Sideways in Time: Critical Essays on Alternate History Fiction, edited by Glyn Morgan and C. Palmer-Patel
Reviewed by Nick Hubble
On Friday 19 February 2016, Boris Johnson, wrote two drafts of an article intended for publication in the following Monday’s Daily Telegraph. The first argued in favour of Britain leaving the European Union; the second argued in favour of Britain remaining in the European Union (see Shipman 2016: 170-3, 609-18). As we know, Johnson opted to publish a redrafted version of the original, went on to become the figurehead of the successful Leave campaign and, in 2019, became Prime Minister of the United Kingdom and then won a General Election by a landslide. But what if he’d published a polished version of the second article instead and decided to support Remain in the European referendum?
Without its well-known charismatic political leader, the Leave campaign would surely have struggled, while Johnson’s energetic support of his friend and fellow old Etonian, David Cameron, may well have tipped the balance in favour of Remain. Following yet another triumphant victory to add to his undefeated record in elections and referendums, Cameron would probably have remained Prime Minister until resigning, as promised, before the end of his electoral mandate in 2020. In all likelihood he would have been succeeded by Johnson, a favourite with colleagues and the public alike, rather than his unpopular Chancellor, George Osborne. Johnson might have just contested a General Election in early May 2020 according to the five-year limit of the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act of 2011 (although it would probably have been postponed). Therefore, the only really big difference in our lives would be that we hadn’t left the European Union on 31 January 2020; we would still be confined to our homes in a government-imposed ‘lockdown’ in response to the external factor of a global pandemic.
While, according to Tim Shipman, Johnson was always likely to back Leave, and the second article he wrote was just to prove to himself that the arguments for Remain were weak (170-1), the very existence of the two versions means that we are still entitled to view 19 February 2016 as a possible ‘Jonbar Hinge’, or ‘point of divergence’ to use Morgan and Palmer-Patel’s preferred phrase, in which history might have taken a different track. However, as my counterfactual speculation suggests, this divergence needn’t have made much difference to where we are at the moment. It might be argued that the Johnson of my alternate history would benefit from both the support of a stronger cabinet and membership of the EU, but the Government would still have followed the same national pandemic plan, drawn up in 2011, which is orientated towards an outbreak of flu rather than a coronavirus, and therefore the situation on the ground would probably be very similar to it is now. In that respect, it would make little difference even if something more radical had resulted from the point of divergence, such as Leave still winning and therefore destroying a Remain-supporting Johnson’s political credibility and paving the way ultimately to a Labour Government led by Jeremy Corbyn or his anointed successor. The advent of Covid-19 would still have happened, the same plan would have been implemented, and we would still be in lockdown now with the Sunday Times publishing exclusives on the Government’s failings as they did on 19th April. This is because, as critics of counterfactual and alternate history like to point out, the underlying causes of events are generally material and structural. Individuals may be able to colour how we perceive social change but they can’t fundamentally shape it because it is driven by deeper forces and the cumulative effects of millions of individual people’s behaviour over generations. Boris Johnson is a contingent historical figure but the blundering and muddling-through of the British ruling class is a constant across all timelines.
This example featuring Johnson illustrates what Morgan and Palmer-Patel describe as the Carlylian and Structuralist models of alternate history. They illustrate the former by discussing Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America (2004), which postulates Charles Lindbergh becoming US president in 1940. As they point out, fine novel though it is, The Plot Against America is ‘a fairly typical alternate history’ (18), in that it focuses on a well-known historical moment – WW2, which alongside the US civil war is the most popular setting for alternate histories – and depicts the difference as resulting from the changed biographies of significant historical figures. Moreover, Roth’s novel suggests that the crucial change enabling America to become a fascist state, is the absence of Roosevelt’s leadership; when he is reinstalled at the end of the novel, ‘America’s historical course is duly corrected to something similar to our own’. Therefore, not only do alternate histories such as The Plot Against America uphold Thomas Carlyle’s idea of history as ‘the Biography of Great [straight white] Men’, they also implicitly reinforce the conventional historical narratives of Western history.
