Pastwatch Reflections: Cause, Counterfactual, and Fracturing the Past

This is the final post in series exploring how the story of Orson Scot Card’s book Pastwatch gets readers to play with and explore their own models of the past. The first post discussed the way the book’s claim that we are living in an altered history helps us approach the past as a strange and peculiar set of events. The second post explored the “real” past of the story’s workd, suggesting that this extensive counterfactual argument has significant value for supporting the kind of causal argumentation and appeals to evidence that historians make.. In the third post I described how the characters in the book decide to intercede and change the past and suggest that this kind of playing with a causal model has explicit value for historical thinking.

In this final post I make a series of grandiose and wide sweeping claims to restate some of the values that came out of the book as a much more general defense of both historical fiction and alternate history. These are a bit more manifesto like than I usually go for, but I hope that they can prompt a discussion of some of the principles at work here.

All causal arguments hinge on counterfactual thinking

You can’t tell me that one thing was more important in causing another without weighing its relative importance against other potential causes. We weigh that importance by asking ourselves how things would have turned out if that factor was not present. In this respect, counterfactual thinking, our what-if questions, are an important tool for thought in the historians hermeneutic toolbox. Some in the sciences have the luxury of creating experiments to control for alternate explanations. Historians, however, can’t ever re-run history. Historians ability to identify causes involves a constant set of small counterfactual thoughts to guide research and weigh evidence. Alternate history and historical fiction provides a great place to develop and hone these counterfactual thinking skills.

Good counterfactual arguments require the mobilization of real deal historical facts

Pastwatch comes with a set of source materials at the end.

Compelling and engaging counterfactual arguments are built on real deal historical evidence and facts. The counterfactual part, the what if X happened instead of Y, is only interesting as a conversation starter if the rest of the conversation then involves bringing historical information and facts to bear on the situation. In this case, the counterfactual prompt begs us to offer up and appeal to that information to make our case for how something might have turned out differently. To this end, Card provides readers with the sources he used to develop his counterfactual account.

Beyond this, however, the counterfactual text constantly invites and provokes the reader to respond that “that isn’t what I think would have happened.” One critiques an alternate history by mobilizing historical evidence. To some extent, the fact that we know it is made up to begin with helps to get away from the oppressiveness of historical texts and text books as all knowing providers of historical fact.

Alternate histories help fracture the inevitability of the past

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The kinds of alternate histories that counterfactual questions prompt are valuable ways to break up the inevitability of the past. They help keep it weird. These kinds of questions and alternate histories fracture the tidyness of the past and get us to start asking new questions and bringing different kinds of evidence into play.

I would love to treat these claims as fodder for conversation. It would be fantastic if people wanted to weigh in and I would love to hear more examples of things that do and don’t work in specific alternate history and historical fiction works.

The Value of Alternate History for History Education

Together I think that this points to some of the ways that alternate historical fiction can serve as a valuable tool for history educators. In my mind there are at least two critical roles for history education. Alternate history is antithetical to history as names and dates. The whole point of alternate history is to mix up the names and dates. However the more expansive idea of history education, one that get us to develop and critique historical arguments, at working with evidence, at telling stories and revising and revisiting the assumptions in those stories, can gain a lot from engaging with alternate history.

1 Comment

  1. It is particularly interesting to read about the interplay between gaming and alternate (the pedant in me gripes that it should really be ‘alternative’ but so it goes) history. The difficulty is that no game is remotely ‘realistic’ enough to model the past anyway, so even if all significant decisions are taken in some way consistently with reality, the outcome will not be as it is. I don’t know of many games that incorporate anything resembling the post-1945 decolonisation, for example.

    But strategy games illustrate the point internally even better. Recently, I played as Castille/Spain in Europe Universalis 3. After being first to the Caribbean and Mesoamerica, I went on to conquer the non-European world: all of America, Africa, India and so on, but France had Europe. Later, I wondered what it would have been like to focus on a Napoleonic conquest of Europe instead. Rather than start a new game (which would have turned out completely differently), I went back to a save point where I had Mesoamerica and the Caribbean (so was already ‘winning’) and used the vast income to become a European power instead. And partially succeeded, but France still dominated Europe. My save point was too late.

    Save points are the tests of counterfactual history in strategy games. Sometimes, we can go back and change things. Equally, most people will have been in a situation whereby no matter how many times they try different strategies from a save point, the result is the same. The difference really brings out what – in the limited universe created by the rules of the game – is ‘inevitable’ and what is not.

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