Mar 3, 2010

A Defense of Alternate History

I know I'm getting further and further behind on the promised posts, but Steam Wars edits take priority, as does getting healthy again in time to hit Nova Albion next week. I'm fighting a cold, and the cold is winning.

Instead of a brand new post, here's a link to the research paper now turned article that first got me thinking about writing on steampunk for my dissertation:

Nearly every person who reaches adulthood will have likely engaged in the self-reflexive activity of asking the question, “What if?” The question arises from a polemic of nightmare and fantasy (Rosenfeld, p.11), of regret or nostalgia, for a past more terrible or wonderful than the present. The literary genre of alternate history plays with the same question on a larger scale, asking the ‘what if?’ question to major events in history, and extrapolating possible alternate historical outcomes. The practice of writing alternate history is not a new one, dating back to antiquity with Greek historian Herodotus’s speculation concerning the “possible consequences of the Persians defeating the Greeks at Marathon in the year 490 BCE, while the Roman historian Livy wondered how the Roman empire would have fared against the armies of Alexander the Great” (p.5). Despite this antiquated tradition, it is a genre which has received little attention from academic scholarship (p.12). Alternate history, even in its more respectable form of historical counterfactual, has been dismissed as “an idle parlor game” (E H Carr, in Hellekson, Alternate History, p.16) and has been “attacked by historians because [it is] untrue” (p.16). The genre is not without its defenders, although its advocacy is supported by the disciplines of new historicism, social psychology and literary theory rather than traditional historicism. Lubomir Dolezel states that the alternate history is a “useful cognitive strategy” given that “the acquisition of knowledge about the past … is such a complicated task that no available avenue should be left unexplored. If the consideration of counterfactual, possible courses of history can enhance our understanding of actual history, we have no right to ignore this strategy” (p.800).

Orson Scott Card’s Pastwatch: The Redemption of Christopher Columbus is how a ‘useful cognitive strategy’ can result in an ‘enhanced understanding’ of the actual discovery of the New World by Christopher Columbus in 1492. Initially, the ‘what if’? question takes the form of speculating what would have happened had Europe not discovered and colonized America, but becomes more complex as the story unfolds. In this paper, Card’s Pastwatch will serve the dual role of case study as well as providing an ongoing dialogue with the genre’s major features. In honor of alternate history’s connection to possible world theory, the ‘real’ statements of actual academics and traditional history of Columbus’s voyages will be woven along with the fictional conversation of Card’s characters and the ‘alternate history’ of Pastwatch.

Check out the whole article here, starting on page 41 of Issue 5 of Journey Planet.

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