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IN THE WORLD OF ALTERNATE HISTORY, IT ALL CAME OUT DIFFERENTLY—AND IN AN ERA WHEN REAL HISTORY IS TAKING SOME VERY STRANGE TURNS, THE GENRE IS FLOURISHING AS NEVER BEFORE
September 1999 | Volume 50, Issue 5
Not just changes in historical and political thinking but changes in economic models and biological ideas and even physics itself may have helped fuel the rise of alternate history. Physicists are lately looking at “parallel universe theory” and the idea of a “multiverse.” This is unfathomable speculation from the far reaches of quantum physics and relativity theory, but in the late 1950s, physicists, in an effort to unify contradictory observations, began seriously to propose alternate universes. Einstein had said that God doesn’t play dice with the world; now scientists were arguing in effect that He did. The key problem—the apparently indeterminate position of subatomic particles implied by quantum physics—was the essential roll of the dice. The answer given by a minority of scientists, and more since, was that from each “throw” two possible universes resulted. Thus the totality was a multiverse, a floating crapshoot of every conceivable possibility. The result, at least in theory, as the IBM research scientist Clifford Pickover explains it, is a “quantum foam,” with the possibility of travel between universes via “asymptotically flat regions in space time geometry” and “worm-holes.”
Such Stories only increase the natural tendency we all have to play with the alternative possibilities in our own lives.
And then there’s the rise of complexity theory. Associated with the Santa Fe Institute, an independent scientific research center, and popularized by the film The Lost World, the sequel to Jurassic Park, complexity theory argues that small historical events can become magnifiers, dropped pebbles that create ripples, then eddies, and finally tidal waves. It merges evolutionary statistics and economic thinking, and its visual equivalent is fractals, those irregular geometric forms that multiply into seemingly unpredictable landscapes. The historical equivalent is history’s momentous small bumblings: the driver’s wrong turn that brought Archduke Franz Ferdinand’s car to a stop in front of the assassin’s pistol; the chance British interception of the Zimmermann telegram that convinced Americans of Germany’s hostility in World War I. What if Castro had had the stuff to pitch in the major leagues (Philip Roth played with that one)?
Piquant as such wonderings can be, they of course can provide only the spice of history, not the whole meal. Even after reading Turtledove or Kantor, it is hard to believe that however decisive a defeat the North suffered at Gettysburg the Union would not have raised new armies to replace the shattered ones, its armament factories, bootmakers, wagon fabricators, railroads, and gunboats ultimately surmounting almost any number of lost battles to win the war. Yet the questions linger, never fully answerable. The Chancellorsville victory, followed up a few months later by a Gettysburg where Jackson, still alive, once again led a bold, battle-winning charge, this time sending deer and raccoons scrambling through the Pennsylvania forests ahead of his troops—this might have brought the British or French in on the side of the South. And then what?
Alternate history at its best relates the uncertainties of the lives of great men and nations to those of the lives of ordinary individuals. The characters in many of the books signal that they sense they inhabit an alternate world, through their own sense of alienation. The first page of Bring the Jubilee makes reference to the sense of ennui in the defeated North. Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle features an alternate history novel that presents what we know as the true story of World War II’s outcome. “Amazing the power of fiction, even cheap popular fiction, to evoke,” one of Dick’s characters observes while reading it. “No wonder it’s banned in Reich territory.” That book within the book turns out to be somehow more real than the bleak reality of life in the Axis-occupied former United States.
Hollywood likewise has shown itself surprisingly subtle in playing with time and its diverging tracks, from Peggy Sue Got Married and the brilliant Back to the Future series, with its clever details such as when Michael J. Fox’s character, transported back to the 1950s, is assumed to be named Calvin because of the label on his underwear, to Sliding Doors, in which two plot forks are intercut, and Groundhog Day, in which time makes a repeating loop of a single day.
Such stories only increase the natural tendency we all have to play with the alternative possibilities in our own lives. Thinking about alternatives keeps one’s life on track, the recovery folks tell us, and I want people in power who think about alternatives too. I want people who keep the other guys’ bills in their wallets, people who are alive to possibilities, have a vision of what else might happen, if they screw up or even if they do nothing. Those who change history the most are those most aware that it can change, that it is malleable—but only in the present. It may not be too much to say that those ignorant of alternate history are doomed never to alter history.