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It takes imagination and courage to picture what would happen to the West . . . if its temporal fortress were suddenly invaded by the Time of the Other. --Johannes Fabian, Time and the Other.

The Years of Rice and Salt cover

In the history that I learned in grade school, Native Americans were a helpful people who shared their food with the Pilgrims and then quietly faded away into the background, allowing Europeans to spread over this vast, empty continent. By the time I got to high school, the story had gotten more complicated, complete with mentions of Bartolome de Las Casas, a lone voice crying out in the wilderness for better treatment of the Native Americans. In college a woman from the Mohawk nation came to speak, to upbraid her listeners for not doing anything to help the Native Americans. No one seems quite sure how to address the United States' complicity in the deaths of millions of Native Americans. However, science fiction writers and others have for many years been producing accounts where the Native Americans are no longer eliminated, because of changes in history.

Critics have called these texts "uchronias," "alternative histories," and "allohistories." I use the term alternate history, primarily because readers, writers, and marketers all seem to agree on this term to distinguish books where the Nazis win World War II, the South wins the Civil War, or Napoleon conquers the world, for instance. Alternate history can be distinguished by its alteration of the historical course of events as we know it, and its exploration of the effects of this change. Historical fiction is not alternate history, because historical fiction doesn't result in a change in known history: it operates in the unrecorded margins of history, or invents new characters entirely. In alternate history, something that we all assume to be true has changed, and this change alters things in the narrative's future. Sometimes the change, termed a point of divergence, is the result of an alteration from a time-traveling meddler; sometimes the change goes unexplained, but it is recognizably different from what's happened in the real world.

Since, like all commercial science fiction, the genre is dominated by Americans, alternate history often presents an America highly altered by the events of the past. I'm going to spend much of the time in this article discussing a recent work, The Years of Rice and Salt, by Kim Stanley Robinson, which features an Iroquois league holding North America in the face of Islamic and Chinese conquerors, but it's just one of many works to display a strengthened Native American community. My question throughout this article will be, what sorts of freedom does the alternate history form allow for "history's losers," the peoples and nations that have been cast aside in the struggle for power?

Time and the Other cover

I've found Johannes Fabian's book Time and the Other particularly useful in working on this subject. In order to properly explain other cultures, Fabian says, we have to grant them coevalness -- we have to accept that they're living in the same timeframe that we are in (33). Alternate history breaks this assumption: we really aren't living in the same timeframe as these others. . . or are we? I argue that alternate histories implicitly compare the fictive timeframe that they've created to the actual timeframe that historians have recreated for our lives, and that this comparison inevitably limits the abilities of history's losers to act. Furthermore, I argue that alternate history is constrained by the history of our own time in order to appear plausible, and that this further limits the abilities and powers of oppressed peoples. The Other has to deal not only with the baggage of the past, but also the baggage of the future.

The world that Kim Stanley Robinson lays out in The Years of Rice and Salt is one in which what are today marginalized societies seem to have free play to expand and explore. He extrapolates the future that would result from a Europe completely depopulated by the Black Death. The Islamic world, China, and India are the primary powers vying for supremacy in the world that ensues.

As a result of Europe's collapse, the discovery of the New World is delayed until about 1620, when the Vietnamese Admiral Kheim leads a Chinese fleet to Japan -- but it's blown way, way off course, then becalmed and caught on an ocean current and brought to America. The fleet encounters a tribe in the Pacific Northwest, who quickly develop smallpox and perish. Conscience-stricken at the deaths, Admiral Kheim departs, but not before one of his men stows away. (This sailor, we later learn, travels the continent teaching the natives how to inoculate themselves against smallpox.) Later on, a Japanese exile fleeing the conquest of his homeland by the Chinese enters the New World, travels from Gold Mountain (San Francisco) to the Great Lakes on foot and encounters the Hodenosaunee (Iroquois). Becoming a chief, he rallies the Iroquois to resist the expansion from Europe's Islamic successor states, who are slowly invading the East Coast. This chief teaches the Iroquois gunsmithing (evening the military edge) and literacy (the technology identified by Todorov as that which would have allowed the Native Americans to resist colonizers). The ultimate outcome is that the Iroquois are now able to resist European power, and bring the gifts of democracy to the world. I give this little plot summary to show the degree of narrative contrivance that Robinson is willing to go through in order to ensure a strong Native American presence -- his two miraculous saviors who teach the Native Americans how to resist disease and how to resist Europeans are the most strained parts of his narrative. Clearly he sees a need for a strong Native American presence in his future world.