Morgan and Palmer-Patel might have gone further and linked their brief discussion of the rise of counterfactual historical essays, as collected in books such as Niall Ferguson’s Virtual History: Alternatives and Counterfactuals (1997) and Robert Cowley’s What If? (1999), to this Carlylian model. For example, in What If?, Victor Davis Hanson considers the consequences of the Persians defeating the Greeks at Salamis in 480 BC but his conclusion concerns our history and not the counterfactual one:
What later philosophers such as Hegel, Nietzsche and Spengler would deplore about Western culture – its rampant equality, uniform sameness, and interest in crass material bounty – in some sense started at Salamis, an unfortunate ‘accident,’ Aristotle said, but one that nevertheless shifted forever the emphasis of Western civilization towards more egalitarian democracy and a more capitalistic economy.
Here imagination remains subordinate to the primary aim of confirming the hypothesis that the West is the best. Indeed Hanson has also written a book describing Why the West was Won (2002). It is difficult not to see this kind of counterfactual history as ideological propaganda, whose rise coincides with the historical waning of American power, the decentring of Western thought in the face of global perspectives, and the emergence of third wave and intersectional feminism. The pre-eminence of the Western (straight white male) ‘liberal subject’ since the end of the eighteenth century was placed under serious threat and much recent ‘what if’ history of both the fictional and non-fictional kind is best viewed as a response to that.
Furthermore, I would suggest that, despite the varied individual political positions of the authors, this counterfactual history has on the whole supported the rise of a populist politics across the West which is primarily targeted at male supporters. In principle, raising the question of ‘what if’ should open the door to imagining all sorts of possibilities, but in practice it seems to have been most effectively deployed in Britain and the US to ask ‘what if we returned to the 1950s when there was full (straight white male) employment before there were civil rights and gender equality?’ Notably, the UK editions of both the Ferguson and Cowley collections feature Adolph Hitler prominently on their covers with swastikas draped variously over the Houses of Parliament or superimposed on Union Jacks. Of course, Boris Johnson’s idol is Churchill not Hitler but the very prospect of Hitler winning the war functions – rather as the prospect of Lindbergh’s presidency in The Plot Against America legitimises Roosevelt’s historical role – to signify Churchill as the agential male par excellence, single-handedly embodying and saving the British nation’s interests. Johnson’s ascendancy in the UK, to the point at which the press are declaring his embodiment of the nation and were enjoining the British people to pray and root for him during his recent hospitalisation with Covid-19, is a product of the success of counterfactual history in restoring a Carlylian attitude to British history and a salutary warning as to the capacity of alternate history to function as rightwing alt-history.
The fact that Johnson is a writer and journalist as well as a politician illustrates the performative potential of the Carlylian model of alternate history. His awareness that conventional historical narratives can be challenged by the way that history is written, allows Johnson to present himself as a counterfactual in real life: a living ‘what if’ who by his very existence will single-handedly change history and make Britain great again. In effect, we have government by self-aware literary representation in what might be regarded (alongside the self-aware televisual representation of Trump) as the apotheosis of the postmodern historiographic metafiction identified by the critic Linda Hutcheon in the 1990s. In other words, we are now living in alternate history. This context adds an urgency to Morgan and Palmer-Patel’s observation that ‘alternate history has attracted surprisingly little scholarship’ (14). In this respect, Sideways in Time is both a useful and a timely addition to the small body of critical works, such as Karen Hellekson’s The Alternate History: Refiguring Historical Time (2001), that have appeared in the twenty-first century. In particular, the division of this volume into two sections gives it a pressing relevance to our times because while the first half examines how alternate history challenges dominant historical narratives, the second half takes ‘a metatextual leap’ (25) and challenges the conventions of alternate history itself.
Fittingly, the first chapter (although somewhat oddly chapters are not numbered) in the collection is Adam Roberts’s ‘Napoleon as Dynamite: Geoffroy’s Napoléon Apocryphe and Science Fiction as Alternate History’. This is apt because, whatever the claims of figures such as Alexander the Great or the Holy Roman Emperor, Frederick II ‘stupor mundi’, Napoleon is the modern exemplar of the man of destiny, who threatens or promises (according to your point of view) to bend events to his will and reshape the world in his own image. Roberts begins by discussing the long-established claim that Louis-Napoléon Geoffroy’s Napoléon et la conquête du monde 1812-32 (1836) is the first alternate history novel, following the 1789 revolution’s demonstration that history could be made radically anew. But he quickly contrasts this novel with Tolstoy’s War and Peace (1869). Tolstoy, Roberts tells us is the ‘great anti-alternate-historian’ (38) who regards history as immune to individual actions and writes at great length to hammer home the moral that Napoleon was radically self-deluded about his ability to change history.
