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Contingency and alternative history

This might not seem like it has much connection to statistics, but bear with me . . .

Alternative history—imaginings of different versions of this world that could have occurred if various key events in the past had been different—is a popular category of science fiction. Alternative history stories come in a number of flavors but a common feature of the best of the novels in this subgenre is that the alternate world is not “real.”

Let’s consider the top three alternative history novels (top three not in sales but in critical reputation, or at least my judgment of literary quality): The Man in the High Castle, Pavane, and Bring the Jubilee. (warning: spoilers coming)

Three novels

The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick. In this book, which takes place in a world in which the Allies lost World War II, hints keep peeking through that the world inhabited by the characters is not reality. Our world is real, and the novel’s characters are living in a fake world (which is imperfectly perceived by the title character, who is thus so dangerous to those in power). It’s a more complex twist on the theme of Man out of Joint, but ultimately the same idea: the people in the novel are living in a fake world which can come apart around them as they recognize that it is a shared illusion.

Sort of like The Matrix in reverse. It is a standard theme that our world is fake, there is an underlying truth, etc. Dick turns this around. (Actually, I’ve never seen The Matrix but this is what I’m imagining it’s about.)

Pavane by Keith Roberts. In this classic, the Catholics regained control of England in the 1500s, leading to a much different twentieth-century world. The backstory, eventually revealed in the novel, is that the masters of our real world had seen the risks of nuclear weapons and had rerun history to give humankind an opportunity to develop without modern science and thus get some more time to figure things out before having to deal with potential species-ending warfare.

Bring the Jubilee by Ward Moore, which describes a United States in which the Confederates had won the battle of Gettysburg and then the Civil War. In this one, the pattern of Pavane is reversed, sort of, in that the original world was the one described in most of the novel (the “alternative” history) but then, through some time-traveling mishaps, the story ends up in our reality.

What does this all mean?

Is there something we can learn from this, that the very best alternative history novels recognize our world as the real one? I think so. Alternate history could be said to have two purposes: providing insight into our world, and escapism out of it (John Clute makes this point in the Science Fiction Encyclopedia, I believe). By dividing it that way, I would seem to be damning “escapism” and praising “insight,” but that is not my point. Rather, my point is that in either case, the thrill or interest comes from playing off the fact that our world is the real one. An alternative history that does not recognize the reality of reality can simply “stack the deck” and in this sense is less interesting to me than a historical novel, or for that matter, than a pure science fiction novel (which, at some level, has to justify its choices).

In a sense, all novels are alternate histories, and the issue always arises whether they “couud have happened.” Genre novels such as Mystic River or those of John Le Carre put in a lot of effort to place their stories within convincing backgrounds—and, in fact, creating these backgrounds is perhaps their main interest.

I’d also like to say something about the story “Forlesen” by Gene Wolfe, since it’s so cool, and it presents some sort of alternative history of 20th century America—but I’m not really sure what to say, so I won’t.

Connections to statistical modeling, causal inference, and social science?

Causal inference is about potential outcomes, what could have happened. These potential outcomes should be realistic, and their “generative models” should be able to create reality as a reasonable probabilistic prediction. (That’s just posterior predictive checking; see chapter 6 of our book.) Alternative history novels are a way of exploring causal inference in a speculative way.


  1. paulse says:

    An alternate history of evolution that pits Steven Jay Gould's theory against that of Simon Conway Morris would certainly be interesting.

    Sorry for dragging out the evolution thread.

  2. paulse says:

    viewers may be interested in this link, which I found out about in Robert Park's "What's New" column.

  3. Andrew says:

    What the %$*#@*^?? I took a look at the link. All those p-values and technical terms–they're so nutty, they must be physicists… But Robert Park is cool.