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Sunday, June 12, 2005

Crypto-Communisto Conflagration 100% Guaranteed, or Happenstance and Identity Politics

Posted by Scott Eric Kaufman on 06/12/05 at 08:27 PM

Sing sweetly, my Muse, of the glorious lull between final drafts and final papers!  Aid me in the completion of posts half-written for months!

After reading the Synecdochic Prof‘s recent paean to alternate histories--which included a link to the second most valuable strange compendium of genre fiction I’ve found online, Uchronia*--I couldn’t help but be reminded of the essay I once intended to write about Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Years of Rice and Salt, but then I remembered why I hadn’t written it: I had nothing intelligent to say about alternate histories.  I couldn’t really speak to what Neil Gaiman had done in Marvel 1602 or to Byrne and Newman’s far more modest accomplishments in Back in the USSA (despite its flaccid portrayal of Soviet-controlled America’s version of Hunter S. Thompson).  What most of these novels--not counting Gaiman’s, which is really an extended version of the Marvel’s spandex-centric What If...? series--have in common is a misunderstanding of fundamental (and typically material) historical processes.  In the years since the James Gleick’s Chaos, this genre’s taken the butterfly-flapping-its-wings Hurricane-Andrew-hits-Gulf-Coast premise to increasing absurd heights:

Hitler decides to wax his mustache one morning, his barber tells him a story about a man named Harry whose two mistresses sought each other out and decided to make Harry pay and BAM! Hitler decides he’d rather not fight a war on two fronts and the Nazis rule the world until a series of improbable love affairs between Jews and Gentiles brings the whole Thousand Year Empire crashing to its knees.

Small political or material changes during unstable times can alter world history.  I understand that.  But I believe there’s a problem with the direct causality so many of these alternate histories imagine.  One of the lessons I’ve taken from Jared Diamond’s Collapse is that there’s never a single isolated factor, easily narrativized, that murders empires.  (And I didn’t necessarily have to learn that from Collapse, but it’s ready to mind so it gets the privilege of place.) Empires collapse under the weight of immense bureaucratic ineptitude, not a single mistake by a singularly inept bureaucrat.

What I’m saying--barely more intelligently than I thought I would--is that the attraction of butterfly/hurricane model to alternate historians is the old liberal bugaboo, romantic individualism, which likes to imagine that Great Men still Change the World.  The vehement (but by no means total or consistent) rejection of romantic individualism by literary scholars and the concomitant appeal of tired, unproven (and often unprovable) Marxist critiques of capitalism have a similar effect: namely, the desire to create a model of human society built not upon concerted action but on the unpredictable results of highly contingent processes.  Marxist faculty members--few and far between these days, I grant you, but a hornet’s nest is stirred up by a vigorous thwack with a big stick, not a judicious estimate based on an accurate accounting--assuage their oppositional souls with the assurance that teaching generations of students about symbolic oppression will whip some social butterfly in Boston around with such force the flames under the proletarian ass of some impresario on the Indian subcontinent will be sufficiently well-fanned…

Harken, all Muses, to the many offenses I commit!  Make certain my stupidities reach fair Clio’s ears, and maybe even Urania’s, as she owes me $8.29 or a milkshake of equivalent extravagance!

*The most valuable and strangest online compendium of genre fiction I’ve run across is called Prehistoric Fiction.


No comment thread on alternate history novels should go without a mention of PKD’s _The Man In the High Castle_, the greatest alternate history book.  (Can I actually write “greatest” on a blog devoted to contemporary literary criticism?  Oh well.) PKD easily evades the tiresome argument over whether historical processes might easily be different, and what might cause them to be different, by two overlapping techniques; first, by having several of his characters independently discover that their world is not the real world, second, by having the _I Ching_ as a narrative theme, incorporating a symbol that combines randomness with supposed inescapible destiny, and thus traversing the whole range of historical theories.

By on 06/13/05 at 09:09 AM | Permanent link to this comment


I think you’re missing a crucial aspect of “alternative histories” which is summed up in Synecdochic Prof’s title for his/her post: “Pleasure and alternate history” (italics mine). It should come as no surprise that alternate histories abound in sci-fi and comic books (both of which I’m a big fan of). There is a geeky fan-boy (or fan-girl) pleasure involved in reading these types of stories in drawing upon your own knowledge of world history (or the history of say the Marvel universe) in comparison with the ways in which these histories are integrated and re-imagined creatively by the author. It’s a bit of a nerdy “spot Waldo--find the reference” kind of endeavor.

Your critique of alternate histories I find a bit odd because first, for the most part, I don’t think any of the authors would claim that the sort of “butterfly-wing causality” that the fictions use extend to how the real world works. Secondly, due to both constraints and conventions, narrative fiction almost by necessity tells a story through a single or small group of protagonists which therefore fits with individual acts against a backdrop of history as the model for these types of stories. The “romantic individualism” seems more a literary convention or narrative technique than a view of how the world actually works. This holds for both literary characters who change the world and the converse of literary characters who are helpless victims of a world beyond their control.

I wouldn’t want to claim that these alternative histories are accurate depictions of how history might of been different in the real world. But I think the pleasure in reading these stories is derived from how cleverly and creatively an author can re-imagine history and integrate fiction with real world.

Of course, maybe I am either mis-representing or just missing the crux your argument altogether!