Apacheria cover

The strengthening of Native Americans is a common outcome of points of divergence in history: Poul Anderson's The Time Patrol contains Native American nations battling Celtic settler states; L. Sprague de Camp's "The Wheels of If" has a small Celtic-ruled East Coast overrun by "Dakotians" led by Crazy Horse. Jake Page's Apacheria posits an Apache-controlled country in the southwest. (Of course, this increased Native American presence is possible only for stories which locate the point of divergence with reality before 1850. Since they have to maintain historical plausibility, as I discuss below, stories with points of divergence in the Civil War period or later can do little to allow for Native American dominance, since by then the damage was done, the tribes a shadow of their former size.)

While the natives of North America fare strongly in these books, the South Americans, particularly the Aztecs, are often early casualties. In The Years of Rice and Salt, Admiral Kheim's fleet encounters the Aztecs after leaving the natives of the Northwest. Various members of Kheim's expedition are kidnapped and almost sacrificed before they manage to escape. In the process, they level the Aztec city they've encountered. Upon returning to China, they point to the Aztecs as a culture ripe for conquest, and China grows rich looting Aztec gold. The Aztecs are a recurring villain throughout these books. Whether it's due to their oppressive monarchy, their ruthless military machine, or their custom of human sacrifice, they serve as the "justified" victims of military campaigns in many novels, from The Years of Rice and Salt to King of the Wood to "The Wheels of If." I identify the Aztecs with the Cannibals which Ted Motohashi explores. Motohashi suggests that the mere existence of "Cannibals" provided a convenient reason for Europeans to invade the New World: to exterminate the evildoers and protect other "innocent" tribes from their ravages. Like these cannibals, the Aztecs prove to be a pretext for imperialist ventures. They are the universal "bad guys," and their historical fate changes little: they are ground down and destroyed.

The Battle of Dorking cover

This focus on military effort is typical of the alternate history genre. Science fiction critic Darko Suvin has pointed to The Battle of Dorking as a crucial early text -- involving a successful German conquest of England. (While not precisely an alternate history, the pseudo-historical style of The Battle of Dorking makes it a close cousin.) Most written alternate history focuses on World War II (usually allowing the Axis a chance to win the war) and on the American Civil War (with Gettysburg being the biggest point of divergence). In French fiction the most popular subject has been Napoleon, and one of the first known pieces of alternate history was an Italian story offering conjectures about Lorenzo de Medici (Chamberlain). Obviously there is a compulsion to reach into the meaningful battles of our past.

Alternate history was also, at the beginning, a form guided by historians, philosophers, and statesmen. Some of the first pieces of alternate history were written by political leaders like Louis Blanqui, Benjamin Disraeli, and even Winston Churchill. Many of these novels had an overtly political purpose. They're the converse of the paranoid fantasy that insists "it could happen here," they say instead: "it could have happened here!" But the exhortation demands the same response: change in order to meet the challenge. The Battle of Dorking was intended specifically to change British military doctrine, through playing on the fears of a German conquest, and it succeeded. Alternate history, particularly of a Nazi victory in World War II, plays with the same fears.

What I've identified as the "it could have happened here!" fearmongering agenda explains one possible motive for strengthening the Native Americans in an alternate history: it makes them more dangerous and more credible opponents, and thus makes the victory over them seem the greater. One story, "In the Circle of Nowhere," does indeed feature Native American war canoes enslaving the European mainland. Other stories feature tough Aztecs battling Vikings, or Crazy Horse leading a unified army out of the hills to battle a weak Irish confederation. The threat of a real Indian war looms.

