Edited by Gavriel D. Rosenfeld

Edited by Gavriel D. Rosenfeld

Friday, September 15, 2017

When Alternate History is Real History: Hillary Clinton's New Yorker Cover That Might Have Been

The New Yorker pulled an interesting stunt today.

It publicized a cover that never made the cut because the event it was meant to commemorate -- Hillary Clinton's election as President of the United States -- never came to pass.

It said the cover would have been published "If Hillary Clinton Had Won."  As such, the cover is portrayed as a work of artistic alternate history.

Strictly speaking, however I don't think it is an example of alternate history. It is an example of a future history that never realized its potential. It is a historical artifact -- the expression of a hope that never panned out.  

The cover was produced -- shall we say -- on "spec."  On the assumption that history would transpire as most Americans (at least democrats) expected it would.

Because it never happened, though, the cover was never published.  It thereby joined all the celebratory t-shirts and baseball hats commemorating championships never won by sports teams (but that were manufactured in advance for the hoped-for champagne spraying festivities in the post-game locker room).

In light of its future orientation, the New Yorker cover reminds us that works of alternate history can only qualify as such if they refer to historical events that attained some kind of closure -- at least in terms of their immediate result.

What If the Cold War Never Ended? Netflix's Upcoming Polish Alternate History

In the wake of the all the controversy surrounding HBO's Confederate (and its Amazon competitor, "Black America"), it's exciting to see Netflix getting involved with a project set in an alternate 1980s Poland where the Solidarity movement was crushed and the cold war never came to an end.

Here's the description from Netflix:

"Warsaw, Poland -- Sept. 13, 2017 - Netflix, the world’s leading entertainment service, continues its investment in European productions with the announcement of its first original series in Polish language. Academy Award-nominee Agnieszka Holland and Kasia Adamik will direct the eight-episode season, which will be shot in various cities and regions in Poland. The show is expected to launch to Netflix members around the world in 2018."

"Following in the great tradition of Cold War spy thrillers, this alternative history series takes place in a world where the Iron Curtain never fell. Now, in 2002, twenty years after a devastating terrorist attack in 1982 that halted the course of Poland’s liberation and the subsequent downfall of the Soviet Union, an idealistic law student and a disgraced police investigator stumble upon a conspiracy that has kept the Iron Curtain standing and Poland living under a repressive police state. After two decades of peace and prosperity, the leaders of the regime enact a secret plan that was made with an unlikely adversary in the 1980s that will radically transform Poland and affect the lives of every citizen in the nation — and the world. What these two men discover has the potential to ignite a popular revolution and those in power will stop at nothing to keep it a secret."

At first glance, this nightmare scenario -- like all nightmare scenarios -- seems primed to justify the reality of the present, specifically the belief of Poles that the way history actually turned out was for the best.  Yet it surely will also be seen as containing a not-so-thinly-veiled, presentist admonition for Poles to make sure that the Soviet domination portrayed in the series is never again repeated courtesy of Vladimir Putin's Russia.

Like "The Man in the High Castle's" contemporary function as a warning against resurgent fascism, Amazon's Polish series will warn against resurgent Russian domination.   

The question is whether the series will receive the same kind of criticism from Putin's media lapdogs as HBO's "Confederate" received from American critics.

If so, it will once more confirm alternate history's capacity to foster controversy.

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

In Defense of HBO's Counterfactual "Confederates"

Building on some of the blog posts that I've written on HBO's controversial alternate history series, Confederate, here is a new set of thoughts about the show that I wrote for The Conversation (published today):

In it, I try to allay the fear of critics that the premise of the South winning the Civil War is inherently apologetic and plead for the show to be judged in the free marketplace of ideas.

Here is the LINK, if you'd like to read further.