Ignoring Alternate History? Randy Boyagoda Reviews Laurent Binet's "Civilizations" as a work of "Counterfiction"

It’s time to sound like broken record again and recite my apologetic refrain: “It’s been a while since my last post, but I’ve been trying to make headway on my book.”    Actually, it’s true: I’m happy to report that I’ve just finished chapter 13, which discusses the evolution of counterfactual history during the years 1945-1989.  And that’s why I’ve been silent of late on the blog.  

Today, however, a news story caught my eye and prompted me to comment.    

This weekend’s New York Times Book Review (December 12th, 2021) features a review of Laurent Binet’s novel, Civilizations, by Randy Boyagoda, which struck me as unusual.    In discussing the book, which employs a “trading places counterfactual” to examine how history would have been different if the Incas of Peru had invaded 16th-century Europe (instead of the other way around), Boyagoda never uses the concept of “alternate history” to examine the novel’s adjustment of the historical record.    

Instead, he uses the phrases, “counterhistorical fiction” and “counterfiction,” to describe how the novel “reverse-engineers the established hierarchies and terms of conventional history.”    

Hmmmm…The last time I checked, this was one of the hallmarks of alternate history.  

So what gives with Boyagoda’s failure to invoke the genre by name?  Boyagoda is a novelist and it stands to reason that he must be aware of alternate history’s existence as a stand-alone genre of literary fiction.  

Or does it?  Is it possible that people in the literary world – actual novelists -- still don’t know of alternate history?  Or prefer to ignore it outright, believing that it is somehow low-brow or otherwise illegitimate?   

To me, it seems like a dereliction of duty for Boyagoda not to mention that Binet’s novel is hardly the first text to explore the premise of the colonized peoples of the western hemisphere, Africa, or the Middle East turning the tables on the west and colonizing Europe.  

The premise dates all the way back to Alain Renais Lesage’s 1732 novel, The Adventures of Sir Robert Chevalier, Called the Pirate Captain Beauchene (Les avanteurs de Monsieur Robert Chevalier dit de Beauchene, capitaine de flibustiers), which included a “nesting doll counterfactual” portraying Native Americans “discovering” Europe, and has been explored by many writers since: Historian Walter Rodney referred to Africans subjecting the British to slavery in his book, How Europe Underdeveloped Africa (1972); recent television shows, such as Noughts and Crosses (based on the Marjorie Blackman series), have portrayed whites living under African rule in Britain; and novels, such as Harry Turtledove’s Through Darkest Europe (2018) and Raymond Khoury’s Empire of Lies (2019) and have depicted worlds where Muslims rule over Europe.    

But such texts find no mention in the review.   

I suppose it means that we in the counterfactual history community need to do more work publicizing/proselytizing/communicating/marketing with regard to our field.  Or maybe we just call out oversights like Boyagoda's when we see them.  

One other point:  

I should note that I agreed with one observation made by Boyagoda in his review, namely that Civilizations “can often be boring.”  I read the novel this past summer, expecting to review it on this blog.  But after making my way through half of it, I lost interest and just skimmed the second half.    

The problem – as is so often the case with alternate history novels – is that Binet gets bogged down in exposition and lost sight of the main job of literature, which is to absorb the reader in the actual story.  The trick in alternate history is to scatter the counterfactual elements judiciously, like spices in a stew, and not overwhelm the narrative’s main plot with too many historical alterations.    All too often, alternate history novels forget the key lesson that “less is more” and overburden the plot with points of divergence that become list-like, repetitive, and predictable.  

While it sounds counterintuitive, alternate history can be strongest when it takes a back seat to the more traditional literary elements that make for good fiction: character development, intricate plotting, the clever use of genre, etc.  

Striking the right balance is key: If Binet erred too much on the side of counterfactual exposition, Stephen King’s 11/22/63 and Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America skimped on the counterfactual elements (relative to the hundreds of pages of traditional literary narrative, cramming in the main counterfactual elements near the novel’s conclusions in hasty fashion).  Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad also underplayed the counterfactual elements.  Ben Winters’ Underground Airlines did a better job of striking a balance, but I found the main plot only so-so.  

We could go on down the list of recent texts, but the point is clear: finding the right balance is tough.  I feel we are still waiting for a masterpiece to emerge out of our current golden age of alternate history literature.  We’ve seen some excellent works emerge in the realm of streaming television series.  But while I’ve enjoyed lots of recent novels, I have yet to be truly blown away by a work of literary fiction.  I remain hopeful it’s being written as we speak.