Edited by Gavriel D. Rosenfeld


Edited by Gavriel D. Rosenfeld

Saturday, August 27, 2016

Alternate History Lite: Thoughts on David Means’s "Hystopia"

David Means’s new novel, Hystopia, has been on my must-read list for some time now, so I was eager to plunge into it while out of town last week.   I’m happy to report that it met many – thought not all -- of my expectations.  I particularly liked its metafictional elements (it’s a novel within a novel, replete with fake introductory author’s and editor’s notes, as well as other lit crit marginalia).  The novel also features powerfully drawn characters (mostly traumatized Vietnam Veterans who struggle with various forms of PTSD). That said, the novel was less interesting from a counterfactual perspective.


In a sense, Hystopia can be seen as a quasi-alternate history.  To be sure, its premise is firmly rooted in a key point of divergence: President John F. Kennedy escaping assassination by Lee Harvey Oswald in November of 1963.  Means furthermore adds other counterfactual events pertaining to the President’s life, imagining him avoiding death five more times until finally succumbing to a seventh successful assassination attempt during his third term in the fall of 1970.

Means does not exploit the full potential of this point of divergence, however.  JFK’s survival hovers mostly in the background of the novel, whose plot is mostly taken up with the psychological struggles of its central characters.  Ostensibly, Kennedy’s policy decisions worsen the characters’ difficulties coping with their war experiences.   The novel imagines JFK continuing the U. S.’s involvement in Vietnam, despite its many obvious costs to the nation; in the process, his policies worsen domestic social tensions, especially among ex-soldiers, white blue-collar workers, and urban African Americans.  Worse still, JFK’s poor leadership contributes to the eruption of violent race riots in the late 1960s and the early 1970s -- in metropolises like New York, L. A., and Detroit, as well as in smaller cities like Flint, Michigan.  Indeed, entire parts of the state of Michigan (from which Means hails) seem to be cordoned off into Mad-Max-like wastelands. 

Means never really explains the causal links between Kennedy’s continuation of the war and America’s dystopian turn, however.  He does not show, for instance, why the continuation of the war in alternate history ends up having worse consequences than President Lyndon Johnson’s continuation of the war in real history.  We also don’t really learn much concrete about why Oswald’s assassination failed and why so many subsequent murder attempts failed as well.  We also don’t really find out why the last one succeeds. 

Literary works of alternate history, to be sure, can present their points of divergence in subtle, allusive form and do not have to spell every detail out for readers.  In fact, the primary flaw of most alternate history novels is clunky and excessive exposition.  On this count, Means avoids a major mistake made by other novelists.  At the same time, however, he fails to connect his novel’s allohistorical context to its broader plot.  He thus misses an opportunity to create a more integrated work of counterfactual fiction.

On this count, I thought of a few literary “what ifs.” Couldn’t Means have arguably set his story in the real historical context of LBJ’s America and explored the psychological turmoil of his novel’s characters in the same way as he did?   Alternatively, couldn’t he have set the tale in a dystopian future (switching the Vietnam war for some other conflict) and pretty much kept his plot as is (at least in terms of his character’s dysfunctional relationships)?  I would hazard to say the answer to both questions is yes.  The fact that Means sets his story in a counterfactual historical context but fails to extract more from its dramatic possibilities ends up being something of a let-down – at least to this reader.      


These quibbles notwithstanding, Means’s embrace of alternate history – however faint -- can nevertheless be welcomed as another sign of the genre’s increasing popularity and legitimacy.    

Thursday, August 11, 2016

"Respectable" or Not? The Ongoing War Over Counterfactual History

As I continue to work on my new book on the history of the Fourth Reich (a project that, incidentally, employs abundant counterfactual reasoning), I’ve tried to stay up to date about the latest goings-on in the world of “what if?” 

Two recent essays struck me as simultaneously discouraging and heartening with regard to the future of counterfactual history.

On the one hand, a recent short essay in The Guardian by Nicholas Lezard entitled, “Altered Pasts Review: Counterfactual Histories Should Be Fun,” gets no objection from me in declaring that “We love a good counterfactual, don’t we? They are a bit of fun, in which we tweak history’s nose by imagining what might have been.”  However, Lezard then proceeds to lose me entirely by endorsing many of Richard Evans’s ill-grounded objections to “what if” thinking and by ultimately concluding – in overly sweeping fashion – that “counterfactuality is not a respectable historical tool, so don’t treat it like one.”

I don’t know what Lezard’s definition of “respectable” is, but I would think that we were past the point where such baseless accusations continue to be recycled.  I would like to think that we’ve arrived at a point where we don’t need to rehash all the reasons why counterfactual reasoning is not only essential to historical analysis, but has always been a tool (however unacknowledged) used by the leading figures in the western historical profession.  (For what it’s worth, I plan on meticulously documenting this fact in a future study of the field).


On the more positive side of the ledger:  Niall Ferguson and Graham Allison have recently received a decent bit of attention for their Applied History manifesto, “Establish a White House Council of Historical Advisers Now,” which was recently published in abridged form in The Atlantic.

Anyone interested in counterfactual history will be thrilled to see it endorsed by Ferguson and Allison as one of the key ways in which historians can contribute to policy making decisions.

They write as follows:

“A fifth type of assignment where applied historians could be helpful in the current policymaking process: by posing and answering “What if?” questions designed to analyze past decision-making. Addressing such questions requires disciplined counterfactual reasoning. While many mainstream historians have voiced reservations about counterfactual analysis, this method lies at the heart of every historical account. As one of us argued in Virtual History, “it is a logical necessity when asking questions about causation to pose ‘but for’ questions, and to try to imagine what would have happened if our supposed cause had been absent.”

“When assessing the relative importance of various possible causes of WWI, historians make judgments about what would have happened in the absence of these factors. Methods developed for doing this systematically can be employed by applied historians in considering current policy choices. Thus, President Obama’s successor could ask his Council of Historical Advisers to replay 2013. What if Obama had opted to enforce the “red line” in Syria against the Assad regime, rather than delegating the removal of chemical weapons from Syria to the Russian government? And what if, in January 2014, the EU had not offered Ukraine an economic association agreement that was clearly designed to pull Kiev westwards? Would President Putin have intervened militarily in Ukraine?”

People may differ on the value of historians diving into political work, as Jeremy Adelman has recently written in a new piece in The Chronicle of Higher Education.  But whatever one’s views on the subject, it is significant that the manifesto elevates historical “what ifs?” to such prominence. 


At the very least, it refutes Lezard’s erroneous claim that they are anything but “respectable.”

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

A Counterfactual Jewish State After the Holocaust: Simone Zelitch's New Novel, "Judenstaat"

It's the summer doldrums and I'm taking a bit of a break from blogging about historical counterfactuals.

But I thought I'd post a link to a new review that I just published in The Forward on Simone Zelitch's novel, Judenstaat, about a Jewish state being established in Saxony after World War II.



The novel was briefly profiled in this past weekend's New York Times, along with Underground Airlines.  I'd like to think I engage with the book's absorbing narrative in greater depth.