Parallel Universes Where the South Won the War

25 Feb

Whooosh, it’s the Flash-Sideways… again!

I’ll have to wait 8 years or so before I can say with some validity that this is the kind of question professional historians daydream about without daring to publish, but I’ll make an educated guess that they do.  I imagine some Civil War re-enactors daydream and talk about it shamelessly, but as an undergrad history major who only pretends to be an Alabamian, I really can’t speak with authority on either account.  I do know that in 9th grade my world history class reenacted the battle of Waterloo and I got all of us disgruntled French soldiers pumped up on ABBA before we waged a water-balloon shock and awe campaign on that smug 14-year-old Duke of Wellington and put Napoleon back on the throne for good.

Our teacher wasn’t terribly pleased.

But that sort of counterfactual history is the bread and butter of science fiction writers–remember Murray Leinster’s Sidewise in Time? And it’s not just temporal shifts in general that SF writers posit, either, but specifically Confederate/Nazi Americas.  Another classic example: Philip K. Dick’s (love him!) The Man in the High Castle.

PKD’s novel was first published in 1962–I call that the “coherent period.”  Come 1978 and you get something like VALIS, which almost makes House of Leaves look intelligible.  Almost.

(And that, my friends, is called postmodern name-dropping, included in honor of my *friend* and fellow blogger (well, she’s 3 posts in), Marina Roberts, who doesn’t get one of my weird pseudonyms because she’s an anthropology major and I don’t care about her Internet safety, and who called me a “scary hipster” the other day, which really touched a soft spot because I’ve never even been in a thrift shop.  The salespeople kind of freak me out.  But then, I won’t step into J. Crew either.)

In any case, and to preach to the choir, The Man in the High Castle is fantastic and well-deserving of its Hugo.  Remember the Sidewise Award for Alternate History?  I’ll bet that in an alternate universe where he lived to 1995, PKD won that too.

For anyone who hasn’t had the pleasure of a glimpse into Philip K. Dick’s twisted mind, here are a couple plot summaries for TMITHC.  Since it’s Phil, I figured we might need two:

Dick’s Hugo Award-winning 1962 alternative history considers the question of what would have happened if the Allied Powers had lost WWII. Some 20 years after that loss, the United States and much of the world has now been split between Japan and Germany, the major hegemonic states. But the tension between these two powers is mounting, and this stress is playing out in the western U.S.

What if the Allies had lost the Second World War …? The Nazis have taken over New York – the Japanese control California. In a neutral buffer zone existing between the two states an underground author offers his own vision of reality, an alternative world that offers hope to the disenchanted …Hugo Award winner Philip K Dick is one of the most original contributors to American sci-fi, and his books were the basis for the critically acclaimed films “Blade Runner” and “Total Recall”.

So it’s not exactly a Confederate States of America, but slavery is legal in this alternate America and freedom definitely isn’t ringing.  It’s a book that came to mind earlier this week as I watched a screening of Kevin Wilmott’s “Confederate States of America,” an event hosted by the University of Alabama’s brilliant history department.  From Wikipedia, because I’m lazy:

C.S.A.: The Confederate States of America is a 2004 mockumentary directed by Kevin Willmott. It is a fictional “tongue-in-cheek” account of an alternate history, in which the Confederates won the American Civil War, establishing the new Confederate States of America(that incorporates the former United States as well).

The film primarily details significant political and cultural events of C.S.A. history from its founding until the 2000s. This viewpoint is used to satirize real-life issues and events, and to shed light on the continuing existence of discrimination in American culture.

A particularly interesting segment of the film involves the CSA’s participation (or lack thereof) in World War II.  In this reality, Hitler visited the States, whose Aryan leaders impressed him with the slave economies in North and South alike.

More insightful bloggers than me (read Cory Doctorow, and yes, that’s a double entendre) have written about the role of science fiction in society; a couple years ago, he wrote an article titled “Radical Presentism,” about “the way that science fiction reflects the present more than the future.”

For some years now, science fiction has been in the grips of a conceit called the “Singularity”—the moment at which human and machine intelligence merge, creating a break with history beyond which the future cannot be predicted, because the post-humans who live there will be utterly unrecognizable to us in their emotions and motivations.

Read one way, it’s a sober prediction of the curve of history spiking infinity-ward in the near future (and many futurists will solemnly assure you that this is the case); read another way, it’s just the anxiety of a generation of winners in the technology wars, now confronted by a new generation whose fluidity with technology is so awe-inspiring that it appears we have been out-evolved by our own progeny.

Confederate States of America isn’t science fiction in the way that The Man in the High Castle is, but both are counterfactual (alternate) histories–telling us less about what could have happened than what is happening.

In the question-and-answer session after the film screening, director Kevin Wilmot (hell yes, he was there) suggested that–to paraphrase–the reason that South fought so hard in the Civil War was because they felt betrayed.  The country started out as the Confederate States of America–slavery and the 3/5 law were enshrined in our very Constitution, and let’s not forget how very many Virginians we had for presidents back in the day.

Every move we make toward true democracy, Wilmott argued (and that’s not just emancipation, but Civil Rights, repealing Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, etc), makes the country more of the United States, and less the Confederate States.

If filmmaking ever falls through for Wilmott, I’d suggest a career in science fiction.

Btdubs, I’m currently fascinated by the I Write Like tool, which has for months told me that in both the blogosphere and academe I write like H.P. Lovecraft.  Probably the prohibitively long sentences.  This post, however, has been textually analyzed and came out, quote the machine, as comparable to Cory Doctorow.  Nothing’s comparable to Cory Doctorow’s writing, but I’ll take what I can get.


One Response to “Parallel Universes Where the South Won the War”

  1. B.C. Young February 26, 2011 at 10:37 am #

    I enjoyed reading this. I’ve never read an alternate history book, but I plan to at some point in my life.

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