By on 06/13/05 at 12:03 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Many alternate-history novels revolve around the introduction of technologies before their time (e.g., the Turtledove books), so those don’t fit your model, either. One could think of many other exceptions, I’m sure (although I’m not smart enough to do it). But I think your point is that novels that /don’t/ invoke a “one-actor” view of history are more properly thought of as general science-fiction, no? I could buy that. The particular fiction that’s being invoked here is the romantic view of history, as James points out. Perhaps we could even call these sorts of narratives “romances” is some more local sense than we would call science-fiction “romance” (which the latter really isn’t, in my view). Romance is precisely about the exceptionality of the individual actor, taken to somewhat absurd extremes.

By on 06/13/05 at 12:33 PM | Permanent link to this comment

The butterfly effect is only one of many reasons why history is not predictable.

The way it’s usually presented strikes me as misleading and magical (in a bad sense). It’s not one privileged butterfly in Brazil that potentially has that power. It’s every single butterfly-sized event in the whole area described. The “butterfly effect” also is limited to specific kinds of well-described systems (eg. in fluid dynamics) governed by chaotic “strange attractors”—it’s not just a metaphor for unpredictability.

The persuasive power of the the butterfly effect, IMNHO, is that if unpredictability can be found even in rather simple physical systems made up of very large numbers of identical molecules, then we can hardly expect predictability in history.

I have long hated histories which slather on the historical irony and treat historical actors whose ultimate defeat is known to us as if they were defeated right from the beginning, but just didn’t know it because they were stupid, silly, pitiful people. Alternative History is a corrective to that.

Diamond’s book might have been persuasive, but I don’t think that he or anyone can show that “It’s never a single event”. Given the way the state system can concentrate enormous, arbitrary power, above all destructive power, in the hands of single leadership individuals, the possibility of an individually caused historical disaster can’t be dismissed. Destruction is much easier than construction—you just destroy one key element and let entropy function.

However, for the same reason, great-man theories of cretaion positive progress have to be fallacious. It takes a lot of smart guys to produce a good car, but any idiot can wreck one in a fraction of a second.

By John Emerson on 06/13/05 at 01:09 PM | Permanent link to this comment

As someone working on contemporary historical fiction (in a never-ending dissertation!), I think the issue is more complex than it’s laid out here.  The three visions of historical change you present here (I’m not terribly sure how to read your linking of them)—(a) butterfly effect; (b) Marxist determinism; (c) romantic individualism—fail to even scratch the surface of the models of historical causation presented in alternative history and historical fiction.

Take, for instance, the odd mixture of the historical novel and the sci-fi counterfactual history in Steve Erickson’s magisterial *Arc d’x*.  We begin with an investigation of the Jefferson-Hemmings relationship, which ultimately hinges on Hemmings decision (in the novel) to kill her lover/owner.  We jump ahead to a theocratic future America (a version of the Citee on a Hill) in the second section of the narrative.

No direct causation is implied here, neither of the “great man” nor of the “butterfly” varieties.  What we have is parataxis, juxtaposition, monage, non-narrative.  We can “fill in the gaps,” but that interpretive effort we show up the narratives of historical causation we ourselves tend to supply.  Is the novel implying, “great man style,” that had Hemmings killed Jefferson American would have turned out differently?  Not at all.  The Hemmings-Jefferson relation becomes typology in the novel, a narrative exploration of the conflicts inherent in “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”—themselves paratactic (that is, non-subordinated) ideals.  The novel suggests that American history can be read as a series of attempts to live out that paratacical ideal, all ultimately winding up with some subordination: slavery pits one group’s pursuit of happiness over another’s life and liberty; Hemmings’ assassination subordinated Jefferson’s life to her liberty; both slavery and violence subordinate a pursuit of happiness to life and liberty.  (I’m simplifying things horribly here.)

Compare that to Toni Morrison’s version of the Citee on a Hill narrative: *Paradise*.  Rather than a paratactical history we get a series of conflicting master narratives: the patriarchal history of a Promised Land and a Chosen People in the town of Ruby; the desire to escape history among the women at the Convent; the narrative of scapegoating (itself a rewrite of Hawthorne’s “The May-Pole of Merry Mount” and WC Williams’ version of that history in *American Grain*) that ties Ruby to the Convent.

Morrison gives us a pluralistic model of history, or the past as a realm that no one model can do justice to, neither spiritual nor material, one that even includes a sort of romantic individualism that I’d instead like to see as a version of Arendt’s vision of history being changed by imagination (whether group or individual is no matter to her). 

[I apologize if this makes no sense—think of it as a try-out of the chapter I have to finish by summer’s end so I can go on the job market.]

By on 06/13/05 at 02:36 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Apologies also for the countless typos.  My bad.

By on 06/13/05 at 02:37 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Rich, of course MITHC belongs in this conversation.  I specifically didn’t mention it because I was sure you would.  Seriously though, I’m trying to remember whether Dick gave an over-long explanation of how the Japanese came to win WWII, because one of the points I’m trying to make is that alternate histories without tedious expository sections on how they came to be--the alternate history equivalent of the tech-fetishism of hard sci-fi--are more interesting.* These alternate histories would fulfill the admirable criteria for pleasure James mentions. 

Speaking of James, your points are well taken, and you’re certainly correct about what kind of pleasure fan-people derive from alternate histories.  But when some of them are co-written by Newt Gingrich, I’m inclined to consider the category of alternate history as a roman a clef in which contemporary political points are masked in the politics of a world that could’ve existed, e.g. “Isn’t it funny and sort of ironic that the same thing happened when the South won the War of Independence as when the North won the Civil War?” (I’m not sure how far I want to press this point, but it strikes me as not entirely a poor one.)

