What Ifs and Might-Have-Beens: Draft Syllabus

I’m teaching a new course next semester on counterfactual and alternate history. The basic structure of the course is divided into four-parts: historiographical and theoretical debates about counterfactuals and alternate history; formal ‘scholarly’ counterfactuals; alternate histories; and workshopping student-created counterfactuals that will culminate in a 15-20 page written work.

Still making some of my final selections of readings (and would love suggestions) but here’s what I’m thinking about as I winnow it down:


Books for Purchase:

Tetlock, Lebow and Parker, eds., Unmaking the West: ‘What-If?’ Scenarios That Rewrite World History
Niall Ferguson, ed., Virtual History
Watson & Whates, eds., The Mammoth Book of Alternate Histories
Kim Stanley Robinson, Years of Rice and Salt
Sesshu Foster, Atomik Aztex

Part I: Debating the counterfactual in historical writing

Collins, Hall and Paul, “Counterfactuals and Causation: History, Problems and Prospects”
Johannes Bulholf, “What If? Modality and History”
E.H. Carr, “What Is History”
E.P. Thompson, “The Poverty of Theory”
Randall Collins, “Turning Points, Bottlenecks, and the Fallacies of
Counterfactual History”
Niall Ferguson, Introduction, Virtual History: Alternatives and Counterfactuals
Martin Bunzl, “Counterfactual History: A User’s Guide”
Geoffrey Hawthorn, Plausible Worlds: Possibility and Understanding in History and the Social Sciences, selection
Tetlock and Parker, “Counterfactual Thought Experiments” and “Counterfactual History: Its Advocates, Its Critics, & Its Uses”, in Unmaking the West
Catherine Gallagher, “When Did the Confederate States of America Free the Slaves?” Representations 98, 2007.

Part II: Formal counterfactuals

Walter Laqueur, “Disraelia: A Counterfactual History”
James Axtell, “Colonial America Without the Indians”
Gary Cornblith, “Rethinking the Coming of the Civil War: A Counterfactual Exercise”
Selections from Ferguson, ed., Virtual History
Selections from Tetlock, Lebow & Parker, eds., Unmaking the West
Selections from Cowley, ed., What If 2

Part III: Alternate history

Fatherland (film)
Sliders (television series)
Selections from Watson & Whates, The Mammoth Book of Alternate Histories
Robert Conroy, Red Inferno: 1945
Robert Sobel, For Want of a Nail
Kim Stanley Robinson, The Years of Rice and Salt
Martin Delany, Blake, or the Huts of America
Jo Walton, Farthing
Steven Barnes, Lion’s Blood
Sesshu Foster, Atomik Aztex
Scott Westerfeld, Leviathan

Part IV:

Workshopping the papers


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14 Responses to What Ifs and Might-Have-Beens: Draft Syllabus

  1. laurenstokes says:

    I’m pretty fond of The World Hitler Never Made, which is essentially a historiography of alternate histories produced about the Second World War.

    Also from the German side, Alexander Demandt’s book on counterfactual history is really interesting. Demandt later became famous for a four-page essay where he argues that if Hitler had won, things probably wouldn’t have been that bad. Brings in a very contentious new topic, but definitely worth consideration if they’re reading Fatherland.

  2. Timothy Burke says:

    The Rosenfeld looks really good–I had definitely overlooked it. One of the things we’ll definitely be talking about is why “What if the Nazis had won?” and “What if the Confederates had won?” are such overwhelmingly predominant questions in counterfactual and alternate historical writing.

  3. benjb says:

    I once threw together a proposal for a literature course on alt history (which was not picked up), and I threw it together very quickly (so it’s more fiction than theory heavy), but if I can’t share the proposed reading list here, where can I share it?

    (Also, it was for a quarter, 10 weeks, rather than a longer semester.)

    List with some commentary:
    Hawthorne, “P’s Correspondence” (1845)
    –not clearly alt hist (it’s source is a crazy man) and focused on literary production, but interesting in that it does the “everything opposite” trope–all authors who died young are alive and totally different, etc., etc.

    Mark Twain, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (1889)
    –not alt hist in any serious way (for one thing, it’s not hist in any serious way), but useful in staking out certain parameters of counterfactuality

    Ward Moore, Bring the Jubilee (1955)
    –surprised this was not on your list as it seems like a pretty pure form.

    Philip K. Dick, The Man in the High Castle (1962)
    –I figure this isn’t on your list b/c of the issues that make it more Dick than alt hist

    Bruce Sterling and William Gibson, The Difference Engine (1990)
    –possibly too long

    William Gibson, “The Gernsback Continuum” (1981)
    Kim Stanley Robinson, “The Lucky Strike” (1984)
    Kim Stanley Robinson, The Years of Rice and Salt (2002)
    Philip Roth, The Plot Against America (2004)
    –(a book I cordially loath, but interesting in a few ways, not least of which is the mainstreaming of alt hist)

    Benjamin, “On the Concept of History” (1940)
    Georg Lukacs, “The Classical Form of the Historical Novel” from The Historical Novel (1936-7)
    Hayden White, “The Fictions of Factual Representation” from Tropics of Discourse (1978)
    David Lowenthal, “Changing the Past” from The Past is a Foreign Country (1988)
    Gavriel Rosenfeld, “Why Do We Ask ‘What If?’ Reflections on the Function of Alternate History” (2002)
    Martin Bunzl, “Counterfactual History: A User’s Guide” (2004)

  4. benjb says:

    (Also, the Clute and Nicholls Encyc of SF actually has an entry dedicated to “Hitler Wins” because it’s such a major issue.)

