Considered Alternatives

When history takes an unexpected turn, where can we go to explore the worlds that never came to be?

“Madam President: Hillary Clinton’s historic journey to the White House,” read the Newsweek cover story for the week after the election. Like many media outlets, Newsweek had prepared two covers in advance to respond to both outcomes. But this issue actually went out to newsstands; 125,000 copies had to be recalled. South Park had also already made a post-election episode called “The Very First Gentleman” and had to quickly write another — this one called “Oh Jeez.” You can still find the original version online. On January 10th, Mike Allen released the names of Clinton’s “ghost cabinet,” the people she had planned to place in her government.

These are accidental artifacts from an alternate world. But there are eddies of the internet where people are actively building this parallel reality. “Clinton proudly calls America a ‘sanctuary nation,’” proclaims a recent headline on hillarybeattrump.org. The satirical site tracks the progress of America’s relatively sane, sensible, and progressive 45th president. A dispatch from a recent press conference reports that, “powerful media organizations like the New York Times are impugning Clinton’s polite, highly professional interactions with the media as ‘regrettably informative’ and ‘uniquely terrible reality TV.’” Another headline reports, “As hate crimes decline, Milo Yiannopoulos returns to work as Starbucks barista.”

There has been a second reality dogging ours, a phantom limb one can still feel moving

The Twitter account @IfHillaryHad has also been running since Inauguration Day. The account has more than fifty thousand followers; a recent tweet read, “DAY 29: Not holding any campaign rallies (I’m fucking POTUS already). Mailed Chaffetz a turd in a bag. Sent Bill to Sephora for mascara.” The more somber spin-off @IfBernieWon tends toward pronouncements like, “Day 1: Skipped inaugural parade and congressional luncheon to begin drafting climate legislation.”

The reified world both does and does not hold the monopoly on our lived experience. For many of those who felt Trump’s victory as a rip in the cosmos as they understood it, there has been a second reality dogging ours, a phantom limb they can still feel moving. When history takes an unexpected turn, we seem to inhabit both the present and a hazy almost-present in which our lives unfold along the lines we had thought they would. Our propensity for imagining what could happen — both positive and negative — means that other worlds continually press against us, dimpling the contours of what is. At times, their pressure can be hard to bear. Where can we go to explore the worlds that did not come to be?

These Twitter accounts and blogs are the latest iteration of a longstanding subculture. The territory of alternate history is the rolling plain between two boundary markers: from the professional historian’s articulation of verifiable facts to the fantasy author’s evocation of idiosyncratic imaginings. In between, the what-ifs.

When economists write treatises on the development of the canal system in the U.S. if railroads had never been laid, it’s called “counterfactual history.” When role-playing game enthusiasts and hobbyists write literary narratives online that read like medievalist fan-fic, it’s called “alternate history.” Both follow OTL (Official Time Line, also known to you and me as “reality”) up to a certain juncture — the POD (point of demarcation or departure) — then trace the consequences of a specific adjustment. The distinction between the two is partly formal: what-if explorations of the counterfactual variety spell out the effects of an altered event through analysis, whereas alternate history’s power lies in its literary realism — within the narrative, the new normal is not acknowledged as new.

Despite historian E.H. Carr’s famous dismissal of counterfactual history as “an idle parlour game,” the past 25 years have seen a growing attention to serious what-if writing. German historian and educator Bernard Eric Jensen wrote that encouraging students to explore history’s counterfactuals would be a sneaky way to deepen their study, ensuring that they “become familiar with the culture and thinking of the people in question — including, of course, their norms, habits, knowledge, desires, expectations, technologies, living conditions, divisions, etc.” It’s a bit like being asked to order for someone in a restaurant who hasn’t yet arrived — you have to know the person well enough to imagine what, faced with a given slate of options, they might choose.

Alternatehistory.com is not the only online venue for amateur explorations of historical what-ifs, but it is one of the oldest. Established at the turn of the century as a split-off from a usenet group, the site continues to be popular; Ian Montgomerie, the founder and lead administrator, puts the total membership at about ten thousand, with perhaps a thousand people reading, commenting, or creating timelines at any given moment. Since it’s an English-language site, Montgomerie estimates that half the site’s users are American, with the next sizeable number from Canada and the UK, and then a smattering from places like Germany, Norway, Indonesia, or Australia. Montgomerie has heard that Russian-language alternate history sites are very popular. “Obviously,” he wrote me, “a lot of things could have gone better in their history.”

