Altering History versus Mashing Up History

The announcement by HBO’s Game of Thrones showrunners that they were working on alt-history TV show called “Confederate” caused some obvious concerns.

I’ve used the term “challenging” for a range of premises for stories (e.g. recently with discussing the notion of James Bond being played by a woman actor), by which I mean there are more ways for the story to go horribly wrong than normal. Yes, of course, there is some potential that with the right balance of script and actors and sensibilities that *somehow* this proposed show could finda narrow pathway between all the possible pit-falls and start a national conversation in the US about race, the legacy of slavery and unhealed national division that was the US Civil War. I say “some potential” but let’s face it that potential is close to zero. GoT showrunners, Benioff and Weiss, have avoid pitfall#1 of gazillion by bringing in two black writers Nichelle Tramble Spellman and Malcolm Spellman – a married couple with an excellent TV-writing background. Yet plenty of other horrible outcomes await. Ironically, the very idea of the show possibly not being f_king awful feels like an alt-history exercise in which we have to imagine all the branching paths (most which lead us to a what-were-they-thinking-when-they-greenlit-this-monstrosity) in which somehow the showrunners manage to make the right decision and avoid making a piece of inflamatory garbage.

But, you can see the temptation. There are more interesting historical what-ifs but popular culture keeps returning to one of them in particular:

  • What if the Nazis had won WW2? Of which the BBC has yet another contribution with a series based on Len Deighton’s SS-GB while the US series The Man in the High Castle is still on-going.

I’d argue that this premise isn’t genuinely an alt-history theme – the question isn’t about how post-1945 history would have proceeded if Germany had won but rather what if people now had to secretly fight a Nazi government. It’s a lazy way of looking at living under fascism without looking at the mechanism of how countries become fascist.

It’s that laziness that pushes some alt-history into fantasy rather than SF, the difference being a desire to transplant one set of historical conditions onto modern times rather than the often supposed premise of alt-history: exploring how modern times would be different if a given event hadn’t happened.

For example. Imagine these two different stories:

  1. Queen Elizabeth I of England has a healthy child and grandchild and the throne of England stays Tudor after her death rather than passing to the Stuart line. The story is set in the British Isles in 2017 but in a very different world because of how history played out.
  2. Same premise as above but there as a rationalisation for a story set in 2017 but England is still like Tudor times but somehow modern as well (Wolf Hall but with mobile phones).

Actually I quite like the idea of story 2 but calling it “alt-history” is not doing any favours to the word “history”. Story 1 has the capacity to look at how events in the past shape our world (no English Civil War maybe? Scotland retain independence maybe?). Story 2 is just a genre mash-up – no offence intended towards genre mash-ups, just trying to be clear about the difference. I’m also not trying to police the term “alt-history” either. If it is easier to call both kinds of story alt-history then I’m OK with that but I do want to highlight the distinction.

Let’s call them Type 1 and Type 2. With What if the Nazis had won WW2 stories there is a lot of overlap because the events were relatively recent. With this proposed “Confederate” story where are the showrunners going to place the story between those two points? Type 2 plonks a 19th century Antebellum story in modern times. Type 1 looks at how the Civil War shaped modern America by removing its influence. I’m guessing they’ll end up with a Type 2 story but claim it is a Type 1 i.e. they’ll want the story elements borrowed from Civil War stories but claim a convuluted back story.

Either way, the capacity of a TV show to unpack and examine the issue of land, money, inherited wealth, race and the problems of agarain economies is close to zero. For example, the show isn’t going to be about how the Confederacy became a failed state in (say) 1890, collapsed, leading to a (northern) US take-over and resulting in a modern USA in which the legacy of slavery can still be seen in entrenched racism, police violence, an abusive prison system, economic inequality and aggresive white nationalism.



  1. Space Oddity

    To be fair to the original novel, “The Man in High Castle” as Dick wrote it is arguably as much about the inherent artificiality of the premise as it is about living in such a world, as well as the various compromises that life forces on all of us.

    But then, Dick was a genius, even if he was one whose reach regularly outstripped his grasp…

    Liked by 1 person

    • camestrosfelapton

      //But then, Dick was a genius, even if he was one whose reach regularly outstripped his grasp…//

      Very true.

      I love PKD’s novels (my literal favourite book – i.e. the physical copy of a book that I have most affection for) is one of his. I’m not sure genre classifications cope with them as they are framed as SF but are essentially fantastical rather than speculative (even though he often nails the speculative)


  2. KR

    I prefer the term that actual historians use for this sort of thing: counterfactual. That word literally indicates that it is against the factual truth. There is a large rhetorical and cinematic industry based around usurping the cultural power of real nuanced, documented history (“based on a true story”) by exploiting the subconscious tendency to want to believe and invoking the words “history” and “true” itself. Using the term Alt-history signals that is a legitimate branch of the historical profession. It is not.

    I think it is more than just laziness that causes these things to be made. A distinct and unpleasant cultural fetishization of white power, authoritarianism, the past and ongoing suffering of The Other is, to me, behind a lot of this kind of storytelling. My friends in the history of slavery world are pretty p*ssed about this show. They ask the very good question: “if you want to tell a counterfactual story about slavery, the Confederacy, the black past — why not imagine a world where Nat Turner, or the Stono Rebellion, or Gabriel Prosser’s revolt had succeeded and established a black socialist republic in the South?” Instead, we get yet another fetishization of the suffering of black people’s past — even when it is supposed to be raising consciousness — and that’s just gross in light of the resurgent open racism, violent police actions, and ongoing economic marginalization of actual living Afro-descended people. These sorts of cultural endeavours end up affirming the sorts of dynamics they purport to want to challenge.

    I hate everything about this show.

    Liked by 1 person

      • KR

        A lot of people had to be involved in devising, drafting, pitching, greenlighting, funding, casting and making the show. I know it’s easier to sell things that are safe and predictable and don’t challenge and have made money in the past. I assume some of that is what is going on here. But, after so much of this kind of storytelling, it starts to seem like those worlds are functioning as wish fulfillment for the classes/ entities that are able to get them made and for a depressingly-large number of consumers.

        I apologize for my vehemence in the previous post.

        Liked by 2 people

  3. delagar

    “if you want to tell a counterfactual story about slavery, the Confederacy, the black past — why not imagine a world where Nat Turner, or the Stono Rebellion, or Gabriel Prosser’s revolt had succeeded and established a black socialist republic in the South?”

    They need to read Terry Bisson’s Fire on the Mountain. In fact, everyone needs to read Terry Bisson’s Fire on the Mountain.

    Liked by 1 person