Time and Agency: Alternate History Fictions

By Keren OmryJune 13, 2020

Time and Agency: Alternate History Fictions

Sideways in Time by Charul Palmer-Patel and Glyn Morgan

WHAT IF WE LIVED in a world in which Glyn Morgan and C. Palmer-Patel had not put together Sideways in Time, a new collection of essays on Alternate History? Would a new sun have gleamed in the horizon? Would the globe have slowed its warming? Would election results have differed? Most likely, the answer to all of these is negative, and yet, how lucky are we that in our timeline this indispensable volume has been published?

Made up of 10 chapters from contributors across a spectrum of professional expertise and experience, Sideways in Time makes a rich, valuable, and timely intervention in the nascent field studying alternate history. The opening meditation by fiction writer Stephen Baxter sets the tone for the volume, mapping out two key questions that define the entire genre: What is the nature of history? What role does the individual have, therein? Indeed, all the chapters in part one, “Points of Divergence,” tend to reflect on texts that can either be considered alternate histories themselves or act as “commentary on the genre of alternate history itself,” offering close readings of primary texts while presenting illuminating insights into the political stakes each text negotiates. 

Adam Roberts’s essay lays the foundation for many of the essays to follow, echoing the questions posed by Baxter while situating them within a literary telos. Although he gestures to a plethora of precursors and antecedents, fine-tuning a well-established convention for the origins of alternate histories, Roberts explains that Louis-Napoléon Geoffroy’s conception of history in his 1841 Apocryphal Napoleon paved the road for the genre to follow, securing that text its place as a forefather. “The unspoken logic of the novel,” Roberts explains, “seems to be that once history has been so forcefully reshaped, all other aspects of reality become similarly malleable. […] Napoleon becomes a kind of transcendental signifier, a magic finger capable of altering not just the material but the spiritual facts of history.” By way of clarification, Roberts draws what he calls the Geoffroyan mode, a kind of great-man theory, into contrast with a Tolstoyan mode, in which the individual is powerless to overcome the “immense inertia of history as such.” Each model sits on either side of the spectrum of individual agency, the topic that becomes the subject of part two of the book: “Manipulating the Genre.” Following Fredric Jameson, Roberts turns to the notion of “rupture” in order to describe the difference between history (the stories of events) and alternate history: “If the ‘rupture’ in conventional history is usually styled as the significant event or individual, the ‘rupture’ in history as discourse” — which is, I would say, another way of saying alternate history — “must be the point of divergence, the site where history itself is broken into two […] pieces.” This idea both offers unique insight into the genre and opens up a paradigm for analysis.

Chris Pak’s chapter follows smoothly from the first as it focuses on Kim Stanley Robinson’s epic The Years of Rice and Salt. Here, Pak impressively touches on each of the 10 sections in Robinson’s novel. The chapter explores how narrating the ruptures within history, and — through the evocative scenes connecting the novel’s separate sections — narrating the ruptures of history “encourages reflection on the stories that we accept as making up the history of our timeline.” Pak’s rich and rigorous engagement with a novel that adopts a vast historical and global perspective dwells particularly on the notorious bardo episodes where the characters meet as they transition from death to rebirth, and the “multiple stories that circulate throughout the long period of time depicted in the novel […] are retrospectively incorporated into an account of history which provides a basis for a vision of the future.” Thus, Pak argues, it would be incomplete to consider the bardo as in and of itself stable or deterministic. Instead, Pak shows us that the repeated limbo is a document of memory, open to interpretation, and thus it is the central point around which pivots the version of historicity — and futurity — of the novel.