Another point: even if the butterfly-hurricane causality doesn’t extend to the real world, it’s still indicative of the way lay-people think about history.  I feel like I’m channeling Manuel De Landa here, author of an interesting book with the single worst cover in the history of books, A Thousand Years of Nonlinear History.  I’m more interested in De Landa’s indebtedness to the Annales school than Deleuze & Guattari--although there’s a wicked simple explanation of “the body without organs” in there--but his argument against individual agency roughly parallels mine.  (Or mine his, if you want to be respectful about it.)

Walt, you self-centered solipsistic narcissist, not everything in the world is about your dissertation.  This particular post is about evolution and Jack London.  I’m thinking, somewhat particularly, about The Iron Heel and other utopian fictions which seem to me backwards alternate histories.  Everhard leads a failed bloody socialist revolt, a librarian in some future socialist society finds his wife’s account of his last days, and we’re left with a future-alternate history of turn-of-the-century American labor politics.  (I designed that to be nothing more than an ad hominem feint so no one would notice you tracked my argument better than I did, but it turned into something more interesting.  I need to think more about this.  I’ll do that and then pretend to yell at you some more.)

*Quick note for the True Geeks among us: my first exposure to alternate histories--one which, if memory serves (it often doesn’t) detailed, endlessly, relentlessly, how this future came to be--is Days of Future Past.

By Scott Eric Kaufman on 06/13/05 at 02:39 PM | Permanent link to this comment

John and Luther, your posts appeared while I was thinking and writing the other one, and you both bring up some excellent points, which I’ll address at length...after lunch.  (And Luther, if you’d like I can clean up those typos for you.  I silently edit faulty html code in comments on my posts, but for ethical reasons I limit it to that.  But I’m more than happy to edit your typos out if you’d like.)

By Scott Eric Kaufman on 06/13/05 at 02:41 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Scott, thanks for the offer, but let’s let the typos stand as a humbling testament to my inability to type (or even write) and think at the same time.  John Bruce gets off on pointing out the typos of academic types, and for a few days he had a hissy fit about my pseudonym, so my typos should give him fodder for a few days.

By on 06/13/05 at 03:13 PM | Permanent link to this comment

No discussion of causality and alternate history can be complete without reference to Benjamin Rosenbaum’s Hugo-nominated “Biographical Notes to ‘A Discourse on the Nature of Causality, with Air-Planes’."

By David Moles on 06/13/05 at 04:56 PM | Permanent link to this comment

you self-centered solipsistic narcissist

Thanks for reminding me. (Butterfly effect?)Nabokov. Ada. The L disaster.

By on 06/13/05 at 05:49 PM | Permanent link to this comment

David, I’m adding it to my reading list. (For the record, shameless self-promotion isn’t shameless...it’s a virtue.  There’s so much quality literature out there that no one will ever read unless it’s brought to his or her attention by interested parties that I doubt anyone thinks attention-grubbing uncouth.)

John, you’re certainly correct to say

The way it’s usually presented strikes me as misleading and magical (in a bad sense). It’s not one privileged butterfly in Brazil that potentially has that power. It’s every single butterfly-sized event in the whole area described. The “butterfly effect” also is limited to specific kinds of well-described systems (eg. in fluid dynamics) governed by chaotic “strange attractors”—it’s not just a metaphor for unpredictability.

I’m speaking to the misappropriation (and metaphorization) of chaos theory, not endorsing it.  I suppose it’s my bitterness with some lackluster reads in the genre that has me annoyed with the recent “unless that small ball eats ice cream on Tuesday, Putin will lose control of the Russian nuclear stockpile and pffft! USA” examples. 

Diamond’s book might have been persuasive, but I don’t think that he or anyone can show that “It’s never a single event”. Given the way the state system can concentrate enormous, arbitrary power, above all destructive power, in the hands of single leadership individuals, the possibility of an individually caused historical disaster can’t be dismissed. Destruction is much easier than construction—you just destroy one key element and let entropy function.

As a matter of historical record, that’s certainly correct...but I’m not sure it has much predictive power.  And I’m not sure it’s entirely correct, either.  For that much potentially destructive power to end up in the hands of a single human being requires the confluence of a number of different historical, political, economic and cultural processes.  These processes, often unwittingly, work in concert, and as you point out, knocking the legs out of one sometimes shifts everything...then again, an argument could be made that the people to whom you’d ascribe this sort of power are interchangable, more the product of systems larger than and invisible to them, than of Horatio-Algerian will-to-upward-mobility/world-domination.

Luther, it’s rude of you to say that I’m oversimplifying things, but it’s ruder by far to prove it by saying

The three visions of historical change you present here (I’m not terribly sure how to read your linking of them)—(a) butterfly effect; (b) Marxist determinism; (c) romantic individualism—fail to even scratch the surface of the models of historical causation presented in alternative history and historical fiction.

You’re entirely correct.  This is the conversation I hoped to spark.  I spoke of these specific models not because they’re logically or necessarily linked, but because they’re often arbitrarily yoked in the manner I described.  (Well, almost in the manner I described.  The last turn to a critique on the “politics” of “identity politics” is what my friends and I call “the Benn Michaels,” i.e. an attempt cleverly turn whatever you’re writing about into a critique of something else entirely.) Which is only to say that I do believe there’s something of the chaotic causality to arguments made by proponents of institution Theory that wasn’t being made years ago by, say, contributors to The Partisan Review.  In other words, it’s a bit of a cheap shot, but it hits the mark.

Your discussion of Erikson novel--which I haven’t read--strikes me as an example of the sort of alternate history I’d love read, but at the same time, the idea that Jeffersonians would’ve been less, well, Jeffersonian had Jefferson isn’t entirely convincing.  (I take it that’s your point.) If it’s not too much trouble, though, could you maybe flesh out the positive plank of your argument a little more?

