such as Andrew Roberts and Simon Heffer would be appalled to be in the distinguished company of those postmodern bogeymen, Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida. And they have partly atoned for their sins with a traditional Tory emphasis on the role of great men in history. For "what if" versions of the past posit the powerful individual at the heart of their histories: it is a story of what generals, presidents and revolutionaries did or did not do. The contribution of bureaucracies, ideas or social class is nothing to the personal fickleness of Josef Stalin or the constitution of Franz Ferdinand.

But it is surely the interaction between individual choices and historical context which is what governs the events of the past. As Karl Marx put it: "People make their own history, but they do not make it just as they please; they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under circumstances directly encountered, given, and transmitted from the past." [...]

Moreover, as Professor Richard Evans has noted, in this work there is as much a sense of "if only" as "what if". This is history as wishful thinking, providing little insight into the decision-making processes of the past, but pointing up preferable alternatives and lamenting their failure to come to pass. [...]

But "what if" history poses just as insidious a threat to present politics as it does to a fuller understanding of the past. It is no surprise that progressives rarely involve themselves, since implicit in it is the contention that social structures and economic conditions do not matter. Man is, we are told, a creature free of almost all historical constraints, able to make decisions on his own volition. According to Andrew Roberts, we should understand that "in human affairs anything is possible".

What this means is there is both little to learn from the potentialities of history, and there is no need to address injustices because of their marginal influence on events. And without wishing to be over-determinist, it is not hard to predict the political intention of such a reactionary and historically redundant approach to the past.

The citation of the hated "pomos" is pretty cliché. I haven't read a great deal of Foucault and have read virtually nothing of Derrida, but this isn't exactly the message I get from most scholarship that falls under the post-modern label. I think it's just a cheap shot, labelling the looney right with the mark they worked so hard to villify. But, I think the whole critique being offered here is a bit harsh, and I want to examine the underlying claim a little more closely.

First - now that I think about it - I can only name one alternate universe story off the top of my head that is clearly, abundantly and fully labelled as leftist: The Human Front by Ken MacLeod. That is not to say that other AUSF (I'm tired of writting out "alternate universe", so this abreviation will have to do) is necessarily written by conservatives or has a conservative message. Rather, I'm inclined to label much of it as a sort of Whig history. Progress and development are equated to present day capitalist parliamentary liberalism. The details may vary, but an alternate universe where things don't turn out to resemble this sort of institutional structure, or at least approach it, is history gone bad.

One of the reasons that I used to be so harsh on AUSF is that, unlike future-oriented SF, I didn't feel that it was engaging the real possibilities present in the world. Instead, it was playing with little variations on the theme. AUSF might end with a different world than ours, but not a different kind of world. This generalisation isn't uniformily true, which is one reason why I eventually retreated from my position. But, the real reason I stopped disliking AUSF despite myself is because I found this problem to be no less true of future-oriented SF.

SF is too large and too diverse a field to hold to a single definition, but I think SF should be about the possibility of a different world. That is certainly what I read it for. I'm not saying this to denigrate space opera, SF horror, fantasy or other kinds of fiction marketed as SF but failing to fit my definition. It's just that I don't linger in the tiny SF section at the Brussels Waterstone's in hopes of finding science-fictiony horror or space operas. SF novels of any kind may well have all the hallmarks of good literature and may be well worth reading even if they don't really grapple with the possibility of difference. But all the things I get out of those sorts of novels I can just as easily find in other parts of the store.

AUSF can be about the possibility of a different world, just as future oriented fiction can. That is why I have stopped pretending that I don't read it. I do, however, sometimes lament my difficulties in finding fiction that engages me in that way. Once upon a time, I also had a plan to address exactly that problem by writing the SF novel that I couldn't find in the shops. Occasionally, I still consider the possibility, but I'm having a hard time making it fit with my lifestyle.