The culture of alternatehistory.com is markedly collegial, and while there are significant representations of both conservative and liberal-identifying posters, over the years the influx of younger members has tilted the conversation towards the left. The collegiality doesn’t happen by accident. A cheerful 38-year-old, Montgomerie works in New York as a software engineer but is originally from Nova Scotia, and he runs a tight parlor — if you wouldn’t say it in front of your grandmother, he told me, you shouldn’t say it on the internet. He gives users weeklong timeouts for insulting language, and he has kicked off numerous neo-Nazis, who, he says, are a constant plague to any online discussion of World War II. Unlike those who trade in “alternative facts,” timeline creators are not attempting to pass off their creations as truth. (Some practitioners of counterfactual history, like Fairfield University professor Gavriel Rosenfeld, have expressed concern about the effects of “a ‘post-truth’ and ‘post-fact’ world” on public perception of their pursuit.) The idea is for people with a healthy grasp of consensus reality to meet up online to discuss what might have happened if events had unfolded differently, not to throw doubt on the veracity of the historical record.

What-if counterfactual analysis spells out the effects of an altered event, whereas alternate history’s power lies in its literary realism

Montgomerie calls the forums “a cross between folk art and internet debate.” He emailed me, “There isn’t a clear divide between artist and audience, or between the best artists and people who just show up to have fun.” The discussion threads are a fabulously mismatched rag-rug of historical people, places, and ideas: What if China never had nomads inhabiting its steppes? What if the Manson family killed Roman Polanski? What if prehistoric horses had been hunted to extinction instead of domesticated? What if Kurt Cobain survived? Some timelines have a single author but their readers comment extensively, and the events may unfold differently in response to suggestions. Other timelines are less narrative and read more like collaborative exercises in speculation. The demographics of membership point to the widespread appeal of making your own history: among the 2017 nominees for “best newcomer” for the site’s popular-vote-based awards are a teenage transgender woman and a retired military officer.

Alternate history hobbyists have built up a rich lexicon. “Wanks” are timelines that betray an obvious bias by according implausible success to a particular country or ideology: Ameriwanks, Nipponwanks, Socialism-Wanks, Francowanks (also known as “les wanks”). The Twitter account @ifHillaryHad would be considered a satirical turbo HillWank. “Alien space bats” is a shorthand that originally referred to timelines that employed a deus ex machina to obtain an unlikely result — in 1998, usenet user Alison Brooks scoffed that Operation Sea Lion (a planned WWII German invasion of the United Kingdom that never took place) could have been successful only if alien space bats helped the Nazis. Over time, the phrase shifted meaning as timeline creators working in the fantasy genre (a section of the site exploring versions of history where mythic creatures and supernatural powers influence events is behind a members-only wall) embraced the term — now alternatehistory.com’s awards has a Best Alien Space Bats category.

The site’s introductory page for new timeline creators hosts an extensive list of alternate history clichés. “Pin-the-Zion-on-the-Eurasia” is the conceit of Israel having been founded somewhere other than its OTL location — Alaska (as in Michael Chabon’s novel The Yiddish Policemen’s Union), Madagascar, New Zealand. “President Anybody” is a timeline in which an existing figure of cultural significance — Bob Dylan, say, or Judy Garland — inexplicably becomes U.S. president. Some of the critiques are aesthetic: “Stupidly-named Italy” is a cliché in which, after unification, a territory called “Kingdom of the Three Sicilies,” “Kingdom of the Two Italies,” or, “Kingdom of the Three Sicilies, Four Italies, and Two Lombardies” blots the timeline’s landscape.

The clichés, however, can be the most revealing timelines of all. What are the events that we return to over and over, history’s pain points that we can’t quite put behind us? In North America, alternate history obsessively revisits two what-ifs with the power to change life as we know it: what if the Confederates had won the U.S. Civil War? And, what if the Nazis had won World War II? This latter scenario is currently being played out in the Amazon prime drama The Man in the High Castle, based on the book by science fiction master Philip K. Dick. In this post-war world, Japan controls the west coast of the U.S. and Germany the east, with a neutral zone in between. Chipper all-American boys in SS uniforms compete on game shows, and flakes of ash from “cripples” and the terminally ill float from the crematoria every Tuesday. It’s a known dystopia, the long shadow of a reality so implausibly horrific that even at the time, people refused to believe in it.

