When the hit television series "Big Bang Theory" features a game called "counter-factuals," with the culturally iconic nerd Sheldon Cooper and his girl friend Amy playing and defending their conjectures..
When the Anti-Defamation League uses counter-factuals to inspire social activism...
When Youtube.com measures millions of views for alternate history videos...
When online game-makers such as Steam, with 25 million registered users, generate dozens of games focused on alternate history scenarios...
When Google creates a constantly-updating display of the 53 most popular alternate history books most frequently mentioned on the web...
When a website, Uchronia.net, which is devoted to cataloging alternative history books, plays, short stories, and chapters reaches more than 3,200 entries...
When Amazon.com invests in an ambitious 10-part alternate history television series, directed by the famed Englishman Sir Ridley Scott, in an effort to beat its arch-rival Netflix.com in the online streaming market; called The Man in the High Castle, and released in 2015, Scott's saga is based on an alternative history in which America lost World War II, and is dominated by Nazis...
When the online streaming service Hulu.com invests millions in creating another high-quality alternative history television series from Stephen King's popular novel about traveling back in time to prevent the Kennedy assassination...
This series -- pegged as a thriller in eight parts -- debuts on Hulu.com on February 15, 2016, just in time for binge-watching during President's Weekend.
And, perhaps most significantly, when high school and college history teachers are using alternative history lessons and courses to more significantly engage students in critical thinking about history and the way the world works...
When you see all this activity, you know the alternative history genre has hit the mainstream, and touched the world's zeitgeist, meaning it embodies something of the spirit of the age.
What we are seeing now is a new excitement among students in studying history, often using the tools of journalism to make history live, to express a new appreciation for how history makes us who and what we are today. In recognizing history's many thin moments and turning points, we can see the slender threads on which life and fortune hang.
Adrian McGinty, the (UK) Guardian), February 10, 2015: "With Ridley Scott’s adaptation of Philip K Dick’s The Man in the High Castle now showing on Amazon, alternative history is hotter than ever.The Man in the High Castle was not the first alternative history novel, nor even the first Nazis-win-the-war novel, but it is still probably the most influential book in the genre. Anyone who likes historical fiction should be able to enjoy good counterfactual scenarios: it’s fun imagining how things could have been otherwise. As Ray Bradbury showed in his famous story A Sound of Thunder, one tiny change in the past can have momentous consequences in the future. A “butterfly moment” (named for the so-called butterfly effect) is the point at which our real-world timeline diverges from the alternative-history (AH) timeline. Structuralist historians tend to discount such moments, but if Franz Ferdinand’s driver had gone straight on instead of turning right the history of the 20th century would have been different."
In the comments section, readers offer their opinions on the best of the AH genre. Click.
"Counterfactuals", as such "what-if" speculations are generally termed by the aficionados, are often claimed to open up the past by demonstrating the myriad possibilities, thus freeing history from the straitjacket of determinism and restoring agency to the people. But in fact they imprison the past in an even tighter web: one tiny change in the timeline – Archduke Franz Ferdinand escapes assassination in Sarajevo, the British cabinet decides not to enter the war – leads inevitably to a whole series of much larger changes, sometimes stretching over decades almost up to the present day...
"Why are we so prone in the early 21st century to approaching history in this way? The fashion for counterfactuals, after all, only began around the mid 90s: before that, they were few and far between, and seldom taken seriously even by those who indulged in them. Now you find them everywhere...
"Perhaps it's because we're living in a postmodern age where the idea of progress has largely disappeared, to be replaced by uncertainty and doubt, and where linear notions of time have become blurred; or because truth and fiction no longer seem such polar opposites as they once did; or because historians now have more licence to be subjective than they used to. But it's time to be sceptical about this trend." -- Richard Evans, author of Altered Pasts: Counterfactuals in History, in a piece for The Guardian.
Karen Shook: "What might have happened if Britain had not gone to war in 1914 and Germany had won the war against France and Russia? Would there have been no Weimar crises, Hitler and Nazism, and no Second World War, with its long list of horrors? Moreover, would not Europe today look much as it does anyway, with Germany the dominant economic and political power?
"These kinds of counterfactual or hypothetical questions can sometimes be useful. Lately, however, they have become so popular that they form a genre all to themselves. Changing one among many political variables or key decisions, while assuming that an entire alternative chain of events would unfold as one might wish, may raise scenarios worth mulling over, but most historians are sceptical of going so far as to write an entire volume of “counterfactual” history. If some general speculations of that kind are not new to our time, since 1990 more “what if” stories have appeared as books, novels, documentaries and movies than in all the previous centuries put together.
"The sheer volume of this material makes it impossible to overlook."
The more I read of history, the more convinced I am that history turns, in the words of Jeff Greenfield, "not on a dime but on a plugged nickel." In other words, history often turns on what contemporaries may view as miniscule decisions -- for example, a split-second impulse to exit stage-right instead of stage-left, where a leader is met by an assassin, or not. A chance meeting in which one hears about a job opportunity, a decision to apply for a job, an employer's decision to hire a worker.