Where Pak uses Robinson’s wide temporal and geographical breadth to consider historicity itself, Jonathan Rayner’s chapter shifts to a more narrowly focused body of work, focusing on the Japanese cinematic renegotiations of a deeply contested history. Introducing the reader to central and contemporary texts of Japanese cinema, manga, and anime, Rayner shows how the form of alternate history is brought in to serve an array of nationalistic and political aims. This ultimately makes their ideological positioning difficult while evincing the critical ideological investment the increasingly popular form manifests. “The visions or versions of the Pacific War past which [the] examples of film, manga and animation propagate are challenges to ready interpretations and simple syntheses, and are redolent of passionate political and historical disagreements within contemporary Japan.” Indeed, the chapter makes clear how the mode of alternate history is used as a site on which conflicting, problematic, and divisive versions of national past are reconciled and/or critiqued. 

Brian Baker picks up on the tricky function that perceptions of the past serve, in his insightful discussion of the Ian Sales series of books, the Apollo Quartet. In his analysis, Baker shows how the inevitable nostalgia for a future, imagined in the past — a common trope of alternate histories — is forestalled. By unpacking the gendered and political assumptions of this nostalgia, Baker also shows how its generic structure is key for the critique that he illuminates as part and parcel of the form. Indeed, he drives this point home in his closing statement: “[T]here is no exterior, ‘neutral’ space of critique, in the Quartet; in its multiple enfoldings and extrapolations, the texts’ (and their author’s) own implication in the [gendered and utopian] Apollo and the Space Race is placed before us.” This chapter brings a welcome and important inclusion of gender concerns into the scope of alternate history analysis. 

Anna McFarlane’s chapter on alternate history after 9/11 considers the form as emotional historiography and thus bridges the two sections of the volume, moving from the national, social, cultural, and political, to the possibility of the individual. In this chapter, she shows convincingly that while the “the evocation of affect […] forces [the novel] to deviate from the genre of the alternate history,” it also “allows the affective environment to be core to historical understanding” rather than something incidental to it. While offering a beautiful reading of Lavie Tidhar’s Osama: A Novel, adeptly walking through the plot’s labyrinth, McFarlane also demonstrates how Tidhar really pushes at the limits of the genre. Relying on nuance and the accumulation of detail and affect rather than any dramatic historical upheaval, on circularity and stasis rather than progress or redress, the novel serves as more of a “discourse for understanding historiography” reveling in the possibility of an infinite present than an alternative history. 

Molly Cobb’s chapter on Alfred Bester continues the momentum and moves the collection to a different scale of analysis as she demonstrates Bester’s overarching concern with “just how much agency the individual has over time.” Mapping out a progression in Bester’s alternate histories, Cobb shows how time is a social force, whereas one’s experience in time (manifest as memory) is “an inherently personal and subjective concept, aligned with history” but not in control of it. Cobb’s rigorous analysis seems to suggest that the alternate history format, in Bester’s work, teaches the individual (or the reader) to negotiate between a historically insignificant but “authentic” individualized self and the social/external self. In this chapter, Cobb not only redresses Bester’s fiction in terms of alternate history scholarship but, in doing so, adds her voice to the debate on agency set out by Baxter and Roberts, and picked up in the concluding sections of this book.

Where Cobb, McFarlane, Roberts, and others above, as well as the authors they write about, consider the possible tensions between the material and the immaterial in historical narrative implicitly, the next two chapters do so explicitly, as their analyses extend the boundaries of alternate histories. Derek J. Thiess and Chloé Germaine Buckley both turn to religion, challenging the Enlightenment-based epistemological rejection of belief and faith as bases for knowledge. Buckley turns to the Weird, and Thiess to the apocryphal. Through close reading of the Spanish Juan Miguel Aguilera’s La Locura de Dios (1998), Thiess contests the assumptions of stable materialism in SF. He shows how the novel’s inclusion of the apocryphal, secret history exposes both the fragility of this materialism and its relationship with the what he calls the “open process of religion.” Thiess’s reading teaches us that critical reluctance to consider the apocryphal within SF thwarts the recognition that the “apocryphal history is about the careful control of acceptable alternatives.” This analysis opens new avenues for scholars to reconsider the consensus of opposition between religion and SF. The essay ends with a punch, reminding readers and scholars that assumptions of materiality in SF, of history as fiction, and of secret histories as material, all have powerful ramifications on bodies and lived experience. Turning to alternate and apocryphal histories, then, can expose the kind of control over those bodies that reading history as fiction seeks to hide.