At first glance, our desire to return to this period and play out a scenario in which the bad guys win looks like simple make-believe — scaring ourselves with campfire stories when we’re safe in our sleeping bags. But as with most horror stories, it’s the undercurrent of genuine fear that compels our fascination. Our literature, our families, and our theology are still coming to grips with the Holocaust, and the tension fueling our fictionalized versions is not only how close we came to losing the war, but how easily we could still lose its most significant battle. We have not moved beyond the threat of dictatorship and genocide — indeed, we seem to be moving closer.

The anxieties of the present are diffuse — living moment to moment, we’re always braced for the next thing. Whereas we’re always catching up with the present, the past offers a closed arena within which we have leisure; it stays still enough to visit and linger. Out of the flow of time, we can use fantasy to assimilate our traumatic experiences. This kind of escapism seems benign, even healing. It’s the sort of catastrophizing that your therapist might tell you to do — instead of trying to ignore or deny your fears, write them down. Think about what you might do if these scenarios arose; it feels better to have a plan. The Man in the High Castle centers on an American underground resistance: within the fantasy of defeat is a new route to victory.

The clichés can be the most revealing timelines of all. What are the events that we return to over and over, history’s pain points that we can’t quite put behind us?

However, revising history can also mean trying to blank out the uncomfortable parts of one’s identity. The other idée fixe of U.S. alternate history enthusiasts, the Civil War, is more often dramatized by those on the losing side, with questionable results. A 2004 timeline called “The Black and the Grey” by user robertp6165 imagines that the Confederacy implemented an OTL proposal of the period: freeing and arming slaves who would fight for the South. By 1902, former slaves in the victorious Confederate states are still trapped in “peonage” systems, but “public outcry in the more ‘progressive’ States of the Confederacy has steadily risen against these ‘archaic’ practices … More and more people are questioning why blacks, anywhere in the Confederacy, should be denied full citizenship.”

The reader commentary on this segment of the timeline is instructive. On the premise that slaves who were willing to fight for the Confederacy would be rewarded with their freedom, user brilliantlight commented: “It is highly unlikely that the promise would be kept. Why keep faith with slaves? My guess is that black troops would mostly be logistics while the whites would be freed up to man the trenches and at the end of the war the blacks would be rounded up and resold.” To which robertp responded, “Because honour would have demanded it. I don’t expect you to understand this, since you obviously did not grow up in the Southern culture and have been pretty much brainwashed by the northern or western schools you have attended. Honour was (and is) extremely important to a Southern Gentleman. If men like Jefferson Davis and Robert E. Lee gave their word that the blacks would have freedom, then they would have freedom.”

Users with a strong sense of Southern identity, Montgomerie told me over the phone, seem to be driven by a desire to detach southern self-determination from racism. “I think it ties into ideas that if the Confederacy had won, it wouldn’t have been a horrible, slavery-infested hellhole because southerners are just not that bad.” In these Confederate victory timelines, slavery is not presented as a positive institution with a bright future — it’s presented as a shameful thing that, in the absence of coercion from the north, southerners would have moved past on their own. It’s a point of view that restores the dignity of white southerners still struggling with historical disgrace, but only by erasing the experience of black southerners who continue to be affected by a deep-seated institutional racism.

The right side of history turns out to be a thinly populated area. Some of the site’s users have complained about British timeline creators who seem to want not only to relive but also to extend the glory days of Empire. Given the violent suppression of indigenous people that continues to allow settlers to build pipelines across indigenous land, alternate timelines in which indigenous people are immune to smallpox (a popular POD in university counterfactual history classes) allow students to symbolically exonerate themselves from ongoing injustice. It’s easier to imagine restoring the lives of historical victims than to offer restitution and cessation of hostilities to those being harmed in the present day.

“Alternative facts” are not alternate or counterfactual history. But the new language of post-truth and fake news makes it possible for those on the right to simply declare Official Time Line expendable. Asserting that facts in and of themselves are subjective — not the interpretation or narrativizing that go along with them, but the actual DNA of reality — signals a dangerous unmooring from any kind of consensus. Manipulating the public into a state of radical doubt benefits only those whose actions can’t bear independent scrutiny.

