Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Stuart Schneiderman on Counterfactuals

This is the sort of thing that makes us think. Just what is the purpose of alternate history? This is from Stuart Schneiderman's blog, Had Enough Therapy:

Why Bother With Counterfactuals?

In certain precincts it’s an article of faith that the American invasion of Iraq was a complete and total mistake.

And yet, how does anyone know what Saddam Hussein would have done and what Iraq would look like if we had not invaded.

Then again, do we know, to a certainty, what Iraq would look like today if, say John McCain had won the 2008 presidential election?

Speculations of this order are not, strictly speaking, historical research. History is what happened. These counterfactual speculations are about what might have happened.

Some historians have made a career out of conjuring counterfactuals. Other historians find it all to be an exercise in futility.

At the least, they point out, the number of variables make it nearly impossible to know what would have happened, for example, if Theodore Roosevelt had won the 1912 presidential election.

Counterfactual history is based on a philosophical premise. It assumes that human actions direct or influence the outcome of historical events. It militates against the notion of historical inevitability.

Recently, some wags have been saying that ISIS will implode because of its own internal contradictions or because people cannot long stand to be oppressed by tyrants.

If you, like them, believe in an inevitable outcome you will advise the president against doing anything to counter the ISIS insurgency in Syria and Iraq. Why waste resources on a situation that will eventually resolve itself in our favor?

Then again, even if ISIS will inevitably fail, how many people will be raped and murdered in the meantime?

Some of its defenders consider counterfactual history an antidote to the Hegelian and Marxist view of the inevitability of history. Hegel and Marx believed that human history was an unfolding narrative whose main events and even conclusions were inevitable.

Theirs was a narrative driven theory of history. They saw history following a script and they believed that the script would determine the one true outcome.

If, however, you believe that history is like a game, then the outcome is not predetermined. Different moves by different people change the game and change thee outcome.

Moreover, the players in the game are endowed, as I and others have put it, with free will. For my views, see my book: The Last Psychoanalyst.

Reviewing a book on the subject by one Richard Evans, Cass Sunsteinsummarizes both sides of the argument:

In Evans’s telling, many of the contemporary counterfactualists seek to respond to Marxist historians, to suggest that impersonal forces are
overrated, and to demonstrate the importance of human agency and free will. Indeed, Ferguson saw his collection as a “necessary antidote” to historical determinism, which was his particular target. In Ferguson’s words, the “reality of history ... is that the end is unknown at the beginning of the journey: there are no rails leading predictably into the future, no timetables with 
destinations set out in black and white.” Ferguson seemed to suggest that once we reject determinism, and see that decisions were contingent and might have produced counterfactuals, we can better illuminate the past.

Of course, once we are talking about possibilities, we cannot limit ourselves to what might have happened in the past. We are also interested in what might happen in the future.

If you are formulating policy you do well to consider the different possible outcomes of different policy proposals. Such work does require some imagination, but the materials that imagination will be configuring are facts about the game, the players and the moving parts.

Sunstein notes that such a method applies to some scientific experiments. Even if experiments are not always very useful or very practical when making policy, sometimes they are.

He explains:

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.
Of course, these experiments, especially in social science, often fail to include all the data. If people use fewer plastic shopping bags they will likely use more burlap or hemp bags. As it happens, reusable shopping bags breed bacteria that cause ill health and thus drive up the cost of medical care… etc. You will have saved the earth and nature, but at the cost of more disease. Bacteria are part of nature, too.

This does not discredit the enterprise. It says that in some circumstances, especially policy making, one needs to be skeptical about the results of narrowly focused experiments. Most especially, in the social sciences. One should be even more skeptical of those who want to make government policy based on test results that are anything but absolutely true.
The illustration is a "quibcag," which you'll know about if you read the Ex-Army blog. It depicts characters from the alternate history anime, Strike Witches (ストライクウィッチーズ Sutoraiku Witchīzu).

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

If Reagan Had Picked Rumsfeld as His Vice President, Would We Never Have Had President Clinton?

This is a reprint from http://ex-army.blogspot.com/

think I found this link at Dailykenn.com, but in any case, it's a fascinating question, asked over at National Review Online. Go there and give it a read, and then I'll give my reaction.....

If Reagan Had Picked Rumsfeld as His Vice President, Would We Never Have Had President Clinton?
My reaction is maybe. Clearly, Rumsfeld would have been a good choice for Reagan. His resume wasn't as good as Bush's, but his credentials were solid. I doubt that he would have ever been perceived as wishy-washy as Bush was, and I'm virtually certain he would not have picked Dan Quayle as his VP. My guess it that it would have been either Jack Kemp or Howard Baker. Let's say Baker to add a Southerner to the ticket. He would certainly have won over Dukakis, for the same reasons that Bush did.