By Scott Eric Kaufman on 06/13/05 at 06:20 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I’m just saying that, once someone has that power in his hands, the acts he freely chooses can have enormous long-term effects. There was a lot of opposition to Hitler within the German military stablishment, but he had such complete institutional control, with so many people slavishly devoted to him in key positions, that at a certain point there were essentially no checks and balances on him, and enormous events depended on his whim.

Up until that point, there were multiple causes. But once that point was reached, it really was one man’s will.

A far as predictive power goes—the loss of precictive power is the whole story. Once Hitler was firmly in command, no one really could tell what was going to happen. If he had settled for dominance in Eastern Europe (excluding Russia) and hegemony on the Eurpoean mainland, he might still be in power.

By John Emerson on 06/13/05 at 07:21 PM | Permanent link to this comment

This is an interesting discussion that I think is fruitful because it suggests that one of the pleasures of alternate history may be, in fact, that it offers the reader to reflect (or dare I say it, “theorize”?) upon models of historical causation that are being offered.  (I certainly do think that one of the possible ways that the alt-hist novels work is through a kind of nostalgic, romantic version of great man history.  But not all:  Dick’s novel is a good counter example, and so is the first novel you mentioned.  “The Years of Rice and Salt” has a kind of Samuel Hunington clash-of-civilizations model at its core, I think, but also invokes other models.  (As I recall, there’s even a direct invocation of Hayden White.)

Scott, I also think your comment about Gingrich and the politics of these novels.  I myself have not worked this out (nor read the Gingrich novels), but I suspect that the politics are slipperier than one might think.  After all, there are a number of novels that have very different political plots, such as in Robinson’s novel, in which the Iroquois confederacy becomes a world power.

Finally, of the novels that I have read, I’d say the majority do not linger on the moment of divergence.  The Turtledove 10-volume series I mention in my original post only has a single chapter, I recall, about how the South wins the Civil War; after that he leaps 20 years forward.  Dick’s novel doesn’t mention how the Axis powers won WWII at all.  And I don’t think Robinson’s novel says much about why the plague wipes out Europe to a greater extent than it did before.

By Prof. Synecdoche on 06/13/05 at 08:49 PM | Permanent link to this comment

There was a lot of opposition to Hitler within the German military stablishment, but he had such complete institutional control, with so many people slavishly devoted to him in key positions, that at a certain point there were essentially no checks and balances on him, and enormous events depended on his whim.

On issues of historical causality, let me be frank: I’m waaaaaaaaaay out of my depth here.  What I’d argue, were I to argue, would be that the support for Hitler within the military establishment is the result of the larger historical forces I’m describing; thus, whenever Hitler acquired that power, his whim became, in a sense, institutionalized by the forces that gave rise to its creation.  (Can I list all of the ways I annoy myself in the previous paragraph? 

1) big Big BIG claims, little evidentiary support.

2) abstraction, abstraction, abstraction.

3) abstractions about big Big BIG claims.)

Prof., I realize, in retrospect, that an odd thing about my post is that it was inspired by novels that avoid the narrative foibles I describe.  I haven’t read the Turtledove, and I whizzed through the Robinson--so I can’t verify the Hayden White invocation, but that wouldn’t be an altogether strange find in a Robinson novel, obsessed as he is with the practice of history (I’m thinking about Icehenge and the Mars trilogy here)...all of which is my way of saying that I’ve written an honest to God blog post here, full of honest to God incomplete thoughts and honest to God evidentiary problems.  My solution?  Find a rock and...kidding, kidding, I’m going to find an argument in my muddle-headed thinking and return with the Mother of All Comments.

By Scott Eric Kaufman on 06/13/05 at 09:00 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Well, here’s something that does support your initial claim, Scott.  The novel that does invoke a great-man theory of history, I think, and that does provide appendices to show that it’s version of alternate history is feasible is the most widely known novel in the genre these days:  Roth’s “The Plot Against America.” (I whizzed through that one myself, but I think I’m basically correct on this.)

By profsynecdoche on 06/13/05 at 09:17 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Robinson studied with Jameson, of course, and the Red Mars book features a Greimas square fairly prominently. So I wouldn’t say Huntington, exactly, unless it’s a kind of dialectical reversal.

By Jonathan on 06/13/05 at 09:35 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I’m still a bit confused with the line of argument here---why does a fictional novel have to follow “real life” historical causality? It seems that one critique of alternate history novels being put forth here is that they act too much like, well, a novel.

To stick with Erickson as an example, while he certainly may be (and is) saying something about history and perhaps even theorizing about what history even is, foremost, he is creating a fictional narrative with characters and plots and all that other literary goodness. And if Erickson draws on chaos theory or romantic individualism (which when writing a book about a founder of America seems appropriate) in order to thread together a compelling narrative to tell a compelling story, then more power to him. I’m not sure how chaos theory as a narrative technique constitutes a sort of “misappropriation.”

I’m just getting the impression that these novels are being criticized for behaving like novels instead of ‘actual’ history. Maybe I’m wrong.... anyway, where’s Dan Green when you need him??

By on 06/13/05 at 09:42 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Robinson studied with Jameson, of course, and the Red Mars book features a Greimas square fairly prominently. So I wouldn’t say Huntington, exactly, unless it’s a kind of dialectical reversal.

“Studied with,” in Robinson’s case, more often than not translates to “pay lip service to because interviewers with backgrounds in academia always ask me about my undergraduate advisor.” I think his Master’s thesis about Philip K. Dick was far more important to his intellectual development, as it actually manifests itself in his work.  (Most significantly in his insight into the effects of longer lives on the people living them.) In other words, Jonathan, I counter your pithy remark with evidence you must accept or refute in earnest!  So there!