Following Roberts’s chapter, Chris Pak’s discussion of Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Years of Rice and Salt (2002) highlights the novel’s questioning of historical inevitability while raising some questions of its own as to Robinson’s ‘implausible recapitulation’ (53) of key events from our timeline – notably the World Wars, combined by him into a ‘Long War’ – in an alternate history that diverged from it in the fifteenth century. Pak argues that Robinson shows the creation of the future to be a structural process but one which is meaningfully shaped by individual and collective agency. Jonathan Rayner’s ‘Forever Being Yamato’ focuses on the role in the Japanese popular imagination of the battleship Yamato, sunk at Okinawa in the Second World War, which has become bound up in the dialectical relationship between Japan’s postwar national identity and its imperial and militaristic past. For example, the 1970s animated series Space Battleship Yamato ‘records the voyages and adventures of a massive spaceship, built from the remains of the battleship, which defends Earth from alien invaders in the distant future’ (66). A more recent related series, Zipang (2004-5), imagines what happens when the twenty-first century Japanese destroyer Mirai, en route to Pearl Harbour to join naval exercises, is transported back in time to the Second World War; a similar plot to the US film The Final Countdown (1980) in which Kirk Douglas is the captain of an aircraft carrier suddenly confronted with the dilemma of whether he should intervene to prevent the raid on Pearl Harbour. Rayner’s description and analysis is compelling in his account of the wider meaning of the series’ progression, which sees the Mirai eventually having to intercede against the Yamato (by using its advanced missile system to short down the battleship’s shells in flight) in order to save the lives of US soldiers at Guadalcanal. It’s tempting to see this as some sort of Freudian process of remembering, repeating and working through at a national level. As Rayner concludes, while alternate history can’t change the past, it can alter its significance and by so doing can thereby change the present.
The final two chapters in the first part of the collection, Brian Baker’s ‘Her Dreams Receding’ and Anna McFarlane’s ‘Time and Affect After 9/11’ are both very strong pieces of analysis that for me spoke to the contemporary pandemic crisis despite having being written some time before. Before I was even half way through Baker’s chapter, I was so intrigued by his subject, Ian Sales’s Apollo Quartet (2012-6), that I bought it on my kindle (very handy for instant book gratification in a lockdown although adding to the dystopian feel by further enhancing Amazon’s profits). I’m not going to write my take on that here but as Baker notes, the quartet functions ‘to critique the gender bias of the history of science fiction itself’ (86) and provides an example of how alternate history can function as a critique of our own history. At the moment, the Covid-19 pandemic calls out for such a gendered critique of our society by imagining how less patriarchal and hierarchical structures than those embodied by the UK and the US in particular might have dealt much better with the unfolding catastrophe. Similarly indicative is McFarlane’s excellent account of how Lavie Tidhar’s Osama: A Novel (2011) employs the genre of alternate history to produce an ‘emotional historiography’ encompassing ‘the affect of the post-9/11 atmosphere’ (93). As she explains, Tidhar uses Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle (1963) instead of our own history as the ‘model for Osama, so that his novel becomes a palimpsestuous rewriting of a novel that was already a rewriting of history to begin with’ (97). This seems entirely appropriate as the experience of the last few years and the prominence of real-world Dickian characters such as ‘Donald Trump’ and ‘Elon Musk’ suggests we are all stuck inside one of his novels. In particular, the contraction of the world during lockdown to a false and enforced domestic sphere suggests the pocket universe structure of Time Out of Joint (1959). The emotional affect of our current situation, like that of Tidhar’s protagonist, paralyses us within a flat present unable ‘to understand the past or to face the future’ (100). McFarlane refers to Lauren Berlant’s notion of ‘temporal whiplash’ which ‘evokes a sense of belatedness from having to catch up to the event’ (101). In this situation, Tidhar’s use of fantasy becomes a means of representing the affective ‘truth’ of our situation, which is that what appears to be our reality is itself a jaded set of genre narratives and stereotypes that we desperately need to break free from.
