Edited by Gavriel D. Rosenfeld


Edited by Gavriel D. Rosenfeld

Friday, March 14, 2014

Crowdsourcing Counterfactuals (II): The Results

The results are in.  

And they validate the popularity of counterfactual history.

Some 1,500 contributions were submitted by NPR listeners to “All Things Considered’s” request for speculative answers to the question: “What if World War Had Never Happened?



Many of the responses are thoughtful and serious, but a large percentage are on the silly side.  It may be that the latter category is overrepresented on the NPR website, as their punch lines make for good sound bites  (cue the bass drum/high hat).  But it may simply be that most of the submissions fall into this category. 

If so, it underscores the fact that counterfactual history’s current popularity may reflect a desire to laugh as much as to learn.

Here is a sampling: (for the whole list click here).

“Benito Mussolini eschews teaching and politics, choosing instead to open up a small coffee/pastry shop in Switzerland called "Bene, Bene!" He goes on to write several dessert cookbooks, which become very popular in Spain and Italy. While on a book signing tour he is given the nickname "Il dolce" by his fans.”
— Charles Foerster

“Josef Stalin would never have been more than a hairy, disaffected Georgian coffee shop habitue. He might have owned a shop in Tbilisi, and helped to care for his aging parents. He would have married a village girl and possibly become a drunken lout. At best, he would have become a town alderman.”
— Marcy Troy

“Gavrilo Princip gets hooked on sandwiches, loses 50 pounds, and lands a lucrative endorsement deal advertising Subway sandwiches. Gavrilo becomes immortalized as a weight loss icon, forever relegating Jared to the dustbin of history.”
— Robert Tobey

“Downton Abbey wouldn't have existed and I would have hours of my life back. Damn you Princip!”
— Beth Simpson

On the more serious side of things:

“Without World War I and hence, II, Britain would still have a strong military presence in India and have continued its colonial rule in the subcontinent for more years. There would not have been a partition of India in 1947, and Mahatma Gandhi would have lived longer.”
— Kalyani Chaganti

“Without WWI, USA doesn't ramp up its production capacity which brings women into the workplace and sets into motion the sweeping changes career and employment opportunities for women. Contraception is not promoted as a liberating option for women, and birthrates of American women continue to rise.”
— Lauren

And then, intriguingly enough, two of my favorite childhood authors might never have produced some of their best-known books:

“J.R.R. Tolkien does not fight in the trenches in France, and is not exposed to the horrors of war. Drawing on his linguistic studies at Oxford, he writes a stunning reimagination of the folktales of northern Europe, producing a new synthesis, drawing on diverse, obscure, and often startling tales of magic, heroism, and suffering. The thread combining his narratives is an earthy, rootless man, somewhat short and given to epicurean delights, who journeys throughout Europe, writing down his experiences just for the pleasure of doing so.” — Steve Shea

“Agatha Christie might not become a world-famous detective novelist and playwright. Christie worked in a hospital dispensary during the First World War. It was here that she began to plan her first detective novel, in response to her sister's earlier challenge to write a mystery that the reader could not unravel before the end of the book. The ample time the dispensary job gave her to ponder her sister's challenge and plan the story, alone with the knowledge of drugs and poisons she had gained on the job, lent themselves to the writing of The Mysterious Affair at Styles, the novel that launched her career as a mystery writer and introduced the world to Hercule Poirot.”
— Michael J. Haas

Since there’s no such thing as bad publicity, the NPR series should be welcomed.  It remains to be seen, however, whether counterfactual history continues to expand its influence or becomes pigeonholed as oriented towards cheap laughs and shallow insights.



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