Just as the terrain of America becomes a battleground, so too does the entire world seem up for grabs in alternate history. Alternate history portrays itself as a genre at the limits of possibility. It asks, "what if?", much like science fiction, and indeed author Harry Harrison has said that alternate history "is the very essence of what science fiction is all about" (Hellekson 3). The liberating power is the idea that history is arbitrary and that history's winners could just as easily have been history's losers. In Ray Bradbury's "A Sound of Thunder," the prototype for many historical change works, a man stepping on a butterfly in the Jurassic period causes the results of a (fictional) presidential election to shift in the modern day. The outcome of a hard-fought political battle is shown to be the sign of chance, casting doubt on the inevitability and even the permanence of our historical events. If every footstep can bring about a new leader of the free world, alternate history seemingly has limitless possibilities for change. However, alternate history has some hard-bitten rules that come with the history part of the terrain.

The rules of the game

Just like any other piece of commercial fiction, alternate history must be compelling, or no one will read it. It's not easy to persuade us that history could have gone differently. The impact of an alternate history story comes from its ability to convince us that it is just as rigorous and just as plausible a historical treatment as any other book. To perform this feat, alternate history relies on two things: a plausible simulation of history and an implicit comparison to the history of the real world.

There are two principles to the plausible simulation of history. Would-be writers at the Usenet newsgroup soc.history.what-if are confronted with an imposing set of dos and don'ts in order to attain plausible explanations. One is to create minimal, believable points of divergence. Giving the Zulus atomic bombs (or giving the South AK-47s, as bestselling author Harry Turtledove did in Guns of the South) is inelegant; giving them better tactics at a key battle is allowable. It is also considered advisable to make as few changes as possible. For instance, "The Wheels of If" postulates the Muslims winning the battle of Tours, and King Offa deciding in favor of the Celtic church rather than the Roman Church at the Synod of Whitby. Most books make do with just one change.

The plausible simulation of history also means that all of what follows in the novel needs to seem believable within the framework of history. The word "history" in alternate history holds writers up to a higher degree of precision and probability than usual. Historians don't like to admit that they're creating fictions when they write; they think they're creating the truth. And fiction writers who create "alternate history" need to hold themselves to the same degree of persuasive explanation as historians do.

(I should make mention here of author Howard Waldrop, whose stories are more surrealist explorations than plausible projections of an altered future. "Ike at the Mike" features Dwight D. Eisenhower as a jazz singer jamming with president Elvis Presley, who used to dabble in music when he was young, while "Custer's Last Jump" features fighter ace Crazy Horse shooting down paratrooper Custer at Wounded Knee. But he is the exception that proves the rule -- he's usually classified as "unique" or a "fantasist," and none of his brilliant works were selected for a recent "best of" collection of alternate history.)

But more than that, the idea of an alternate history relies on the history of the real world. Calling it "alternate" presupposes the existence of an originary history, and indeed the genre relies for much of its force on comparisons to the original. Without recognizable historical mechanisms driving the story, it loses its place as an alternate history and becomes historical romance, shedding the eerie plausibility which is the hallmark of the genre. Every alternate history is grounded in the history which its writer believes in, or which the writer believes the audience will believe in.

Bring the Jubilee cover

Karen Hellekson, drawing on the ideas of Hayden White, has identified alternate history as a genre which allows readers and authors to explore theories of history and the idea of history as a literary creation. In keeping with this idea, many alternate history stories feature a naive historian character, someone with experience with our timeline who is able to comment on the changes made in the past. (In Ward Moore's Bring the Jubilee, the main character actually is a historian.) While the primary role of these characters seems to be to gloss the text for the reader, they do bring in an authoritative outsider's stance on the narrative, and ground it in this world's history. Without the presence of a narrative gloss, however, the reader is expected to do the work.

Literary theorist Tzvetan Todorov identifies an "implicit reader" as a necessary component to the fantastic: the reader is left confused as to the ultimate state of affairs, whether supernatural or natural, and that is what creates the genre of the fantastic (31). Alternate history relies on a similar compact between author and reader, and a similar sense of confusion between reality and fiction.

Here, the implicit reader is one who is versed in the history of the world. In an alternate history, as in parody, knowledge of the original form is necessary to properly appreciate the work. The special pleasures of the alternate history come through the perception of difference -- for instance, spotting historical personages in different roles. But to make this happen, the story has to be close enough to the real to be recognizable. Historical characters under alternate identities/alternate occupations (Blake the ranting prophet, Castro the pitcher, Hitler the painter) or different names (Herr Schicklgruber, Mr. Wellesley, Richard Starkey) must somehow express their "characters" through their new identities. Those characters, of course, are historically driven through our knowledge of what they did in the real world. The character is supposed to be fresh and new and surprise the reader. But it also must be old, and fit the implicit reader's foreknowledge.