And, assuming that Gulf War I would have happened as it did, and the Soviet collapse had done so as well, I expect Rumsfeld would have been much better at taking credit for both, and would not have been challenged for the nomination by Pat Buchanan, changing the 1992 from a downer to an upper for Rumsfeld. Likewise, a Perot candidacy very well might not have taken place.  Now, with Baker on the Repubican ticket, Clinton would most likely not have picked Gore as his running mate, and would have gone with, say Jerry Brown, and regretted it. My guess is that the election would have been closer than in our history, but that Rumsfeld would have beaten Clinton and served a second term.

Then what? Baker would have been 67 in 1996, and probably would not have been nominated. Having lost, Clinton probably wouldn't have been nominated a second time. My guess: Mario Cuomo with Bob Kerrey as running mate would have beaten a Republican ticket of Phil Gramm and Arlen Specter. Cuomo-Kerrey would win again in 2000 against Lamar Alexander and Jack Kemp.

9-11 would have happened as it did in our time, but instead of Gulf War II, Cuomo would have responded in a more piecemeal fashion, accomplishing as much as Bush did, but not being perceived as well. This would have resulted in Fred Thompson-Rudy Giuliani beating a Bob Kerrey-Evan Bayh ticket in 2004 and being reelected in 2008 against Dick Durbin and John Edwards.

And in 2012, Rudy Giuliani, running with Mitt Romney, would have beaten the Democratic ticket of Chuck Schumer and Ken Salazar and he'd be President right now.

No Clintons, no Obamas.

Now, it's your turn. Pick this to pieces.
NOTE!  A commenter interpreted this post as my saying that Rumsfeld would have been a good President. NO NO NO!  He would have been a terrible President, at least as bad as Bush the First. This is just an alternate history speculation about what would have followed if he had been President. Me, I wanted Pat Buchanan to be President.

Saturday, June 7, 2014

Time Travel and Alternate History

Found on the net. A handy summary of the literary treatment of time travel and alternate realities.

Saturday, May 31, 2014

The Churchill Memorandum, by Sean Gabb

Sean Gabb (his website HERE) has written an absolutely peachy novel here. It's one of those that you read in one sitting if you have time. I haven't done that since Mother Night. Anyhow, you'll like it if you're a history buff, or if you like alternate history, or if you just like a nice tight suspense novel with a little deadpan Brit humor here and there in it. It's very much a nonstandard AH novel. The woods are full of "the Axis won the war" stories, and when you come across one of them, the cone of possibility is pretty predictable. But not this one. You could call it "the Axis didn't quite have a war." There's loads of good stuff in it, with characters from our history behaving believably, but again, not in the standard way of such stories.

I won't do a full review, because L. Neil Smith already has, and it's better than what I'd come up with. This is from the Libertarian Enterprise:

The Churchill Memorandum, by Sean Gabb 
by Reviewed by L. Neil Smith 
Attiribute to The Libertarian Enterprise

Let me begin this with a disclaimer: Sean Gabb, the author of The Churchill Memorandum is a friend of mine. Author, lecturer, TV and radio personality, Sean is what used to be called a "man of parts", intelligent, principled, and tough. Through perspicacity and dogged determination, he has become the face and voice of libertarianism in Britain.

He is also more than a fair hand at fiction, having created the most interestingly offbeat hero I've seen in a novel in a long time, groping his way through a highly-textured and devilishly complicated world of spies versus counterspies in a 1959 shaped mostly by the fact that Adolf Hitler expired before he had a chance to set the world on fire, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt was cut down by an assassin's bullet.

World War II never happens. Britain reverts to a metallic monetary standard, minimal government, and low taxes (followed by Germany) and she grows wealthy and healthy both as a nation and as a people in the process. Pearl Harbor is attacked, and the United States loses Hawaii and the Philippines to Japan, although Britain defends America's west coast.

What follows is a positively Hitchcockian story that will remind the reader, by turns, of The 39 StepsNorth by Northwest, and The Man Who Knew Too Much. Winston Churchill, in this branch of history is a drunk who died in relative obscurity, leaving his private papers to Harvard University. Anthony Markham is an historian working on the second volume of the old boy's biography at the behest of his family.