Part two of the collection begins with Molly Cobb’s discussion of Alfred Bester’s stories investigating the individual’s place in time and his proposition that ‘each individual can only affect their own timeline and thus only alter their own history’ (114). This is basically the extreme version of the structural model of history in which change can only ever be the consequence of impersonal social and economic developments. I remember being very irritated with Bester’s ‘Hobson’s Choice’ (1952) when I read it many years ago because it was not at all what I was expecting from the author of The Stars My Destination (1956). This story ends with a Japanese man trying to get home through a maze of timelines to Hiroshima in 1945 because it is the only time in which he can feel himself. The logic of this position is extremely conservative because it assumes people can only thrive in their own context and cannot cope with any form of social change. It’s manifestly not true either, because some people clearly do adapt to and accept social change; typically those who are marginalised or oppressed by the status quo. However, there is an emotional truth in Bester’s position which is that some people are so repelled by the thought of difference that they crave sameness even to the point of death. In short, this is pretty much what Freud described as the ‘death drive’ and it is a theme not just in Bester but of the New Wave writing he foreshadows. Cobb is correct to suggest that overcoming the death drive is harder than some of Bester’s humanist contemporaries imagined.
The chapters of Derek J. Thiess and Chloé Germaine Buckley form an intriguingly contrasting pair. Thiess’s analysis of Juan Miguel Aguilera’s La locura de Dios (1999) concerns the fragility of historical materialism in the face of religious orthodoxy. For Thiess, there is a concern that the dethronement of the universal white male Western perspective might usher in a far less rational form of religious absolutism through the form of ‘secret history’. On one level, reading history as fiction doesn’t just expose us to progressive alternatives but also enables the spread of conspiracy theories and other inherently reactionary narratives. However, as Buckley’s reading of the Lovecraft meets Sherlock Holmes anthology Shadows Over Baker Street (2003) suggests, Enlightenment culture is not the only form of material ontology on offer: there is also ‘the Weird’. As we all now know for sure, reality is weird. The value of the anthology is that ‘the irruption of the Weird in Holmes’s world . . . disrupts the circular justification of inductive and abductive reasoning on which rational scientific enquiry (including Holmes’s science of deduction) is based’ (146). Certainly, the Weird disrupts the generic safeness of this stories and strips away a layer of protection between its readership and the profound otherness of cosmic matter. We can’t make the world safe, either by material or narrative means, but we can make the choice to accept it for what it is and live freely by that acceptance.
In ‘Quest for Love: A Cosy Uchronia?’ Andrew M. Butler provides a characteristically rigorous and insightful reading of John Wyndham’s short story ‘Random Quest’ (1962) and its various film adaptations, which he suggests may be considered as alternate histories in their own right (different to rather than secondary to the primary text). The term ‘uchronia’ (no-time), Butler tells us, was ‘coined by Charles Renouvier in 1857 to refer to “a utopia of past time […] works in some crucial turning point is given a different, and from the author’s point of view better, outcome”’ (155). Paul Ricoeur used the word to signify the imagined better world of the future which continually seems to recede before us, forever tantalisingly out of reach. Butler analyses the story in relation to Wyndham’s so-called cosy catastrophes in which disasters – rather as the current pandemic favours those with money, nice houses and gardens – seem to be rather fun for the privileged male middle-class protagonists who survive them. Butler’s conclusion that the various versions of ‘Random Quest’ offer their male protagonists a second chance by passage into a feminised world and subsequent rebirth raises all sorts of interesting questions about both a complicated and underrated writer, and, by extension, the English middle-class imaginary he charts. The final chapter in the collection, before an ‘Afterword’ by Morgan and Palmer-Patel, is Karen Hellekson’s ‘Agency and Contingency in Televisual Alternate History Texts’. One of her frameworks is Richard Rorty’s argument that identity is constructed retrospectively through narrative as people make sense of the by-and-large contingent events which are thrown their way by chance. She concludes that TV series such as Charlie Jade (2005) and Timeless (2016-8) employ rhetorical devices ‘to foreground agency by giving characters outsize impact on the chain of causality’ (183). In other words, they structure the narrative in advance to link together contingent events in such a way that characters appear to have agency and thus promote an ideology of personal choice, which according to Rorty can only ever be constructed retrospectively in real life. I think Hellekson is entirely right that these shows have an ideological function but, contra Rorty, people do not always construct their narratives in retrospect. Writing a diary, for example, is not retrospective in the same way as writing your memoirs at the end of your life is because you start to picture the actions you are taking as they will appear when you write them up later in the evening (or the following morning) and therefore identity is able to precede and shape events. In this respect, diaries are profoundly science fictional and might even be considered as personal alternate-history machines.
