A couple of people responding in the “Production of History” thread have suggested Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Years of Rice and Salt for the week on time travel and alternate history. The suggestion is a great one, and I love the book.
As long as it’s on my mind, though, I’ll explore an issue it raised for me. One thing I’ve been thinking about a lot when it comes to counterfactuals is how to get beyond the kind of counterfactual built on the logic of “for want of a nail”, where a single discrete event is given a plausibly different outcome and then a different set of macrohistorical circumstances is derived in a linear causal chain from that outcome. E.g., Lee winning at Gettysburg, and so on.
The problem with this kind of counterfactual is that the further one gets away from the single contingent event, the more tenuously reasoned the argument becomes. Victory at Gettysburg becomes victory in the Civil War? Very possible. Then what? Two nations? Eventual negotiations for reunification on favorable terms to the South? (Isn’t that what ultimately happened after Reconstruction anyway?) Northern capital overwhelming the Southern economy anyway? Whatever your analytic framework for interpreting the Civil War itself tends to dictate what you think the consequences of a different outcome in the war might be.
This is the only way we know how to write a counterfactual essay or book, however. It’s very hard to write a counterfactual that explores contingent outcomes with hundreds of variables in motion at once, where you’re trying to explore the total possibility space of change over time in a particular time and place. You could argue that a study like Ken Pomeranz’ The Great Divergence amounts to an unannounced counterfactual of this kind, given that he is trying to write about a huge number of important variables in comparing China and Western Europe in the transition to modernity. It’s pretty tough to do.
Robinson’s The Years of Rice and Salt is one of the few works I’ve seen that tries to go beyond, “What if the South won the Civil War”? Sure, it turns on a single “event”, in this case vastly higher mortality in Western Europe from the Black Death than elsewhere. Robinson tries to keep a very broad perspective on the consequences, however. Much more so than Steven Barnes in his alternate history series (Lion’s Blood, Zulu Heart that deals with Western Europeans being enslaved in America by Africans and Arabs, I think, but both authors ultimately have the same problem, which is that they don’t know how to think sequentially through a history which is both alternate and alterate, e.g., in which a non-Western society changes over time without the dominance of the West.
This is a problem for more than Robinson and Barnes. One of my favorite examples that I like to raise in my courses is Walter Rodney’s How Europe Underdeveloped Africa. Rodney’s mix of nationalism and Marxism requires him to argue that had Europe not underdeveloped Africa, it would have developed into a parallel form of modern industrial capitalism on its own. But Rodney also argues that Western domination of African societies, first in the slave trade and later in colonialism, was essential for the development of capitalism and modernity. So would African societies have had their own imperialism that would have allowed their parallel alternate modernity to come into being? Against whom?
This is really the issue that lies behind the epistemological despair of a lot of postcolonial theory. You can’t unthink the West, you can’t really imagine the systematic difference of non-Western societies in a counterfactual way, in terms of what they might have developed into. Barnes doesn’t really think about what African or Middle Eastern slave systems might have been had they been exported into an Atlantic world: he simply changes the color and names of the masters and slaves. He can’t really imagine what “Shaka” would have been had he been part of a dominant global civilization, save an angry militarist, can’t derive the full alternate history of “Zuluness” had it never been encapsulated within a British-dominated South Africa.
Robinson’s work is more ambitious by far, and strays more interestingly into trying to think about what a Muslim-Chinese global society would have been. But what’s interestingly is that in the end, that society essentially transits into modernity on roughly the same terms and with the same basic geist as Europe did. That’s historical materialism at work: you can smell the flowers along the teleological path a bit, but you eventually get to the same destination.
To write a counterfactual that took a non-Western society to a different telos is the imaginative equivalent of creating a plausibly alien extraterrestrial society. If you don’t hardwire in some kind of universality (human or sentient) into such an effort, you literally can’t do it: you’re trying to represent something that is by definition unrepresentable. Again, this is why postcolonial theory works itself into such an intricate state of intellectual constipation, because it assumes that the non-West without the West cannot be represented within the Western logos and yet deeply desires the capacity to make such a representation. I do think it’s possible to write an imaginative counterfactual, however, in which a non-Western society comes to something other than modernity with dark faces and different names. I think it would read something more like Gene Wolfe’s Soldier of Arete (or Paul Park’s Celestis) than The Years of Rice and Salt, however.