Buckley’s delightful chapter focuses on the short story collection Shadows Over Baker Street (2003) to demonstrate how Weird fiction puts forward a double alternative. Providing close readings of the stories in the collection with varying degrees of detail, Buckley threads strands of analysis throughout the discussion of each story successfully, displaying how the Weird is in many ways fundamentally contradictory to the ideological foundations of the Enlightenment. In her methodical elaboration on the history of Weird, Buckley’s chapter illuminates the power of the subgenre to disrupt and reconfigure ways of reading and, thus, ways of knowing, inducing the pleasure of surrendering to a Weird ontology. “This pleasure [is] part of the unique response Weird writing offers to the postmillennial rejection of Enlightenment thought” that is, arguably, foundational to the value of alternate history and of its critical role, and thus adds to our understanding of the form.

Andrew Butler further extends the purview of alternate history, making the radical and convincing claim that adaptation is another form of alternate history. Using John Wyndham’s short story “Random Quest” and its cinematic adaptations, Butler paves the way for future scholarship to consider how the generic stipulations of alternative history, which include determining similarities and distinctions, ensure both pleasure and critique in ways that the measure of “fidelity” or “faithfulness” might not. In doing this, Butler also reclaims Wyndham’s reputation generally, and his “time-schism love stories,” in particular, from their subordinate position to his more famous “cosy catastrophes.”

Finally, as one of the first to write a significant scholarly book on alternate history, Karen Hellekson provides a well-situated contribution to the volume. Focusing exclusively on televisual alternate history, Hellekson’s chapter not only fills the gaps in her own book, The Alternate History: Refiguring Historical Time, but it also beautifully complements the chapters in this volume, offering an excellent mix of survey, analysis, and theoretical extrapolation. She begins by defining the three central components of alternate history — agency, contingency (to which she adds time), and nexus point — and then navigates elegantly between them as they work in concert in each of her many examples. Using an array of case studies, Hellekson’s chapter demonstrates how in “televisual alternate history texts, contingency is a narrative and temporal construction to frame agency. […] The message is ultimately that we are all actors, and actors have the power to change their world.” In this way, Hellekson establishes the subversive, not to say revolutionary, but certainly optimistic potential of alternate history. The volume concludes with a welcome and efficient coda that recaps the central arguments of each chapter while highlighting the analytical arc that ties them together.

The cumulative effect of reading Sideways in Time in its entirety is one of generic saturation and full immersion in both the richness of the field and the possibilities newly open for analysis. Particularly impressive is the collegiality evident in the volume, with virtually every chapter referencing at least one other chapter from the collection. This is a difficult feat to accomplish and depends both on editorial tenacity and on the generosity and willingness of the authors to see their contributions as part of a larger conversation. Indeed, Morgan and Palmer-Patel’s great achievement lies not only in their own incisive and instructive framing chapters, but, evidently, in their editorial leadership. Although very different from one another in scope, perspective, material, and claim, each chapter is just as valuable for stand-alone scholarship pertaining to the primary material as it is for contributing insights into the larger generic concerns of the volume. As such, Sideways in Time is a book that takes alternate history scholarship to the next level.


Keren Omry is senior lecturer at the University of Haifa, Israel.

LARB Contributor

Keren Omry is senior lecturer at the University of Haifa, Israel. In addition to her book, Cross-Rhythms: Jazz Aesthetics in African-American Literature (Bloomsbury, 2008) her more recent work has appeared in journals such as Science Fiction Studies, Paradoxa, and CR: The New Centennial Review, on topics ranging from gender and posthumanism, through hip hop aesthetics in speculative fiction, to Israeli/Palestinian futurisms. She is co-editor of Palgrave SFF: A New Canon book series and of The Routledge Companion to Gender and SF.


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