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What If?

July 2024
1min read

I find it disconcerting that while Marcus Cunliffe says that “what if” conjectures have intrigued him since his teens, he fails to mention a single work of speculative or science fiction in his article.

Mr. Cunliffe mentions that there have been various fantasies concerning the Civil War. He notes Churchill’s scenario as well as Thurber’s comic satire. Yet he ignores the wonder and sadness of Ward Moore’s 1952 novel Bring the Jubilee , which meticulously traces the outcome of life in America after the “Southron War for Independence” has been won. Later in his article he states that the historian William E. Leuchtenburg couldn’t conceive that American history would have been the same if Roosevelt had been assassinated in 1933. But he never once mentions Phillip K. Dick’s tragic novel of alternate reality, The Man in the High Castle (1962), which has counterfactual history depart at that exact point when FDR was/was not shot.

While failing to mention Dick, Moore, or any other authors of science fiction novels dealing with alternate history, some of Mr. Cunlif f e’s scenarios seem to come very close to breaking his own “rules” on counterfactual history. George Washington having sons would seem to violate “basic historical data,” and the question “What if there had been no tape-recording system in Nixon’s White House?” might be better put as “What if the Watergate break-in had never been discovered and, thus, few knew of the existence of the Nixon tapes?”

To have as fine a historian as Marcus Cunliffe seemingly shrug off a branch of speculative literature, especially one dealing so specifically with history, is disheartening. Why does such a rift between science fiction writers and professional historians have to exist when it comes to “counterfactual” speculations? To me the historical and the speculative (as in speculative fiction) complement each other and should go hand in hand.

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