After the mix-up at the Oscars, Twitter was rife with comments on the “Moonlight timeline” and the “La La Land timeline.” Our willingness to speak casually about this possibility comes in part from influences in science; theories about the multiverse — a way of explaining particle behavior by positing multiple universes in which all outcomes are made manifest — have seeped into our perception of the Official Time Line. Once our reality is seen as one among many, it’s a short leap to a kind of untrutherism — a belief that there is no bedrock of fact. The nihilism of this position tends to favour an alt-right outlook: If nothing is real, it can’t possibly matter how badly we treat each other. Attempts to “progress” in a teleological way are false, as is any attempt to shape a future more just than the past. For people on the extreme right, “political correctness” becomes the fiction. Saying “nothing matters and nothing is real” becomes “only I matter and only I am real.”

In the introductory material for new timeline creators, alternatehistory.com discusses two significant ideas from which any discussion of what-ifs must flow: the butterfly effect and the Citroen DS Incident. The butterfly effect is a familiar concept: as the flapping of a butterfly’s wings can raise a storm halfway across the world, so does any tiny change to history create a ripple effect, altering the reality we know. The site offers two competing interpretations of how to apply this principle. Butterfly fundamentalists believe that after the POD, everything is up for grabs — Neil Armstrong wearing red socks could mean the U.S. never gets to the moon. Butterfly moderates believe that only the “context system” of the change will be affected — Hitler drinking tea instead of coffee on the morning of his suicide will not affect the invention of the iPhone.

The Citroen Incident is a fine-grained example of the same idea, but working backwards. The term originated with a user called Hendryk, who complained that an episode of Battlestar Galactica had a shot of a 1960s Citroen in a parking lot. “That rather shoots the suspension of disbelief right out of the air for me,” he complained. Why use such a specific detail from OTL when nothing in the show’s premise suggested that the Citroen plant would exist to make this iconic car, manufactured in France from 1955 to 1975? If the whole point is world-building, it’s lazy to use too many parallels with the world we know. Why flap the butterfly’s wings if you don’t want a storm?

I wonder if our interest in alternate and counterfactual histories is less about wanting to change specific circumstances than about hoping to reassure ourselves that there are reasons why things are the way they are. It may seem like a game of introducing random elements — what if Eleanor of Aquitaine had died in childhood? What if the commercially viable steam engine had been invented in Afghanistan instead of in England? — but in fact, it’s a struggle against the frightening randomness that often seems to be at work in our lives. Playing Jenga with historical narrativity is a way of seeking out cause and effect, of affirming the apprehensibility of human affairs. The timelines whose effect is most magical are those governed by the tidiest logic.

At its worst, playing what-if is political fantasizing that could get in the way of political action and the responsible study of history. In 2014, historian Richard J. Evans wrote in the Guardian that the distraction of counterfactuals “threatens to overwhelm our perceptions of what really happened in the past, pushing aside our attempts to explain it in favour of a futile and misguided attempt to decide whether the decisions taken in August 1914 were right or wrong. For that way, of course, leads not to historical understanding but to all kinds of wishful thinking.” Right now, Hillary Clinton is the alien space bat of many imaginations. Imagining that a different election outcome would have magically eliminated all the problems confronting us at this moment in history is counter-productive.

At its best, reopening history’s options is not only cathartic, but also encourages us to think past the POD. If Hillary or Bernie had won — then what? Committed practitioners of alternate and counterfactual history don’t luxuriate in repeated fantasies about a single moment of change. Instead, they rigorously pursue its logical consequences. On the forums, it quickly becomes clear that high-level what-iffing can only be done by someone with a comprehensive inventory of the many moving parts of a given era. By taking the machine of history apart, we may be able to figure out how it works. Likewise, when imagining political movements that can make a difference, activists need to think several dominoes beyond the immediate goals. For those with an interest in future outcomes — all of us — tinkering with steampunk prototypes can be a hands-on education in logical circuitry. A vision of history that refuses to see the present as inevitable can steer us away from helpless acceptance of the status quo.

Linda Besner’s most recent book is Feel Happier in Nine Seconds. Her poetry and nonfiction have appeared in the New York Times Magazine, the Boston Review, the Globe & Mail, and Enroute, and aired on CBC Radio. She lives in Montreal.