This foreknowledge not only applies to individuals, but also to nations. Alternate history presupposes an essential history of the race: what has already happened in the real world. This doom hangs upon the race or the individual like a millstone, forever shaping what we see of them, grinding them into their destined channels. Native American strength, for instance, can only be seen through the lens of Native American weakness.

In most of the alternate history scenarios where the Native Americans remain strong, civilization itself fails to develop at the same rate it did in the real world. Since Native Americans didn't discover major scientific principles in our world, they rarely do so in alternate history. Since they didn't develop an extensive written poetry, a unified nation, or a standing army in our world, they don't do so in the alternate histories either. Their poorly-imagined societies mostly just exist as placeholders, keeping terrain on a map of the New World, or providing a convenient foe. Indeed, in "The Wheels of If," a character from our timeline explains his frequent cultural gaffes in an alternate earth by suggesting that he's spent the last several years among the Dakotians (Sioux), and no one questions him on his imposture, since everyone understands that the Dakotians are uncouth and outside the pale of civilization. The increased presence of the Native American in the alternate history is a sign that civilization has failed to develop as it should.

Civilization III cover

The computer game Civilization III, by Firaxis, recapitulates this story of unequal societal potential. Arguably, Civ III is a game of alternate history: it resets all civilizations to the dawn of time, and starts them off on an even keel, with the world in front of them, open to exploitation. However, in Civ III, the Aztecs, Iroquois, and Zulu have strategies that make them lose, almost every time. The game is seemingly fair, but even when the natives are given a fair shake, even when history alters itself, they are unable to match Western prowess. It is really the Germans, English, and Russians who are the most dangerous in this game, just as has proven to be true in "real life."

The Years of Rice and Salt

The Years of Rice and Salt is more unsettling because the Native Americans are no better or no worse than we are: they are us. The Hodenosaunee (Iroquois) are relatively untouched during the great World War that ruins Islam and China and India. They recover quickly, and are able to send great fleets around the world, forcing others to obey their will. While they are the proselytizers of democracy, they are also arrogant and pushy. They are America.

Robinson invokes the Native Americans as the ghost, the stand-ins for the vanished Europeans. Cultural advances come from the Iroquois and from another ghost culture, Nsara, the feminist Islamists who take over northwest France. Here, Robinson parallels real-world history as Americans understand it: we have it in our minds that most cultural and intellectual developments came from Europe and America, while Islamic and Chinese scholars were only responsible for a few inventions. This plays out in the text: the absence of Europeans means that new nations have to be invested with the power to carry out their reforms, in this case the Iroquois and Nsara. Islamic and Chinese scholars create many technological advances, but culture comes from Europe, or in this case, Europe's inheritors.

Patterns of Culture cover

Robinson is clearly viewing his alternate past through the lens of the real present. Of course, Robinson is constrained here by his own Marxist beliefs. As befits a work by a student of Fredric Jameson, Robinson's novel features an inevitable class conflict and war between people's groups and oppressive capitalist hegemons and military generals, and postulates a worldview in the New World that is "pre-scarcity" -- theories that hearken back to Raymond Firth's Tikopia, Ruth Benedict's portrayal of hunter-gatherer tribes in Patterns of Culture, and the anarchist theories of Alexander Berkman. This influences the "truth" of his civilization as much as the recent books Non-Zero, Guns, Germs, and Steel, and The Clash of Civilizations. The Clash of Civilizations in particular constrains his narrative, since it posits an essential identity for civilizations which can't be changed and leads inevitably to grand historical events. However, throughout his text he situates it within an alternate historical viewpoint.

The Clash of Civilizations cover

Robinson's text displays historical characteristics in a different manner. It's set over the course of 700 years, and the manner in which the story is produced changes from chapter to chapter as "time" passes. He sets his text into ten different "books," giving each book a graphically different-looking map to start it off, and uses different techniques of ordering each book in chapters. At the beginning, the narrative resembles early Chinese fictions like Wu Chen-En's Journey to the West, breaking into verse on occasion and filled with supernatural intrusions. Gradually becoming more "sophisticated" and "modern," by the end the text no longer allows supernatural events to occur and looks like a contemporary American novel. Time is a visible force in this novel, and it's reflected in the very bones of the piece.

