Friday, July 1, 2011

Open Thread: The Intentions of Alternate History

So I'm still doing some reading on how to discuss stuff, and I've actually already been asked by my supervisor to speak more on nostalgia in steampunk (which I think Cory Gross has covered in a Steampunk Magazine issue), but I found an article which I thought I thought I would open up to discussion for all you Silver Goggles readers, particularly those who are invested in author-intention and reader-response types of critical analysis.

Article: Rosenfeld, Gavriel. "Why Do We Ask 'What If?' Reflections no the Function of Alternate History." History and Theory. Issue 41 (Dec 2002). 90 -103.

Alternate history is inherently presentist. It explores the past less for its own sake than to utilize it instrumentally to comment upon the present. ... alternate history necessarily reflects its authors' hopes and fears ... Fantasy scenarios envision the past as superior to the present and thereby express a sense of dissatisfaction with the way things are today. Nightmare scenarios, by contrast, depict the past as inferior to the present and thereby express a sense of contentment with the status quo. [They also] have different political implications. Fantasy scenarios tend to be liberal, for by envisioning a better past, they see the present as wanting and thus implicitly support changing it. Nightmare scenarios, by contrast, tend to be conservative, for by viewing the past in negative terms, they ratify the present and thereby reject the need for change. These implications to be sure, are not iron-clad. Nightmare scenarios can be used for the liberal purpose of critique, while fantasy scenarios can tend towards a conservative form of escapism.

Besides the fact that these are obvious oversimplifications, please discuss.


  1. Actually, I broadly agree with this, except for two things. Alternate history doesn't say that the past was better, and then things got worse in the present. It says that the present is the way ti is because of this thing, and if we change this thing, here's what the present would look like. Even if the alternate history is Utopian, that isn't saying that the past is better than the reader's present, only that the (presumably) wrong choice was made in the past, and here's what happens when the right one is made.
    Also, I don't know that arguing the present needs changing is particularly liberal. The argument could be for a reactionary change.

  2. So, if I read the excerpt correctly, alternate history impacts (critiques?) the present by altering the past. A happy-happy reimagining of the past stimulates change in the present, while a nightmare re-imagining says the present is pretty good by comparison, so leave it alone.

    I don't agree.

    I think both positive and negative re-imaginings are critiques on the present. Positive re-imaginings want to gently lead the reader to the promised land. Negative re-imaginings want to shock them into action/revolution. Either way we take the concerns of the present and overlay them on the past as a way of viewing and exploring them from a new angle.

    The whole issue of nostalgia is fascinating. You could argue that nostalgia is a retreat from the demands and difficulties of the present. Maybe it is. But maybe it's more than that. A sense of identity and belonging involves the history you site yourself in. Nostalgia is a search for the beginnings of your world. Sure, you might romanticise it, but many of us romanticise our present, too.

    Steampunk taps that nostalgia and tugs it into the present. The past is reshaped to create current identity.

    Anyway, that's my Steampunk newbie take on things -- and I'm half tempted to delete my ramblings.

  3. I think all literature is "inherently presentist." You're writing it now; it's about now. Writing about the past is just one way you can choose to deal with your present.

    Like Rev. Johnny above, I don't think you can make a blanket statement about whether a certain genre or theme is essentially liberal or conservative. I mean, you CAN. But umm, you shouldn't. You will be wrong. A lot.

    That said, what freaks me out about the steampunk aesthetic is precisely the nostalgia your supervisor wants you to write about. Nostalgia for what? For the days when you could grasp science with your fingers and create wonders? Cool. For the days when it was EVEN EASIER to dismember and destroy entire societies and preserve an easy conscience? Not so cool.

    For me, steampunk is not about nostalgia. It's about transgression. The Catastrophone Orchestra and Arts Collective said it better in the first issue of Steampunk Magazine: "We are fashion's jackals running wild in the tailor shop." That's what I want to see.

  4. That nostalgia is such a strong part of steampunk, and the first thing that people think about, makes it all the more worthwhile critiquing. You need to critique the bad in order to enjoy the good, rather than dismiss it. Critique is powerful political work, and good for change.

    Which reminds me, I really ought to go fit that in somewhere. (It's part of my critique of Peshawar Lancers.)