    (Also also, this might be too nerdy, but have you ever thought about alt future hist–Star Trek TNG has a few episodes and the last Star Trek movie both play with the notion of alternative histories to their fictional histories.)

  5. Stephen Frug says:

    Looks like a fun class.

    I definitely second the Rosenfeld. Fabulous book.

    Obviously you know about Roger Ransom’s The Confederate States of America from Gallagher’s essay, but if you haven’t actually gone and read it, it’s good — I don’t agree with him necessarily, but it’s an interesting model of well-done alternate history by a historian.

    And since you’re teaching Kim Stanely Robinson, I presume you know about his (sort of) sequel to “The Lucky Strike” (in the Mammonth collection), called “A Sensitive Dependence on Initial Conditions”; it’s an interesting meditation on historical causality. It’s online; you can read it here:

    I hope you’ll let us know how it’s going as it goes.

  6. Matt Lungerhausen says:

    Sounds great! I loved the Years of Rice and Salt, but I hadn’t thought about the historiography of counterfactual history.

    Re: Nazis – Philip K Dick, _The Man in the High Castle_. I think its an interesting book because he seemed to have thought out all the implications of the alternate world. Nazis along with Neo-Confederate quislings but a Japanese Empire that also embodied some of the attractive elements of the Taisho period. The Japanese war in Brazil could be a kind of critique of the French Indochina and Vietnam wars.

  7. Martin says:

    When I read it a long time ago I was very moved by Fritz Lieber’s “Catch That Zeppelin” which apparently is in the Mammoth Book of Alternate Histories. Unlike many or most alternate history stories, it works primarily at an emotional level. It basically imagines a Twentieth Century in which, after 1918, everything went right instead of wrong. (In the construction of this there is a mixture of reasonably serious analytical reconstruction and fantasy–for example Thomas Edison marries Marie Curie and together they invent technology that forestalls later energy and pollution problems.) The force of the story is that it makes you mourn for the loss and waste of the Twentieth Century as it happened in fact. You can decide if it fits your course, but, if memory serves, it’s an amazingly effective historico-emotional exercise.

  8. Timothy Burke says:

    The Lieber story is one I was planning to assign, for precisely that reason. One of the things I like about alternate history is that it suggests that the value of the enterprise is in an emotional appreciation for contingency rather than in a formal, empirical study of causality. It’s possible that alternate history achieves better through fiction what historians writing formal counterfactuals are trying to achieve through scholarship. At the same time, the most interesting alternate histories (for my tastes) are those which are in some sense “scholarly”, e.g., knowledgeable about history. The alternate histories which have the least regard for the substance of history are those which strike me as satisfying less as a commentary on the past and more as a fantastic or speculative engagement with human possibility in a more general way, not much distinct from other kinds of speculative or fantasy writing.

  9. Lara says:

    Sounds like a fascinating class! A few more fiction references –

    L. Sprague de Camp, “Lest Darkness Fall” – Available as a short story and as a novel, and the inspiration for a lot of subsequent alternate histories (including a few written as direct responses to it).

    Maureen F. McHugh, “The Lincoln Train” – A Civil War alternate history that isn’t just “What if the Confederates won?”

    George Alec Effinger, “Schrodinger’s Kitten” – Not exactly an alternate history, but an interesting look at the idea of different outcomes in multiple worlds. Other works which explore some of the same territory are “The Garden of Forking Paths,” by Jorge Luis Borges, and “All the Myriad Ways,” by Larry Niven.

    The various “Alternate” anthologies edited by Mike Resnick (if nothing else, the cover image of Alternate Warriors, which shows Gandhi holding a bazooka, might be a fun picture to show in class).

  10. Martin says:

    How could we all have forgotten the obvious: David Lewis, On the Plurality of Worlds. 🙂 I mean you just blogged about going beyond disciplinary boundaries!

  11. G. Weaire says:

    Herodotus 7.139

  12. ELB says:

    ooh, I want to take this class. We had a good discussion about the WWII question on my blog a bit back at:


    I need to read Catch That Zepplin, because I argued that there was no story to be found in positive alternatives. Happy to be disproven.

  13. Gil says:

    Lemme second (or perhaps third, in case I missed one) the “Gernsback Continuum” recommendation … and add another sci-fi short story: Chet Williamson’s “Double Trouble,” which describes a present in which Elvis Presley never became a musician — and the world that results is very different indeed.

  14. Keplerus says:

    I am a bit late to this post, but can I just say what a fantastic idea for a course this is? (I can? Ta!)

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