I ought to be able to simply list a dozen AUSF novels in response to Professor Hunt's complaint, but I can't. I think part of the problem is that the left is having a hard time putting forward a theory of history that isn't, basically, Whiggish. We have a hard time envisioning a world that is at once different, credible and not basically reactionary.

The Marxists had such a theory of history. Marx advanced a theory of unpredicatable contradiction-driven social history, and then screwed it all up by grafting onto it the inevitablity of socialism. Dialectical and historical materialism makes far more sense as an anti-prophetic theory of history than as a source of secular millenialism. But, since the mainstream left has largely bailed on Marx, we've left that terrain open to the heroic and idealistic model of history that Marx so carefully ridiculed.

Marxism is like UNIX. Those who don't understand it are condemned to reinvent it, poorly. [I can offer a few good examples in cognitive science of reinventing Marx poorly, but that would be another post.] You don't have to always agree with Marx - I don't - but unless we intend to cede the future to reactionaries and Whigs, we need to at least understand the gaps Marxism filled.

That's the thing about future-oriented SF and alternate universe SF: Both explicitly require some kind of theory of history. Professor Hunt is simply wrong to see an inherently conservative agenda in alternate universe fiction. Whether set in the future or in some parallel timeline, we need to speculate about the prospect of a different world, and SF has been and can continue to be instrumental to this. There is nothing about AUSF that is inherently reactionary.

But, Hunt is absolutely right to see a reactionary agenda in a theory of history driven by personalities and ideas. I note the tension between the idealism of old right and the social Darwinism of the new right implicit in Professor Hunt's thesis. History, we are told, is arbitrary. Britain might have kept the empire had it been ruled by the right men with the right ideas. At the same time, we are told that poverty and social inequality (and sometimes sexism, racism and nationalism) are inevitable consequences of human nature and that nothing can be done about them. Leftist ideology has traditionally been different: History is the result of the structure of human societies, and the role of men and ideas is inevitably constrained by that structure. Britain might, in some alternate universe, have kept the empire, but it could not have kept it as it was. The forces that tore it apart cannot be ignored by merely asking "what if?" And, people are constrained by those same social structures rather than by an intrinsic nature. This theory of history is not deterministic and is no less suited to SF than idealism. It is also a good deal more liberating than thinking that events are the work of "great men."

The only theory of history which strikes me as inherently incompatible with SF is Whig history - which is, of course, the theory of history that I see most widely in use. Maybe one of these days I'll write that novel.

Posted 2004/04/13 12:53 (Tue) | TrackBack

Go read Kim Stanley Robinson's The Years of Rice and Salt right now.

Posted by: Cosma at April 13, 2004 14:04

I just added it to my Amazon list. It'll come with the next order I place.

Posted by: Scott Martens at April 13, 2004 14:46

You may be interested in another USENET group, soc.history.what-if

I recommend it.

Posted by: Ikram at April 13, 2004 18:25

Ikram, I don't actually read USENET. I haven't in years, not since the great exodus in '94 after Canter & Siegel discovered the power of spam. I only found this because someone on the newsgroup linked to one of my posts and I followed the referral back to Google Groups. But, I gather USENET spam is down and the place is, once again, the "wretched hive of bugs and flamers" I knew and loved. So, I'll take a look.

[God - I feel old thinking about how there's a whole generation of users who never saw the Old 'Net, back before spam, before Netscape, when porn came from alt.binaries or the TU Delft EE department gopher, when the USENET and IRC were the centre of 'Net life, when 9600 baud was high speed access, when people would spend hours reading other people's recipes that they had put online, just amazed that the technology could do that. But, it's misplaced nostalgia.]

Posted by: Scott Martens at April 14, 2004 10:39

Hello. I'm a new reader here, but this is an interesting post. Here's a book recommendation for the progressive alternative universe genre:

Perdido Street Station, by China Mieville.

He takes Dickensian progress into an alternative version of a multi-species, quasi-supernatural London.