By Scott Eric Kaufman on 06/13/05 at 10:09 PM | Permanent link to this comment

So where did the Greimasian ship-psychologist come from again? What well-cited critical book can you think of, written when this studying was going on, features Greimas squares?

And that’s just the magisculed, obvious stuff. There are clear intellectual parallels in terms of attitudes towards history as a process, the dialectic, etc. I see very little Dick influence in the work I’ve read (which is mainly the Mars trilogy), though it’s not an either-or thing.

By Jonathan on 06/13/05 at 10:19 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Hm. In another life, I’m one of the de facto moderators for the Usenet newsgroup soc.history.what-if (though I’ve been trying to cut down). There, the butterfly effect is fairly separate from the Great Man theory of history.

A rather specialized vocabulary has evolved for these discussions. A “point of departure” from “our timeline” might cause small or large historical changes. It needn’t be a human event; for a while meteor impacts and plagues were common. The newsgroup has decidedly rejected most science fictional gimmicks, such as time travel, cross-time travel and the like. Both scientific and historical accuracy are valued, but also narrative skill and humor as well.

The main philosophic debate—and there are a lot of different historical philosophies represented on the group—has shifted to discussions of plausibility and probability. (The impossible is represented by the “Alien Space Bats”.)

For instance, it’s generally agreed that due to the random nature of sperm and egg production, the same people will not be born after the point of departure. This is known, but it’s often fudged a little for narrative purposes: some writers will have keep some people the same within a generation, less the next, and so on. It’s a more ‘realistic’ story convention, but it’s still a story convention.

On the other hand, when the newsgroup encounters, say, Turtledove writing a Richard Nixon character two hundred years after the Americans lost their Revolution, you get a chorus of disapproval.

I don’t think you’ll find many people there who will disagree with the idea that most empires fall for a number of different, intertwining reasons. On the other hand, bringing up Jared Diamond will often cause people to ask you if you have a more accurate cite. (Because, you know, he’s pretty sloppy.)

Ah, here’s a good selection from soc.history.what-if: http://www.anthonymayer.net/ah/history.html

Jonathan Edelstein, sometimes known as The Head Heeb, wrote Spinoza in Turkey; and Thaxted—it’s not about Margaret Thatcher—was written by a brilliant Australian who uses the nom de plume “Sydney Webb” on the group.

I realize this is a little tangential to the ongoing theory discussion, but I think some cross-fertilization between these two micro-communities might be fruitful.

By Carlos on 06/14/05 at 12:17 AM | Permanent link to this comment

James, novels need not follow actual modes of historical causality...except when they’re about actual modes of historical causality.  I suppose when novels represent themselves as history, lard their plots with historical figures and argue the who/what/where/when of an alternative historical epoch, they’re liable to be held to different standards.  For example, even though Clarissa is subtitled Or, The History of a Young Lady: Comprehending the most Important Concerns of Private Life.  And particularly showing, the Distresses that may attend the Misconduct Both of Parents and Children, in Relation to Marriage--sorry for quoting it in its entirety, but I love those old gnomic titles, you know, because they leave you wanting more--so even though it’s called a History, no one who reads Clarissa understands it as such.  (And not just because it’s a “history” recounted in epistolary form.) The expectations are different.  Given what I’ve just said, do you still find the expectations I have for this particular genre unnecessarily onerous?

Jonathan, see how much more productive it is to contribute to a conversation than derail it?  I still think people overestimate the importance of Jameson to Robinson’s work for a variety of institutional reasons--foremost among them a familiarity with Jameson’s work and a pseudo-sanction to read Robinson’s work biographically--but I still think the central paradoxes in much of Robinson’s work owes more to Dick than Jameson.  For example, his treatment of extended life in the Mars trilogy and, more spectacularly, in Icehenge--in which 700 years-old men and women have lost the first 300 or 350 years of their lives, don’t recognize their children, forgot they ever had them, have no memory of four or five marriages, are forced to constantly write autobiographies in order to remind themselves of who they once were, etc.--unravels much like a Dick novel, by paradox-and-revelation by paradox-and-revelation.  I’m not discounting the importance of Jameson’s influence, because as you say, it’s not an either-or matter, but I will play math-marm and insist you show your work.

Carlos, welcome aboard, and let me tell you how heartening it is to see two micro-communities getting together to serve the greater micro-good.  First, I only mentioned the Diamond because his general thesis strikes me as correct; I’m not really qualified to speak to much of his evidence, but would love for someone who is to point me toward critical evaluations of it.  I’ll address your comment in more detail after I tool around soc.history.what-if on Google Groups for a while.

By Scott Eric Kaufman on 06/14/05 at 12:00 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Scott--you have no reason to suggest that I was “derailing” any conversation. I mentioned the Greimas in the first comment I made, which pointed out a prominent example of Jameson’s intellectual influence in Robinson’s work. The primary point there was to show that he was unlikely to use someone like Huntington’s ideas without them being placed through a significant filter (itself a characteristic of Jameson’s thought--the use of rightward ideas applied to a Marxist interpretive framework).

The potential Dick influences you mention there seem superficial in a broadly thematic way to me. Robinson seems more focused on historical process than individual subjectivity, particularly in its paranoid extensions.

By Jonathan on 06/14/05 at 12:11 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Jonathan, you often speak in shorthand and as if from up on high; and you pepper your prose with the rhetorical H-bombs “of course” and “obviously,” so whether you intend to derail conversations or not, your comments often have that effect. 

