Open Thread: The Intentions of Alternate History

Posted by 1st July 2011

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.


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