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In the best alternative histories, the real world is what’s ultimately real

This amusing-yet-so-true video directed by Eléonore Pourriat shows a sex-role-reversed world where women are in charge and men don’t get taken seriously. It’s convincing and affecting, but the twist that interests me comes at the end, when the real world returns. It’s really creepy.

And this in turn reminds me of something we discussed here several years ago, the idea that alternative histories are made particularly compelling when they are grounded in the fact that the alternate world is not the real world. Pourriat’s video would have been excellent even without its final scene, but that scene drives the point home in a way that I don’t think would’ve been possible had the video stayed entirely within its artificial world.

The point here is that the real world is indeed what is real. This alternative sex-role-reversed world is not actually possible, and what makes it interesting to think about is the contrast to what really is. If you set up an alternative history but you don’t place it in the context of the real world, you’re missing half the story.

Here’s what I wrote in 2005:

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.

And see here for a followup a year later from critic John Clute.

7 Comments

  1. jonathan says:

    Would “Harry Potter” be half as good if it didn’t contain the real world? I’d say no. Same for “Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell”.

    It’s a part of story-telling.

    One of the few Star Trek Next Gen scripts I really liked included a twist like that. Picard finds himself on a dryish planet with a new identity, with a family, with people who know him as this other person. He lives that life. He loves his family. He grows old and older and then it is revealed the people of that world are gone but they wanted to live on so they implanted themselves in an entire set of memories, the kind that make an entire life, which they infected him with when he came there. The show ends with Picard at his desk staring at nothing.

    Another example is the shockingly good Nick Cage movie The Family Man. He’s an ultra-asshole on Wall Street who is taught his spiritual lesson – of course, because it’s a movie – by waking up to find himself married to his old girlfriend, with young kids, living in his old neighborhood in NJ and selling tires for his father-in-law. There’s too much plot with lots of crap about him making it back to Wall Street, etc., but there’s a great moment when he’s playing with his daughter, rolling around in the yard and she looks into his eyes and says you’re back, meaning this is her daddy, the daddy she’s known her whole life. And she’s truly happy and he realizes he’s happy. That plays with the concept of alternative history because that portrayal of real life is more realistic than the imagery of his Wall Street character.

    To address the point of the video, I’m not sure it’s better because of the end, as opposed to darker and more serious. That’s a matter of taste. To take The Family Man, for all its faults, the movie shows not only that happiness but takes a stab, in an absurdly movie way, at showing the deep sense of loss he feels when he reverts to his old life. He’s lost his family. They are now dead. His daughter. His son. They are gone. I understand a Hollywood movie has trouble addressing those depths in the context of a larger silly plot of divine interference in a life but it really is a personal holocaust. I wish they’d let him go back. Instead of the serious twist where his girlfriend/wife is also alone, why not give them love? Why not give them their little girl?

  2. Alex Godofsky says:

    Pastwatch: The Redemption of Christopher Columbus by Orson Scott Card pulls this off in both directions (our world is a deliberately induced alternate history of another world, and when this is discovered we use the same technique to induce a second alternate history to supplant our own).

  3. jrc says:

    “If you set up an alternative history but you don’t place it in the context of the real world, you’re missing half the story.”

    I’m thinking of the intro scene to Inglorious Basturds, with the Jew Hunter sitting in the living room talking with the farmer. What makes it work so well is how much the viewer brings to the scene. We know this Nazi guy is terrible, we know the farmer is afraid of him, we know something bad is going to happen – but Tarantino makes us sit in that knowledge while a strange but (on the surface) pleasant conversation goes on. Its the bringing of our own knowledge to the scene that gives it so much power. It doesn’t need pointing out that we are bringing ourselves into that.

    The joy the watcher gets from watching Hitler get all machine gunned and burned up along with his whole crew of Nazi assholes works in part because we know that this alternative history is fake. Same with Django, actually. Its the “what we would have wanted” ending – we don’t need to be explicitly brought back to the real world, because watching Hitler die (or watching Django waste everyone in that mansion) reminds us immediately that this isn’t our world.

    I guess I think that the reader/watcher/whoever brings the real world with them. Author’s should know that, but that doesn’t mean they need to really, explicitly bring us back to the real world as a contrast. We do that as we read.

    The bad example I think of when I think of “bringing us back into this world” is Looking Backwards. Bellamy might never have been a great writer, but the whole scene where the guy wakes back up in his real world (and then again wakes back up in alternate-socialist-paradise world) does absolutely nothing, plot/art-wise.

  4. Steve Sailer says:

    Nabokov’s 1970 book “Ada” is a quasi-sci-fi novel set on an alternate universe’s planet known as Antiterra that has the same topography as earth, but different ethnic history and different climate (e.g., Russians have settled balmy northern North America). Here’s a map:

    http://www.dezimmer.net/ReAda/AntiterraGeography.htm

    Some Antiterrans dream of our Terra. They are convinced that our world is much happier than their world, although the joke is that their Antiterra seems a lot nicer than our Terra. In this world, VN had to flee Russia (1918), Germany (1936), and France (1940). On Antiterra, in contrast, Van Veen is a wealthy Russian-Irish aristocrat with no problems not of his own making.

  5. Dan Wright says:

    I’m not sure I understand this post and am interested in views on connecting fiction using similar-but-not-quite-real settings (Gary Larson?) and mixtures of real and fictional settings (Dr Who?) to potential outcomes (or other ways to discuss causality). I see that if I imagine something had occurred differently in Crimea in recent years or that the big bang had happened differently, then I could imagine how whatever causal models I have would play out to create alternatives and that this could make a good story and help to explain potential outcomes. Is this post saying because humans “get” this literature, that this is a good way to explain potential outcomes or am I missing something?

  6. Anonymous says:

    I’m puzzled by the amusing adjective.

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