Students of history could come up with literally hundreds of case studies of miniscule decisions, as well as accidents and chance -- that changed a nation's history or even world history. Or identify movements or waves or clashes of values and economies so powerful that no matter how many times individuals faltered, took wrong turns, or sought to avoid conflict, those movements or waves or conflicts would eventually alter the course of history.
Margaret Thatcher's biography, "The Downing Street Years," offers just one of thousands of history's slender threads. Parliament's vote of "no confidence" in her predecessor prime minister, John Callahan, occurred because just one Irish MP showed up late and abstained. If he had voted otherwise, there would have been no general election at that time and quite possibly no Thatcher government.
I frequently think that alternative or counterfactual histories are a good teaching tool to explain the significance of real history. When students study the methods of professional historians, thoroughly research events and offer carefully reasoned speculations on "what might have happened if...," this can be a fun way to learn. If you really understand an event or series of events in their full context, you can explain probable outcomes if the event did not occur, without resorting to absurdities.
I note that several academic courses on alternative history have been proposed;
Alternative history is relatively recent direction in history that nowadays has obtained more and more supporters. The big question of alternative history “What might have been, if…” secretly had always been the most favourite question for historians. Alternative history provides an opportunity to discover real turning points in history, to a certain extent it has a role of hypothesis.
Doctoral students has to understand main functions of alternative history and to digest its methods in order to discover new possibilities and solutions in their relevant problem of dissertation.
1.Concept of alternative history and ways of its understanding. 4 h.
2.The most significant research in alternative history in modern history of Europe and USA. 4 h.
3.Alternative in history: levels of detection. 4 h.
4.Theory of synergetic and alternative history. 4 h.
5.The arguments of opponents of alternative history: critical analysis. 4 h.
6.The most significant research in alternative history in contemporary history of Europe and USA. 4 h.
7.Breaking points in historical process and possible alternatives for development in different periods.40 h.
- Georgetown University offers a course in alternative Russian history. Faculty:In this course, we will read several works of fiction dating from Russia's 20th century, and a little of the 21st, which attempt to rewrite history, contemporaneous, or nearly so, with the time the works were written. Paradoxically, the way historical facts are distorted in these works seems to reveal something about their true nature or implications. A Midterm essay and a Final paper are required, plus also a framework for class participation, to be discussed during the first class.
- Background on counter-factual history and whether it meets serious academic tests.
The New York Times' Learning Network proposes a series of narratives on alternative history as a way to teach readers the significance of events. It suggests readers
In a book based on a series of lectures in Jerusalem, professional historian Richard J. Evans turns a critical, slightly jaundiced eye on a subject typically the purview of armchair historians: counter-factuals and alternative histories, which he defines as “alternative versions of the past in which one alteration in the timeline leads to a different outcome from the one we know actually occurred.”
Evans examines these historical "what ifs":
Reviewing the book in The New Republic ("What if Counter-Factuals Never Existed? Studying History with hypotheticals"), Cass Sunstein argues that what-if scenarios aren't, as E. P. Thompson put it, "unhistorical shit," but rather an integral part of the historical enterprise:
Here is another way to make the point. Social scientists test hypotheses. They might hypothesize, for example, that if people have to pay a small tax for plastic bags at convenience stores, they will use fewer plastic bags. To test hypotheses, social scientists usually like to conduct randomized controlled trials, allowing them to isolate the effects of the tax. Such trials create parallel worlds and hence alternative histories—one with the tax and one without it.
Historians cannot conduct randomized controlled trials, because history is run only once. Yet they nonetheless develop hypotheses, and they attempt to evaluate them by reference to the evidence. Evans is himself engaged in this enterprise. There is no difference between hypothesis-testing and counterfactual inferences. Any claim of causation, resulting from such tests, requires a statement that without the cause, the effect would not have occurred.
Evans appreciates the entertainment value of the most imaginative counterfactual narratives, but he doesn’t want them to be taken seriously, or to be seen as what historians do. With Thompson and Oakeshott (and countless others), he thinks that historians should explain what did happen, not what didn’t happen. The problem is that, to offer an explanation of what happened, historians have to identify causes, and whenever they identify causes they immediately conjure up a counterfactual history, a parallel world. Sure, there is a lot of distance between science fiction novelists and the world’s great historians, but along an important dimension they are playing the same game.
The alternate histories genre includes these books:
The introduction alone, in which Ferguson makes the case for using counter-factual history as a learning tool, is worth the price of the book.
The book received mixed reviews on Amazon.com, with complaints that while a few of the entries qualify as Alternate History, most are Speculative Fiction, too far-fetched to be believed. "I enjoy alternate histories, but I require that they be based on a rational, plausible alternatives not wild speculation based on the authors' failure to due even basic research," one reviewer wrote.