You may be right about the Jamesonian influence on the Mars, but the focus on historical process is a late turn in Robinson’s fictions, hence my original comment that whatever influence Jameson has had on him, it’s not of the immediate sort implied by the comment “he studied under Jameson (and therefore his work is overdetermined by Jamesonian thought).” I’d say the same thing of anyone who attempted to reduce Beckett’s work to Joyce’s thought on the basis of a secretarial position…

By Scott Eric Kaufman on 06/14/05 at 12:33 PM | Permanent link to this comment

As the Mars trilogy is Robinson’s best-known work, I don’t think it’s being terribly obscure, much less haughty, to allude to it in the above context, if that’s what I’m being accused of.

I used the word “obvious,” not “obviously,” because I think it’s a fair description of the prominence of the Greimas stuff relative to Jameson’s intellectual influence in Red Mars. It might even be self-parody. Of course, the parenthetical aside you fabricate above was in no way implied by any of my comments.

By Jonathan on 06/14/05 at 12:46 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I’m speaking generally here, Jonathan, both about your comments and the way in which Jameson’s invoked to explain away aspects of Robinson’s work. 

And now, a passage from what I take to be one of your favorite novels, which speaks to the experience of conversing with you at times:

“Grade, rank, even greetings, everything is coded.”


“Certainly.  Suppose you’re talking with someone over the phone, someone on the outside, and you say, for instance, ‘Good evening.’ From that alone one can deduce that our work goes on at night, that there are shifts in other words, which is important information--for someone,” he stressed the last word.  “Every conversation...”

“Wait!  You mean, even now...”

He cleared his throat, embarrassed.


By Scott Eric Kaufman on 06/14/05 at 01:00 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I can’t speak to whatever encounters you’ve had with too zealously Jamesonian Robinson-exegetes. I’m not at all sure what would that would entail exactly, and it seems to be the operant private reference here.

By Jonathan on 06/14/05 at 01:22 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Try here.  Much of it’s noise from Jameson’s “‘If I Find One Good City I Will Spare the Man’: Realism and Utopia in Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars Trilogy,” but if you look at the interviews, you’ll note that all the interviewers ask Robinson about Jameson, and Robinson, always graciously, responds to them by pointing to the ways he is and isn’t influenced by Jameson.  Here’s an example from an excellent interview that ranges some of the same territory we’ve covered in this discussion:

IS/MW: At the “Futures of Utopia” conference held at Duke University in April 2003, which you attended as a keynote speaker, Fredric Jameson gave a paper in which he argued that the function of utopia “lies not in helping us to imagine a better future but rather in demonstrating our utter incapacity to imagine such a future—our imprisonment within a non-utopian present without historicity or futurity—so as to reveal the ideological closure of the system in which we are somehow trapped and confined.” How would you react to this claim?

KSR: In a way I find it comforting, in that it would explain the difficulty I have when trying to think out my novels: it’s impossible! So I don’t have to feel bad.

But I would want to add that in fact it may be easier to imagine a radically different society—easy as can be, in some ways, in that one merely expresses wishes and defines some version of justice, equality, peace—that’s all easy—but what’s hard is imagining any plausible way of getting from here to there. And this is where science fiction comes in. Fantasy is ahistorical and can imagine the Good Place without strings, across the Great Trench that More describes in his Utopia. Science fiction, however, is defined by the history infolded in the future described that leads back to now. There, in contemplating a history getting to that place, it gets very hard to imagine. So the result is imaginable, but not the process to get there; perhaps that’s what Jameson meant when he talked about the “future being unimaginable,” not as destination but as process, as history. It’s not “a future” that is unimaginable, but “a history to a good future place”. This interpretation would fit with Jameson’s injunction to “always historicize,” including his own sentences I assume.

So, then, the challenge to the novelist would be: imagine a history that gets us from here to there. It will be hard (impossible) but in trying, the problem is pointed to (Jameson says this too). And again, new stories are thereby generated. They may be implausible stories, but given the situation, these implausible stories, mangled in some aesthetic “realist” sense, may nevertheless be of value as art in a different way. I hope so.

IS/MW: Both Antarctica and your forthcoming novels are science fictions that seem to be about the present, or perhaps the very near future. Certainly, this is a present with a difference: for instance, the extreme weather gear worn by the characters in Antarctica is more advanced than Gore-Tex. At the same time, you are dealing with a world that is in most ways recognizably our own. Can you tell us about both the challenge of writing these kinds of novels and what writing about some parallel present (or near future) allows you to do and to explore?

KSR:  I think of these as “day after tomorrow” novels, a subgenre of science fiction, sometimes called “near future science fiction,” and it’s a valuable subgenre for reasons I have sketched out above. For one thing, it’s a powerful way to write about the present without being instantly a historical novel, as for instance if one wrote about 1999 in 1999, now so far in the past. I think it is crucial never to have a date in a day after tomorrow novel, and it’s also good to mix elements, so that some things are simply contemporary and have already happened (and there is a tremendous pleasure and value in writing about the present as if writing science fiction), while other elements would seem not to be possible to emerge for twenty or fifty years—like cloning humans, which apparently already happened in South Korea last week. This captures the sense of perpetual newness in life these days, that anything is possible—so that people have asked me about the water slide under the South Pole in my Antarctica, for instance, because they simply can’t tell whether such a thing is possible or not anymore. Sometimes it seems like anything is possible; on the other hand, it also feels like nothing fundamental will ever change again (capitalism); and in that weird dichotomy of feeling we carry on day by day. It’s a strange sensation, and I think day-after-tomorrow sf can capture it very nicely, if wielded correctly. Here is a place where art as fidelity to the present may even demand science fiction, as I’ve been saying or rather practicing since the 1970s.

