The Music of What Happens: Alternate Histories and Counterfactuals

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The alternate history, which imagines a different present or future originating in a point of divergence from our actual history—a branching point in the past—is both an increasingly popular form of genre fiction and a decreasingly disreputable form of analysis in history and the social sciences. While fictions of alternate history were, until very recently, only a subgenre of science fiction, two celebrated American “literary” novelists, Philip Roth and Michael Chabon, have written, within the last four years, well-regarded novels of alternate history: The Plot Against America and The Yiddish Policeman’s Union. Similarly, while counterfactual historical speculation is at least as old as Livy, academic historians have, until recently, scorned the practice as a vulgar parlor game; but this is beginning to change. In the early 1990s, Cambridge University Press and Princeton both published intellectually rigorous books on alternate history and counterfactual analysis in the social sciences. Cambridge more recently published a volume analyzing alternate histories of the World War II. And, in 2006, the University of Michigan Press published an interesting collection of counterfactual analyses titled, Unmaking the West. This course will examine a number of fictions of alternate history, some reputable and some less reputable, and also look at some of the academic work noted above. We shall attempt to understand what it might mean to think seriously about counterfactuals, about why fictions of and academic works on alternate history have become significantly more widespread, and about what makes an alternate history aesthetically satisfying and intellectually suggestive rather than ham-fisted, flat, and profoundly unpersuasive.