The opening chapters are thrilling, as the biographer is trying to get through security and out of a thoroughly fascistic United States, ruthlessly controlled by the dictator, President Harry Anslinger (with the enthusiastic help of subcreatures like Richard Nixon). Look him up: in our corner of probability, it's arguable that, of all political figures in the 20th century, Anslinger may be more responsible than any other for transforming America into the police state it has become today.

What Markham doesn't know—yet—is that, among Churchill's many papers is a document that may have an explosive effect on the balance of power in 1959, and the relations between Britain, Germany, and America, and that there is no safety for him back at home in England. He becomes the pawn and target for differing groups who want to use him and the Churchill papers for all sorts of different purposes.

The novel is so tightly-knit that it's hard to say anything about it without giving too much away. Sean writes in a manner that has you smelling the surroundings (not always a pleasant experience) and feeling the grit of asphalt and concrete under your feet. "Noirer than noir" might be an accurate description, but somehow, it's never depressing.

The novel as a whole is agreeably full of sound and fury, but there is a particularly splendid action scene on a train. Thanks to Sherlock Holmes, Agatha Christie, and Harry Potter, Americans are familiar with British trains, and that familiarity comes through even when the train in question happens to be bulleting along at 300 miles per hour, levitating above magnetic rails. It made me realize that a struggle on the railways is the British equivalent of an American car chase.

A couple of words to American readers. Sean has chosen to present the details of 1959 to us the way it really was—or would have been, and that includes the language. Words and phrases that are politically incorrect were a part of common conversation sixty years ago, and even today, in my own experience, are uttered more often in Britain than America.

In addition to Harry Anslinger and Richard Nixon (also Ayn Rand, Alan Greenspan, and Nathaniel Branden), Ludwig von Mises and Friedrich Hayeck also figure—a bit shockingly—in the action. I absolutely love stories like this, which is why I write them, myself. And there are many other characters who will mean more to Sean's countrymen, people like Enoch Powell, Harold MacMillan, Michael Foot, and Lord Halifax. It can't hurt, as you accompany Markham on his adventures, to keep Wikipedia open at your side. Sean is a great teacher, and this book has a lot to teach us in his painless and often extremely funny way.

Buy it, read it, tell your friends. I guess it's my privilege to welcome Sean into the ranks of sideways time travel writers the way that Robert Heinlein once welcomed me. The genre is richer for his presence.

The Churchill Memorandum by Sean Gabb is available in both paperback and Kindle format at Amazon.com. Buy it by clicking on [this link]

Late breaking: Sean has a new novel out —
The Break www.amazon.co.uk
No one knows what caused The Break eleven months ago, but there's no sign of its...See More

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Introducing Alternate History Weekly Update

Matt Mitrovich has a very nice blog on the subject of alternate history called Alternate History Weekly Update. It's over there on the blogroll if you forget. While Ifnicity will be devoted to reviewing alternate history fiction, and speculation about how history might have happened otherwise, Matt's blog is broader in scope, and deals with computer games (lots of alternate history there), films, television, and other media. He also give some space to steampunk, a subgenre which to me is like fantasy — I like it when it's good, but most of it, alas, isn't. I check this site regularly.

He also deals with timelines, which might be considered the skeletons of alternate history fiction not yet written, and a recent one especially interested me, because it deals with one of my favorite Presidents, James K. Polk. As Matt writes below, he's unique in keeping just about all of his campaign promises, and I think most historians would agree that they were pretty darn good promises.  Matt writes:

What If Wednesday: James K. Polk is Not Elected President

In my humble opinion, James K. Polk is the most underrated American president in history. The Tennessee Democrat was a one-term president, but in that term he accomplished all the goals he set out to achieve when he announced his candidacy. He lowered the tariff, established a treasury system that lasted until 1913, ended the Oregon boundary dispute with Britain and led the country to victory in the Mexican-American War that gave the United States its Southwest. He kept one more promise as well, to only serve one term if he achieved his goals. Thus in his one term, Polk accomplished more than most presidents do in two terms.

(And if he was not elected? Read the whole essay HERE.)

Me again. You've read it? If not, do go back and do so. 

I find the scenario very believable, and it's a demonstration of something alternate history is very good at — giving more meaning to history than we realize is there. Often we read about how important one President or another was, but historians are reluctant to speculate very far about alternatives, but alternative historians aren't.

Interestingly, the plight of Texas in a non-Polk history is similar to the plotline of a graphic novel I collaborated on, Roswell Texas, which you can read on line HERE. History diverges somewhat the same way, not because Polk isn't elected, but because Davy Crockett survived the Alamo to later become Texan President and block annexation to the Union in spite of Polk.