By Scott Eric Kaufman on 06/14/05 at 02:12 PM | Permanent link to this comment

SEK, I should warn you that although soc.history.what-if has a better signal-to-noise ratio than most of Usenet, it is still part of Usenet.

Ah, the new Wikipedia entry on the newsgroup is up. Nice bit on the group’s use of historical irony, and a broader selection of story links. Might be worth yours and Prof. Synecdoche’s time (and of course anyone else with an interest, too).

I have to say, I don’t see much of Phil Dick’s influence on Kim Stanley Robinson’s science fiction. But I read Dick as a writer of metaphysical concerns embedded in daily life, not what I’d consider KSR’s strengths as a writer.

Dick, although his Man in the High Castle is—rightfully, I think—regarded as a masterpiece, has had very little influence on alternate history as a genre. In fact, the precursor to most genre AH seems to be L. Sprague de Camp’s Lest Darkness Fall, a lightweight book about an American in 1939 sent back to sixth century Italy. This in turn was inspired by Robert Graves’ Count Belisarius and Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. As a direct result, historical science fiction and alternate history have a lot a lot of early Byzantine settings. In fact, the aforementioned Turtledove got his degree in Byzantine history as a direct result of reading de Camp’s book.

A related thread of influence comes from the military science fiction boom of the Reagan years. It’s mostly the sort of jingo pulp that Orwell wrote about; except that one of the leaders of the movement, Jerry Pournelle, was one of the earliest self-styled neo-conservatives (he’s former CPUSA), and in fact published David Horowitz’s essays in his science fiction anthologies in between space battle stories. Strong overtones of imperium as the natural human state.

Anyway, this seems to be why most currently published alternate history genre fiction is about battles and their outcomes. KSR’s The Years of Rice and Salt is an exception—the point of departure is a worse Black Death—but um. I don’t think it works very well as either fiction—too much false exoticism, a weakness of KSR’s—or alternate history—the analogies are too mechanical.

By Carlos on 06/14/05 at 07:31 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I’ve always taken Pournelle to be hard libertarian right for some reason, which I distinguish from neoconistical thought. But CPUSA? That I didn’t know.

By Jonathan on 06/14/05 at 07:46 PM | Permanent link to this comment

If he’s a libertarian, you wouldn’t know it from his fiction.

By David Moles on 06/14/05 at 07:56 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Oh yeah? How about the thing he wrote with Niven about the big apartment building?

By Jonathan on 06/14/05 at 08:14 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Um, did you miss the running feudalism metaphors throughout the book? The protagonists certainly didn’t. (Those protagonists, you’ll note, being members of the arcology’s management team, not ordinary residents. To use the spaceship metaphor that occasionally cropped up, “crew”, not “passengers.")

And the book was called Oath of Fealty, after all.

By David Moles on 06/14/05 at 08:23 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I’ve always thought neo-feudalism more compatible with right-libertarianism than with neoconservatism.  Is there even a practical difference?

By Jonathan on 06/14/05 at 08:25 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Carlos, thanks for the link to the Wikipedia entry.  I’ve definitely noticed the military history bent as well, and I think that too has a certain kind of nostalgic pleasure to it—a return to a deeply factual account of a single historical event.  Military history, moreover, uses a lot of counterfactual reasoning.  (If so-and-so hadn’t charged, the battle would have been entirely different, and so on.)

By profsynecdoche on 06/14/05 at 08:35 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Carlos, I admit to spending a few very enjoyable hours moving through your archives.  I hope you don’t take this as an insult--it isn’t intended as one--but I found there the same pleasure I used to find in the old Illuminati game, in which sentences like “Hillary Clinton, the Chinese Campaign Donors, and the Robot Sea Monsters attack the Tabloids in order to acquire The Secrets Man Was Not Meant To Know.  Of course, you guys are far more serious, so what I experienced is no doubt the mature, adult version of that adolescent fun...but, now where was I?  That’s right, the wiki certainly helps, but if you don’t mind me asking: has any member of the group collected your terminology and generally aceepted theories into a post or two?  (Damn, I think that does sound insulting.  It really, really isn’t meant to be.  If you momentarily think it is, remember that I’m the adolescent in this equation and you guys are the responsible, academically-inclined historians of what never came to pass.)

As for KSR not seeming all that much like Dick, I think that’s a factor of his reputation really resting more and more on the Mars trilogy instead of on his earlier, equally but differently interesting work.  I may post more on this over at my place at some point in the future, as I’ve now spent far too much time thinking about it to let it pass unmentioned.  (Yes, that’s textbook “sblogipsism”: everything I think about must be blogged because people will want to read it on my blog because my blog is the best blog of all blogs!)

By Scott Eric Kaufman on 06/14/05 at 08:43 PM | Permanent link to this comment

No, SEK, you’re absolutely right. Part of the s.h.w-i aesthetic is a delight in unusual juxtapositions. The analogy to the old Illuminati game is a good one. The average “good poster” to the group is either a Generation X professional who once played RPGs &/or wargames, or a Generation Y larval professional who might currently do so (including LARPs). In fact, the term “grognard”—one of Napoleon’s grumblers—has moved from the wargaming community to s.h.w-i to mean an old hand.

Me, I’m a gaming outsider, but the process fascinates me. Some of the writing is pretty good too.

There have been some well-meaning attempts on the newsgroup to codify a fuller s.h.w-i philosophy, but they’ve usually dissolved in wrangling. Anthony Mayer’s FAQ contains most of the generally accepted stuff.