The science of history is also under debate. The first few characters display a naive, supernatural view of history (events are caused by the gods); later, Robinson takes on the theories of the Muslim historian Ibn-Khaldun. By the end of the novel, the characters are discussing the Whig theory of history (here called the Burmese model), and even the appeal of alternate history itself. The increasing sophistication of the societies is mirrored in the sophistication of the text itself and its intellectual arguments. The development of this historical critique parallels the development of the field of history in our world, until by the end the characters are discussing issues important to the world today. Robinson ends his novel with his fictional world having advanced about as far as our real world has. It's no accident that his novel ends in his world's AD 2002.

Kim Stanley Robinson's effort both expands the genre to its logical conclusion and shows its limits. The parallel societies developed by non-European races in his world show that we can only judge an alternate society by its resemblance to us. They exist solely so that we can play intellectual games with them. His characters' own reflections on "what if?" serve to shock the reader into acknowledging their own position within the text as a knowledgeable observer. By signaling that ultimately he's writing about our society and our culture, Robinson moves beyond the conceits of alternate history.

The natives of the New World were conceived and interpreted by the West, at first, through the lens of the past. Early explorers and commentators were guided in their initial picturings of the new world by pre-existing narratives like the stories of Mandeville and the Alexander Romance. In a similar manner, in an alternate history, the behavior and tendencies of all characters (but particularly the Native Americans) is bound to American concepts of how they behave. In a novel written in America, the reader is presumed to know the "historical" story of the Indians, and thus the power of the alternate history comes from the way it riffs on the original. Nevertheless, to remain plausible, to retain the title of history, it must recapitulate and brace conceptions of the past.

While alternate history seemingly involves an escape from time, or an alteration in time, it really never escapes the trap of the present.


Reader Comments

Fred Bush is Senior Articles Editor for Strange Horizons. His previous publications, including a review of The Years of Rice and Salt, can be found in our Archive.

Works cited:

Aldiss, Brian and David Wingrove. Trillion Year Spree. New York: Avon, 1988

Anderson, Poul. The Time Patrol. New York: Tor, 1991.

Bradbury, Ray. "A Sound of Thunder." The Golden Apples of the Sun and Other Stories. New York: Hart-Davis, 1953.

Chamberlain, Gordon B. "Allohistory in Science Fiction." Alternative Histories, ed. Greenberg, Martin and Charles G. Waugh. New York: Garland, 1986.

Chesney, George Tomkyns. "The Battle of Dorking: Reminiscences of a Volunteer." Blackwood's, May, 1871.

Cox, Irving E., Jr. "In the Circle of Nowhere." Universe, July 1954. Reprinted in Alternative Histories, ed. Greenberg, Martin and Charles G. Waugh. New York: Garland, 1986.

de Camp, L. Sprague. "The Wheels of If." Unknown, December 1940. Reprinted in Alternative Histories, ed. Greenberg, Martin and Charles G. Waugh. New York: Garland, 1986.

Fabian, Johannes. Time and the Other. New York: Columbia, 1983.

Hellekson, Karen. The Alternate History: Refiguring Historical Time. Kent: Kent State, 2001.

Moore, (Joseph) Ward. Bring the Jubilee. New York: Ballantine, 1953.

Motohashi, Ted. "The Discourse of Cannibalism in Early Modern Travel Writing." Travel Writing and Empire, ed. Steve Clark. NY: Zed Books, 1999. 83-99.

Page, Jake. Apacheria. New York: Del Rey, 1988.

Roberts, John Madox. The King of the Wood. New York: Doubleday, 1983.

Robinson, Kim Stanley. The Years of Rice and Salt. New York: Bantam, 2002.

Schmunk, Robert B., ed. Uchronia: The Alternate History List. Available online. Accessed May 10, 2002.

Suvin, Darko. "Alternative Histories." Science Fiction Studies 10(2) July, 1983: 148-169.

Todorov, Tzvetan. The Fantastic. Cleveland: Case Western Reserve, 1973.

Turtledove, Harry. Guns of the South. New York: Ballantine, 1993.

Fred Bush was Senior Articles Editor at Strange Horizons.
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