The New Wave of “What Ifs?”

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Have we entered a new golden age of counterfactual history? It is too early to say for sure, as the history of counterfactual history remains to be written. But if recent and upcoming television shows are any indication, the clear answer is yes.

Last year, Amazon Prime debuted its immensely popular ten-part web series The Man in the High Castle, which is based on Philip K. Dick’s 1962 novel about the United States losing World War II to the Germans and Japanese. Hulu also unveiled its adaptation of Stephen King’s bestselling 2011 novel 11/22/63, about a present-day American teacher (played by James Franco) going back in time to prevent the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.

Even more notable is the upcoming fall and winter television lineup for 2016-17. In addition to the second season of The Man in the High Castle (which was renewed after receiving unprecedented fan support), four new American television shows with counterfactual premises are set to debut. They include: Making History (Fox) about two college professors returning to the eighteenth century to make sure the American Revolution occurs; Timeless (NBC), about present-day Americans returning to the year 1937 and investigating the crash of the Hindenburg in Lakehurst, New Jersey; Time After Time (ABC), about H.G. Welles and Jack the Ripper battling it out in present-day New York City; and Frequency (CW), about a young female detective making contact with her dead father who somehow continues to live in the year 1996. (There’s also a bonus: American viewers will soon be able to watch the upcoming five-part BBC television series, SS-GB—based on bestselling British writer Len Deighton’s 1978 thriller about the Nazis defeating and occupying Great Britain in World War II—now that The Weinstein Company has acquired the TV distribution rights).

What does this wave of “what if?” narratives reveal about the status of history in contemporary culture? What relevance, if any, does the wave have for historians?

To answer these questions, it is worth noting that scholars continue to debate the merits of counterfactual history. On the one hand, many historians remain skeptical about the virtues of “what if” thinking, a position recently reiterated by Richard J. Evans in his impassioned, if flawed, book, Altered Pasts (2014). On the other hand, Niall Ferguson, the editor of the pioneering volume Virtual History (1997), recently singled out the importance of counterfactual speculation in his Applied History Project manifesto, which was published in The Atlantic. Given the recent publication of other counterfactually-influenced works of history, such as Peter J. Bowler’s Darwin Deleted (2013), Jeffrey Gurock’s The Holocaust Averted (2015), Richard Ned Lebow’s Archduke Francis Ferdinand Lives! (2014), and my own edited volume, What Ifs of Jewish History: From Abraham to Zionism (2016), it would seem as if historical “what ifs” are increasingly gaining respectability.

In order to explain this wave of speculation, it helps to know something about the structure and function of historical counterfactuals. As I point out in a new essay in The Journal of the Philosophy of History—whose current issue features a roundtable on counterfactuals—“what ifs” can be divided up into five different categories: causal, emotive, temporal, spatial, and manneristic. Many different types of counterfactuals belong to these categories (I list a dozen and a half), but they all serve a similar set of functions: they help us understand the causality of historical events, arrive at moral judgments about their meaning, and assess how they evolve in collective memory. Counterfactuals also serve a rhetorical function, insofar as they attempt to persuade us of their veracity by appealing to our sentiments and imagination. Most human beings are highly susceptible to “what ifs,” a fact confirmed by social science research, which reveals that we routinely imagine scenarios pertaining to our own personal lives—usually about whether different decisions might have led to better or worse outcomes.

These factors can help us understand the different ways in which the coming year’s television programs employ counterfactuals; they may also provide an explanation about their growing popularity.

Making History is the most historically focused of the shows. It features what I call a “Connecticut Yankee Counterfactual,” in which present-day individuals return to the past (naturally with the aid of a time machine). Academics will rejoice, as the show features a pair of university professors (a white computer scientist and a black historian) as its protagonists. They return to the late eighteenth century with the goal of ensuring the occurrence of the American Revolution (which the computer science professor has somehow undone in a previous visit). Like the identically-named but unrelated alternate history novel by British writer Stephen Fry from 1996 (about the prevention of Hitler’s birth by yet another pair of academics), the show offers a comedic take on alternate history by playing the scenario of time travel for laughs instead of lessons, very much like the film Hot Tub Time Machine (2010).

The NBC show Timeless resembles Making History insofar as it also features present-day characters traveling to the past. It, too, features a history professor among its main characters, giving her the task of working with a white soldier and a black engineer to prevent a time traveling villain from catastrophically altering the course of American history. Unlike Making History, Timeless is not a comedy, but an action and adventure show that employs counterfactual speculation for dramatic effect.