But in real history, Polk accomplished a lot that just might not have happened without him, and we'd be living in a considerable different world today.

Anyhow, if it were up to me, I'd revise Rushmore and put Polk up there.

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Robert Conroy's: Liberty 1784: The Second War for Independence

By Perry Glasgow

The book was my introduction to Robert Conroy’s work, and I wasn’t disappointed. Conroy grips the attention of the reader in the Prologue to this alternative history yarn when George Washington is beheaded at the Tower of London.

The French loss at the Battle of the Capes allows the British Navy to relieve Lord Cornwallis at Yorktown, which leads to the defeat of the American Revolution. The book follows the characters the consequences, trials and tribulations of both historical and fictional characters as a result of the defeat. The Founding Fathers are either imprisoned or executed which brings harsh British rule back to the colonies. The participants of the Revolution are forced to flee to Ft. Washington near modern-day Chicago, or face imprisonment. The dream of Liberty lives within the remnants of Colonials.

Conroy skillfully weaves historical personalities with the fiction characters in a page turner. What he lacks in depth he makes up in telling a great story.

The only disappointment I found is in implausibility of parts of the book to me. The reader has to ask themselves would there have been the French Revolution if the American Revolution had failed? The lack of a Native American presence in the book I found to be a faux pas. Crossing Shawnee territory itself should have provided more of a challenge than presented in the book.  At times Conroy interjects too much modern thought into his characters, but it doesn’t take away from an excellent story line.

The fans of alternate histories should find the book an enjoyable read despite missing on a few points. The book is available from Amazon in both hardcover and Kindle editions.

Friday, May 9, 2014

Hayford Peirce's Alternate Histories "Napoleon Disentimed" and "The Burr in the Garden of Eden"

There tend to be two kinds of alternate histories. First, we have time-travel stories, where a change is made in history by a time traveler, resulting in either a new universe, as in Bring the Jubilee, or a new branch universe, as in Roswell, Texas (full disclosure — I'm one of the writers), that coexists with the original timeline. And then we have stories that don't involve time travel at all, but are just about parallel universes that coexist with ours and are based on the "many worlds" theory of quantum physics.  Two good rationales for a lot of good (and sometimes bad) fiction.

In Hayford Peirce's two-book series, we have both. And we have a lot of fun. Really funny science fiction is rare, and funny science fiction in the alternate history subgenre is even rarer. Most of it is dead serious, sober stuff. I think of Poul Anderson and Philip K. Dick and Keith Laumer, whose alternate histories are all very good, but the comedy isn't there. (Oddly, Keith Laumer's Retief stories, which are standard SF, are very funny.) Other than Peirce, the only consistently funny alternate history author I can think of is the irrepressible L. Neil Smith, whose stuff I'll be reviewing later.

Well, already I digress. Napoleon Disentimed is a picaresque story about a semi-lovable con man, calling himself "The MacNair of MacNair," who wanders out of our universe in a comical way into a world where Napoleon I won all his wars, and Napoleon V rules Europe and is in a cold-war relationship with a powerful Ottoman Empire. MacNair locates his doppelgänger (and conspires with him semi-successfully) in that universe, and also funny mad scientists and even Napoleon V himself, who sort of reminds me of the Austrian Emperor in Amadeus. Hilarity ensues, with time-travel back to the era of Napoleon I in that universe, and we alternate history veterans suspect that such travel will somehow eliminate the timeline and result in ours, as is so often the case, but that doesn't exactly happen. But no spoilers here. I'll just say that jeweled crowns and flush toilets and Easter Island are involved.

The Burr in the Garden of Eden is even more picaresque and bizarre, and we're treated to a meeting with the alleged Napoleon wannabe, Aaron Burr, who we haven't been able to read about since Gore Vidal's Burr and Michael Kurland's The Whenabouts of Burr (both good reads, BTW), and he's just as amusing and confusing as ever, and maybe more so. Snarky comments about Thomas Jefferson add an air of political reality to the story. MacNair is also present, having wandered into this third timeline in an equally comical way, both sideways and backward in time, and we also meet a rambunctious Davy Crockett, who is always a pleasure. Other features are a Black republic in Utah, a weird religious cult in Louisiana, Sally Heming's grandson or great-grandson, I can't remember which, and Harry Truman.

These are both currently available from Amazon, but hard to find otherwise. If you like alternate history and funny stuff. You're in for a treat. Enjoy.  — Rex F. May