When Is an Alternate History Entertaining, and When Is It Harmful?

The genre can shed light on less-acknowledged truths—it can also whitewash historical facts.
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A still from Amazon's adaptation of the World War II alternate history The Man From the High Castle.

A still from Amazon's adaptation of the World War II alternate history The Man From the High Castle.

In a reflection of the sensitive state of present-day America on issues of race and justice, this summer two television shows re-imagining different ends to the Civil War received opposite responses from the public.

When HBO announced Confederate—an upcoming show that will imagine the Confederate army won the Civil War—on July 19th, its premise was overwhelmingly criticized. A viral Twitter hashtag (#NoConfederate) emerged, and the released information inspired multiple critiques before the show has even been written. A few days later, when Amazon introduced its upcoming series Black America, however, it enjoyed praise and positive coverage. Black America has a different imaginary take: It will depict what the country might look like if, after the Civil War, black Americans received reparations in the form of three Southern states.

Both shows are alternate histories, a subgenre of science fiction and historical fiction that explores what the world might look like had major historical events never happened, or gone differently. This genre has long been a staple of the American literary diet, but this summer it has been in the spotlight for the ways that it can promote political agendas. But while condemnations of Confederate draw attention to the ways that alternate histories can espouse regressive, racist myths, there have also been several occasions in which the genre has conveyed the injustices of the past and raised critical questions about the present.

Philip Roth's World War II alternate history.

Philip Roth's World War II alternate history.

Considering the socio-political implications of one's work is crucial for all literature—but perhaps especially in alternate history, which tends toward stories about two infamous white supremacist regimes: Nazi Germany and the Confederacy. From the mid-20th century onward, American alternate history writers have been fascinated with the Civil War and Adolf Hitler's Germany. Science fiction writer Ward Moore wrote Bring the Jubilee, one of the first popular "if the South had won" post-Civil War stories, in 1953. In 2005, former Speaker of the House of Representatives Newt Gingrich co-authored a trilogy where Robert E. Lee wins the Battle of Gettysburg. Though reportedly the first Nazi Germany alternate history was published in 1945, Philip K. Dick's 1962 novel The Man in the High Castle, in which the allies have lost World War II, and the United States is under German and Japanese control, is perhaps the best-known in the subgenre. Philip Roth wrote The Plot Against America in 2004, which portrays Charles Lindbergh, the American aviator, beating Franklin Delano Roosevelt for the presidency and cooperating with Hitler.

That creatives would fixate on these events is no great surprise according to Karen Hellekson, author of The Alternate History: Refiguring Historical Time. Hellekson says that these two wars are particularly popular because they "have physical memorials and battlefield re-creation fans"—unlike, say, World War I or the Korean War and therefore feel "more immediate." Indeed, when Confederate and Black America were announced, few could escape the reminders of the Civil War: Activists from Virginia to Massachusetts have been working to remove Confederate monuments all summer.

Colson Whitehead's Civil War alternate history.

Colson Whitehead's Civil War alternate history.

In some cases, alternate histories offer painful yet incisive exhumations of the dark periods they are set in. Take Colson Whitehead's Pulitzer Prize-winning 2016 novel The Underground Railroad: Set in the antebellum South, Whitehead's book imagines that the underground railroad was a literal train system, which carries both the protagonist and readers through space and time. In Whitehead's book, a teenage girl named Cora runs away from the plantation where she is enslaved in Georgia. Boarding the underground railroad, she visits several other states on her way to freedom, each state representing "a different state of American possibility," as Colson said in an interview at the Vancouver Writer's Festival last year. For example, the first state Cora rides to is South Carolina, where the state's ostensibly forward-thinking policies are actually a guise for eugenics programs reminiscent of forced sterilization and the Tuskegee syphilis experiment.

Whitehead's book, then, isn't so much an "escape" as it is a confrontation for readers who are aware of the facts of slavery. Whitehead's goal is to compel readers to face evil—not to feel better, or that America has moved on, but to acknowledge and critically examine both the past and the present. Whitehead has compared the slave patrol, which would stop black people, demand to see identification, and often beat them, to "an early version of stop and frisk." Re-framing the antebellum South as a world of "American possibilities" that are actually grounded in historical facts, Whitehead directly confronts the grave injustices of slavery through the inviting lens of fiction.

The first book of Newt Gingrich's Civil War alternate history trilogy.

The first book of Newt Gingrich's Civil War alternate history trilogy.

Other times, however, alternate history makes good on claims that it whitewashes the horrors of white supremacy. Years before anyone at HBO dreamed up Confederate, Gingrich wrote his alternate history trilogy—Gettysburg, Never Call Retreat, and Grant Comes East—in which Lee wins the crucial Battle of Gettysburg in book one, and becomes an abolitionist by the series' end. The back cover of Gettysburg opens with a comparison between president Abraham Lincoln and Lee: "The Civil War is the American Iliad," it reads. "Lincoln, Stonewall Jackson, Grant, and Lee still stand as heroic ideals." The claim that Lincoln and Lee are equally heroic encourages admiration for Lee—a popular sentiment among white supremacists. Eschewing discussion of the motives for the Civil War in favor of military minutiae, however, Gingrich plays into the atavistic belief that Lee was noble without also marking himself as a nostalgic bigot. It's a political fantasy that protects Southerners from blame, as Politico noted in a 2011 review of the trilogy, "where unpleasant and inconvenient facts are swept away."

Among Civil War alternate history authors are what Hellekson calls "battlefield fetishists," whose work can potentially be considered apologia, a written justification of someone's work. "Some [apologists] have studied, for example, Robert E. Lee in detail and see a Southern gentleman ... who acted honorably within the confines of and rules of warfare, so that's how they paint him," she says.

Given the number of times authors have already told an "if the South had won" story, then, a project like Confederate isn't particularly novel. The premise has another issue: Series creators David Benioff and D.B. Weiss are both white men who tend to work on shows and movies featuring mostly white people (a notable exception for Benioff is 2007's Kite Runner, for which he wrote the screenplay). As for Game of Thrones, the show has been criticized over its depictions of people of color and lack of diversity in casting.

In either case, in a nation where black people are still denied basic rights like enfranchisement and equal pay, and Confederate flags still fly, Confederate's premise still represents a reality behind its alternate reality premise. Black America, however, presents something more unique for creators and consumers of this genre to consider: what could have been had the U.S. taken steps to reckon with its horrendous history of slavery. Until both the government and society contend with contemporary white supremacy, stories of a victorious South are "alternate" in genre name only.

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