Time After Time, meanwhile, reverses the plot lines of Making History and Timeless by employing a “Rip Van Winkle counterfactual” and depicting someone from the past being transported to the present. The show portrays H.G. Wells using a time machine to track down Jack the Ripper in New York City. In a sense, the show is a darker version of the recent Fox television program, Sleepy Hollow, which features an eighteenth-century American Revolutionary soldier, Ichabod Crane, pairing up with a female African American police officer to battle mythological monsters come to life in present-day Westchester County.

Frequency (the CW), finally, focuses less on changing the course of grand historical events than individual fates. It is an example of a “personal alternate history,” insofar as it traces how small points of divergence lead several characters’ lives to evolve differently along parallel tracks. The show follows in the tradition of films like Sliding Doors (1998), the recent Tony-nominated Broadway show, If/Then (2013), and Kate Atkinson’s best selling novel, Life After Life (2013).

The new television shows seek to entertain, but they also strive to instruct. Like many works of science fiction and utopian literature, they use the premise of time travel to advance social commentary. Making History’s trailer, for instance, features a comical scene in which the white and black professors answer an eighteenth-century woman’s hopeful inquiry whether “in 2016, white people and black people are friends?” with the simultaneous statements: “yes, exactly” and “not at all.” Time After Time features an African American time traveler being stuck in a 1930s jail and declaring to his racist white guard that “I hope you live long enough to see Michael Jordan dunk, Michael Jackson dance, and Mike Tyson punch… because the future is not on your side.” On a bleaker note, Jack the Ripper in Time After Time makes the ominous observation that in view of all the “violence and bloodshed” of the twenty first century, “today, I’m an amateur.”

The surging wave of counterfactualism in American culture reflects the impact of larger forces. “What if?” thinking tends to flourish in eras of rapid change—in moments when people try to make sense of how key points of divergence shift historical events onto new tracks. Ever since the terrorist attacks of 9/11 brought an end to the comparatively stable “post-cold war” years of 1989–2001, the pace of change has intensified, thanks to U.S.–led wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Great Recession of 2008, the abortive Arab Spring, the crisis of the EU, and the global rise of authoritarian capitalism and xenophobic populism. The popularity of counterfactualism also reflects the enduring influence of postmodernism, whose promotion of a relativistic, “post-fact” world has fostered a willingness to imagine alternate pasts beyond the agreed-upon historical record. This trend has been accelerated, moreover, by the many disruptive technological developments—the rise of the Internet, smart phones, social media, streaming video services, and the like—that have fueled and accompanied the “information revolution.”

Historians continue to debate whether or not the wave of “what ifs” should be welcomed or critiqued. But there is nothing inherently worrisome about counterfactual thinking. Not only does it date back to the beginning of the western historical tradition in Ancient Greece (and the work of Herodotus and Thucydides), it has influenced the profession ever since. Counterfactuals, moreover, are compatible with multiple models of historical causality, whether the “Great Man” theory of Thomas Carlyle, which privileges the importance of individual agency, or more deterministic perspectives that emphasize the significance of grand forces, structures, and systems. Counterfactuals, finally, have no inherent political valence; while they may seem to privilege the role of elites (and distressingly echo Donald Trump’s megalomaniacal claim that “I alone can fix” the problems of the country), they can also inspire ordinary people to shape events.

Perhaps this is the reason why counterfactuals resonate so powerfully today. At a time when ordinary people are struggling to cope with forces, structures, and systems beyond their control, contemplating speculative scenarios allows us to fantasize about transcending our sense of powerlessness and using individual agency to effect positive change. As historians, we should recognize the emotional resonance of counterfactuals and understand that the process of imagining how the past could have been can be part of the effort to shape the future. We should all heed the advice of Timeless’s Delta Force sergeant, Denise Christopher (played by Sakina Jaffrey) who in trying to enlist the services of the reluctant professor, Lucy Preston (played by Abigail Spencer), pointedly asks her: “I’d think that someone who loves history would want to save it.”

Gavriel D. Rosenfeld is Professor of History and Director of the Undergraduate Program in Judaic Studies at Fairfield University. His new book, What Ifs of Jewish History, appears in October with Cambridge University Press. He edits the blog, The Counterfactual History Review.

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1 Comment

  1. Not sure if you mention it anywhere, but TIME AFTER TIME and FREQUENCY are both based on movies, the former from the 1970s and the latter from the 1990s. FREQUENCY didn’t get the attention it deserved, in my opinion.

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