(Also check out the sequel, The Scar, which ventures into Melville-territory, seemingly rewriting some of the absolutism and insanity of our current political situation.)

Try to get used to the prose, which can get somewhat purplish, because the characters and plot are smarter than it.

Posted by: Jackmormon at April 16, 2004 16:47

Jack - I've read them both and become a regular China Miéville reader. Regular as in I will actually pay full price in euros for hardback from Waterstone's or FNAC rather than waiting for postal forwarding from Amazon.com, which from me is high praise.

There are books that fit what I'm looking for, I just wish I could find more than three a year.

Posted by: Scott Martens at April 16, 2004 17:03

Ah nostalgia. I recall my first amazing net-experience. Using GOPHER, I was able to access the resume of the Prime Minsiter of Estonia! Information at my fingertips -- it was amazing. You can't get that feeling back again.

Posted by: Ikram at April 17, 2004 22:45

I'll second Ikram's recommendation that you read soc.history.what-if. I've participated on s.h.w-i and its predecessor forum for about nine years, and the discussion there (once you separate the wheat from the chaff) is much higher-quality than commercial AH. The focus is precisely on the social forces that Hunt claims AH ignores - how these forces operate upon the choices made by individuals, and whether alternate choices are even plausible in light of such forces. I think you'll find s.h.w-i a good deal more enlightening than Turtledove.

Posted by: Jonathan Edelstein at April 19, 2004 19:19

I also don't think counterfactual history belongs in the SF category, but that's a whole 'nother argument.

Posted by: Jonathan Edelstein at April 19, 2004 19:24

Okay... I've added it to my bookmarks at the office and at home. Had a browser crash this weekend, so I lost some the bookmark I made before.

Posted by: Scott Martens at April 19, 2004 20:43

Another post on this theme at:


Posted by: Richard at April 19, 2004 21:17

Oh, and one here:


Posted by: Randy McDonald at April 20, 2004 1:19


I stumbled across this site while searching for something completely different (what happened to the planned British SF film 'Legionariaes') and thought I'd throw in a quick thought or 2. Y'all sound like you're a damned sight more eddicated than me, and you're half a world away (I'm in Australia) so bear with me.

Howard Waldrop. Ever heard of him? Hard to find. Primarily a short story writer, he has taken alt.hist and had a lot of fun with it. Take 'Ike At The Mike': tells the story of how young Mr Eisenhower, on his way to West Point, is diverted by some jazz musicians. Entranced, he takes up the clarinet and becomes another Benny Goodman, especially when his band has that powerhouse drummer, Wild George Pstton. The story is set during one of his last performances, playing before a Senator Presley and British Ambasador William Pratt (look it up under 'movies'). This story won an award. As did 'The Ugly Chickens' (how could dods be alive in the southern US in the 1920s?). These are just two of the stories he is very very good at.

The thing about Waldrop's stories isn't that they push a left or right agenda, but how different events will move people in different ways; mostly his worlds aren't better or worse for the road not taken, just different. What I most enjoy about his stories are the humour and the deep grasp of history he actually has, he knows and understands it well.

More info on HW: http://www.sff.net/people/Waldrop/

At least 4 of his stories, including 'The Ugly Chickens' at:

Someone once said, 'those who forget history are condemned to repeat it', so look at it this way: alt.hist allows people not only to examine old attitudes and events (what really happened) but to compare them to the alternative (what might have happened) and come to conclusions about the correct decision... for next time.

One thing I have learned is that history is constantly being reinterpreted by a variant on the spin-doctor; there's a big debate in Australia rightnow about Aboriginal deaths, especially in Tasmania: did they die out due to illnes, or did whites murder them by the thousands and kill the others with forced relocations? It's a bitter question, no matter which side you take.

Hope this has been a useful addition, if somewhat after the event.

Posted by: AlecL at September 12, 2004 16:43
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