To conclude, this is a fine collection which is extremely well-edited: a number of useful comparisons are made between chapters allowing readers to make connections and think about the wider issues entailed. There is also a foreword from Stephen Baxter which, far from the typical enthusiastic-but-brief note, is a substantive contribution in its own right, discussing a range of alternate histories by writers such as Harry Turtledove and Harry Harrison. All in all, Sideways in Time is a significant addition to science fiction scholarship in general and alternate history in particular. It also raises fundamental and pressing questions about agency that we need to consider in the context of a twenty-first century which is turning out to be very different from its predecessor. While this reviewer, the editors and contributors, and probably most of the readers of this volume, will broadly agree that history is a more complex matter than the actions of great (straight, white) men, the problem is that a belief in abstract historical process very readily slips into a Panglossian acceptance of things as they are and very slowly getting better, which tends to favour the status quo and entail straight white men remaining in positions of power for the meantime until some notional point in the future when infinitesimal incremental change results in a ‘diverse and inclusive’ utopia. To recast the difference between these two historical approaches once again in terms of British politics, this is akin to saying we’re doomed forever to have to choose between Boris Johnson and Tony Blair.
This apparent paradox by which the Carlylian and Structuralist models of history turn out to make practically no difference may be examined by returning again to Roberts’s chapter at the beginning of the book, which includes a riff on nineteenth-century America in which he points out it possesses history in contradictory ways: too little as a new nation, too much in terms of the old world associations of its settlers, and a third history of its aboriginal inhabitants. The competing alternate history timelines of Murray Leinster’s ‘Sidewise in Time’ (1934), which provides the name for this collection, complies with this logic of an America of contradictory histories. Roberts implies that the genres of alternate history and science fiction, as predominantly American genres, are inflected by these American histories, which hold out the illusion of a ‘paradigmatically sciencefictional model of history’ (41) in which a push and a shove take us into the promised land. Against this, he argues that ‘anticipations of a specific future will inevitably, eventually, be overtaken by actual historical process’. The Tolstoyan ‘flow of supraindividual forces’ will overtake ‘the Geoffroyan fantasy of a point of stoppage to history as such’ (44). Science fiction, Roberts concludes, is a history of branching paths deviating from baseline history that have been left beached by the receding tide of historical process and is therefore apochryphal by nature. However, the traditional response to multiplying branches of apocrypha, has been insistence on a canon; a phenomenon that is as prevalent in commercial SFF as it is in great religions. It seems to me that we need to try and get away from models of history as process that legitimate the status quo by default. The way to do this is not simply to challenge the portrayal of great (straight white) men as historical agents but actively to show women, queer people and people of colour as historical agents in contexts in which hierarchical, patriarchal systems of power are rejected and dismantled. The tendency of some recent science fiction which does this – such as N.K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth trilogy (2015-17), Simon Ings’s The Smoke (2017) and Tade Thompson’s Wormwood trilogy (2016-9) – to also explicitly remove (sometimes by outright destruction) America from their historical frameworks points towards a twenty-first century science fiction which has moved beyond the conflicts of a specifically American-inflected history. In this future the question of ‘what if’ would literally open the floodgates to a range of possible alternatives and not enmesh us within paradigms predicated on the supremacy of straight white males. My hopes for the direction of further scholarship in the field of alternate history would be to build on the strengths of this volume and proceed to explore new paradigms that do not always float tantalisingly just in front of us but can be fought for in the here and now.
Davis Hanson, Victor (2001) ‘Persian Victory at Salamis’. What If? Ed, Robert Cowley. London: Pan.
Shipman, Tim (2016) All Out War: The Full Story of How Brexit Sank Britain’s Political Class. London: William Collins.