It’s been a while since I’ve read The Memory of Whiteness or the Pacific Trilogy, but other than the inclusion of the mundane, ground-level aspects of everyday life—which isn’t necessarily phildickian—I really don’t see it. But I’ll look forward to your article with interest.

By Carlos on 06/14/05 at 09:53 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Jonathan—I think that something like feudalism is probably the natural endpoint of anarcho-capitalism (at least in the sense that anarcho-capitalists like to claim that something like Stalinism is the natural endpoint of socialism), but the libertarian tradition in American science fiction is all about town-hall meetings and plucky frontierspeople, not secret cabals and plucky unaccountable bureaucrats. And if you read their other collaborations, you’ll run into oddities like the assertion in Mote in God’s Eye that the distances and timescales of an interstellar civilization make it necessary (rather than, say, brutally stupid) to centralize power and put it in the hands of one man.

Still, to the extent that Objectivism is libertarian, I suppose you could read Oath of Fealty as libertarian. It’s definitely got that “bow down in thanks before the nearest smokestack, you technology-hating hippies” vibe (never mind that modern greens are all about high-density housing), and the fetishization of the entrepreneur.

By David Moles on 06/16/05 at 02:31 PM | Permanent link to this comment

And SEK, whatever you do, don’t bring up Sealion....ever, under any circumstance, on pain of death.

By on 06/17/05 at 02:16 PM | Permanent link to this comment

SEK: Small political or material changes during unstable times can alter world history.  I understand that.  But I believe there’s a problem with the direct causality so many of these alternate histories imagine.  One of the lessons I’ve taken from Jared Diamond’s Collapse is that there’s never a single isolated factor, easily narrativized, that murders empires.

Kinda, sorta.  I’m a great believer in the significance of moral choices made by individuals but recognise these choices are always made with the constraints of existing societies.  I can’t prove this, of course, the lack of repeatable experiments makes alternative history an even less exact science than economics.

Luther Blisset: We begin with an investigation of the Jefferson-Hemmings relationship, which ultimately hinges on Hemmings decision (in the novel) to kill her lover/owner.  We jump ahead to a theocratic future America (a version of the Citee on a Hill) in the second section of the narrative.

No direct causation is implied here, neither of the “great man” nor of the “butterfly” varieties.  What we have is parataxis, juxtaposition, monage, non-narrative.

I have no problem with this, fiction using the tropes of alternative history to create a narrative.  Or possibly in this case, a non-narrative.

If one is writing alternative history as a history book from an alternative timeline then the reader expects coherence, an explanation of the causality following from a point of divergence from our timeline.  But in a novel gaps are permissible, we can give the reader a detective story why they try to work out exactly how the murder of Jefferson leads to theocratic America.  A novel also allows metaphysics - such as the I Ching and the parallel universes in PK Dick’s _The Man in the High Castle_ mentioned elsewhere in this discussion - that would be out-of-place in a ‘straight’ or plausible alternative history.

Certainly, an author claiming XYZ happened in an alternative universe ‘because of the butterfly effect’ is unsatisfying to the reader if it is expressed that baldly.  But a careful author can explain things that don’t obviously follow from the point of divergence.  A trivial example: no Kennedy assassination.  There are some big things that don’t happen - no Johnson landslide against Goldwater in 1964.  But there’s some little things too: how many children that might or might not have been conceived on 22 November 1963 are turning 41 the month after next?

Carlos: Cheers.  As you know one of my preferences in alternative history is the idea of ‘what might have been’ to quote David Flin from the s.h.w-i newsgroup.  My fiction isn’t always plausible but I feel the contraint of plausibility makes for more focussed writing.  Equally, I dig the freedom of scope that the alternative history genre gives.

In addition to the discipline/freedom dialectic there’s also the dichotomy between plausibility and fun - you’re audience has to want to read your work.  Plus the author has to get something out of the writing.  There’s no money for writing on a newsgroup so there must be some psychic income - appreciation from the readership, an educative mission or moralising. Alternative history is a great soap box for moralising - mirror worlds are as good for Swiftean excursions as the islands of Lilliput and Brobdingnag.

SEK wrote: I found there the same pleasure I used to find in the old Illuminati game, in which sentences like “Hillary Clinton, the Chinese Campaign Donors, and the Robot Sea Monsters attack the Tabloids in order to acquire The Secrets Man Was Not Meant To Know.

There is a temptation in AH to push coincidences.  OTOH it can be hard to write something as implausible as our timeline.  For example in recent researches I discovered that in 1824 there was a French ship is sailing for Valparaiso.  The first mate was Guiseppe Garibaldi, the future liberator of Italy.  The ten-year-old cabin boy is Joseph Gambetta, later to be father of the more illustrious Léon, a founder of the French Third Republic.  And one of the passengers is the Italian priest Father Giovanni Mastai-Ferretti, on a mission to Chile.  Father Giovanni will be better known to posterity as Pius IX the man who finessed the papacy from temporal power to a purely spiritual role and who pushed through the rarely used but much misunderstood doctrine of Papal infallibility.  The historian asks, “Who would have thought that three such figures could come together?” The alternative historian asks, “What if the boat had sunk?”

By on 06/19/05 at 08:58 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Speaking as a shw-i er of many years standing, I’m less than convinced by the idea that those of us who see some (note use of word ‘some’) explanatory power in Marxism are inevitably determinists when it comes to alternative history, just because EP Thompson saw it that way. I’m not.

Essential reading for anyone who wants to study this one systematically is Geoffrey Hawthorne’s _Plausible Worlds_. That’ll learn you. I have a sneaking suspicion that you need to read French to get even halfway down this field, as well.

By on 06/20/05 at 06:43 PM | Permanent link to this comment

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