Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Book review: Just the counterfactual, ma'am

So, I suppose I should read blurbs more carefully.

I was excited to get to Archduke Franz Ferdinand Lives! by Richard Ned Lebow on my WARMER reading list. By the style of the title, I imagined it was a collection of short stories in the alternate history genre, all playing off the same PoD (point-of-divergence from our timeline into the counterfactual): that the titular heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne was not killed in Sarajevo, thereby altering or preventing completely the First World War. Alas, my perception or my memory had failed me: this was not the case.

The book does concern alternate history based the PoD as described, but it is neither a collection of short stories nor a poorly-titled novel. The author, Richard Lebow, holds a professorship at King's College London and emeritus professor status at Dartmouth among many other scholarly distinctions. Academia must be in his blood (his author bio claims "over 200 peer-reviewed articles") because Lebow doesn't write an alternate history as much as he discusses alternate history.

The first chapter in the book defines the whole realm of counterfactuals for us, and Lebow seems to be trying to legitimatize the genre by showing how the consideration of imagined worlds and their progress, however unverifiable, gives us lessons to apply to understanding the real world. He then goes on for a whole chapter justifying why and how he thinks that Ferdinand's survival would have prevented WW1. (Lebow is a political scientist and his extrapolations of power and policy are persuasive.) He then goes on to outline the best of all plausible outcomes and the worst of all plausible outcomes. Finally, he tells us everything again, in a summary chapter that once again chases those lessons we are supposed to have learned.

In some ways, this is a very valuable resource on how to develop a plausible counterfactual. I have tried to create a broad-strokes alternate America for a role-playing game, and I am sure Lebow would laugh at my shoehorned contrivances and lack of understanding of how the events I changed had actually come to occur. I am sure my world is not terribly plausible.

But plausibility is just one element of good alternate history, and in the end, it's not even the most important one. The best alternate histories are engaging, exciting, surprising - and fun. It is in the juxtapositions of real historical figures with imagined ones that we find that sweetness and strangeness which capture our attention. Credible historical extrapolation is fine, but just like not letting facts get in the way of a good story, totally reasonable counterfactuality should not get in the way of a good alternate history. Lebow seems to overlook this consideration totally.

Lebow does tell some brief stories in his descriptions of his alternate worlds. My favorite involves Governor Barack Obama of Hawaii facing down the federal government in the 2010s over the planned internment of Japanese-Americans. (Without world wars, international and racial tensions simmered longer). This great plot is raised and disposed of in three pages; Lebow is much more interested in examining causes and consequences than he is in creating narrative and character.

I think I'd love to take a class from Lebow: a graduate seminar in counter-factual political science or something. But he should perhaps stick to the academic journals; this book is too dry for popular consumption, even as background reading. I will take comfort in believing that somewhere there is an alternate world, exactly like ours, except that someone wrote a great novel about Archduke Franz Ferdinand surviving his assassination attempt...

Bonus editing tidbit:

That section concerning Obama includes this passage (emphasis added):
Obama [...] calls upon the administration to make public any evidence it has of a security threat posed by Japanese residents or Japanese Americans. The attorney general refuses to do this on the grounds of national security and does not respond to Obama's request that he be briefed on camera.
Now, it is clear to me that the line was supposed to end in camera - in secret or confidentially. That an editor at Palgrave McMillan could make this kind of error - not to mention the several other proofreading mistakes I found - is more than a little disheartening.

No comments:

Post a Comment