No Bad Ideas

Last week Variety reported that HBO is developing a replacement for Game of Thrones: a counterfactual drama wherein the Confederacy successfully seceded. Suddenly everybody has strong opinions about alternate history!

“Confederate” chronicles the events leading to the Third American Civil War. The series takes place in an alternate timeline, where the southern states have successfully seceded from the Union, giving rise to a nation in which slavery remains legal and has evolved into a modern institution. The story follows a broad swath of characters on both sides of the Mason-Dixon Demilitarized Zone – freedom fighters, slave hunters, politicians, abolitionists, journalists, the executives of a slave-holding conglomerate and the families of people in their thrall.

My Twitter TL was awash in negative reactions, many of them authored by GoT fans. The sexy-time adventures of Dumblesticks the diddling dwarf? A-OK! But grays exiting the USA? NO WAY!

Wait a minute, you say. Isn’t there a popular what-if miniseries on Amazon Prime that posits an Axis victory over the US, based on an award-winning novel by Philip K. Dick that even has its own amazing album produced by Danger Mouse? Maybe HBO is trying to make a couple of Reichsmarks on the same sort of idea?

Nope! But don’t take my word for it — here’s TeenVogue, of all outlets, to piss on your Land O’Smiles:

To some, the existence of The Man in the High Castle effectively voids any initial criticisms people have regarding Confederate because they believe both shows are essentially the same. But to adopt that stance is to be woefully uneducated about the reality of how both events have been handled historically, in their nations and throughout the globe.

You see, the Germans are totally sorry for the Holocaust whereas Americans are like totally not sorry for slavery! That’s why a show such as Confederate is nicht gut! What are you, woefully uneducated? God!

To be fair, the reason why Man in the High Castle is well received and the mere suggestion of Confederate isn’t may be because the latter hits a little too close to home. After all, I’m unaware of any Nazis-win-the-war shows coming out of Germany. On the other hand, the fact that High Castle‘s point of divergence occurred more recently — there are still people alive who experienced the 1930s and 40s — suggests that familiarity isn’t the whole explanation either.

Now if you’ve just slid from the timeline where this blog is a one long string of poop emojis and you’ve never read my writing before, let me be glacially clear: the Civil War was initiated by bellicose and arrogant slave-owners for horrible, selfish, and stupid reasons. Outmanned and outindustrialized from the get-go, the Confederacy never had a chance of winning, and the fact the war lasted as long as it did is due less to any effort by the rebels than to confusion and Federal mismanagement early in the conflict.

That said, it’s certainly symptomatic of social-media’s outrage culture that the simple idea of a fictionalized southern secession drove folks to stuff the Internet’s complaint box.

Many of those instant-coffee Turtledoves seem unaware of the deep library of Civil War-based alt-hist literature already out there. How Few Remain alone spawned ten sequels. There’s Robert Conroy’s 1862. I can recommend Terry Bisson’s odd little novel, Fire on the Mountain. The most well-known is undoubtedly The Guns of the South. And most recently there’s Ben Winters’s 2016 novel Underground Airlines, nominated for several prizes. So many trees have been killed on the subject you need an entire page on Wikipedia to keep them straight, and I have to wonder if HBO, like Amazon, would be better off adapting and expanding an existing book rather than generating an IP whole cloth.

Among alt-hist writers, in fact, the what-if-the-South-seceded trope is so common it’s cliche. The first two alt-hist stories I ever wrote involved the Civil War. “Galveston” has Johnny Reb trying to enlist an independent Texas to the Lost Cause, while “Glorieta Pass” posits an underground abolitionist resistance in the post-secession territories. If those concepts sound familiar it’s because they are — I look back on those stories now and cringe at their banality. That recognition pushed me to write better stories.

But here’s the thing, a lesson that any true creative can tell you: It’s not the idea, it’s the execution. A monster terrorizing a group of people is the plot of countless schlocky horror movies but only one of those films is Jaws. For every million landscapes painted there’s The Starry Night. Every book or movie or artistic endeavor is, at it’s core, conceptually the same as something else, some other work.

Confederate hardly has a monopoly on iffiness. Hey! Wanna hear my pitch for a show about a bunch of inmates in a WW2 POW camp? It’s like The Great Escape only it’s a sitcom where the Nazis are a bunch of buffoons and the one guy goes, “I know nothing!” a lot! It’s funny because he’s fat and has a mustache! Ha ha!

And yet if you turn on TV Land or dig deep enough into your television’s channel guide, you can watch the execution of that concept right now, still in syndication years later.

The point is, it’s not so much the elevator pitch that matters, it’s how an individual work is rendered that distinguishes it. It wasn’t the ideas for my stories that stunk. It was my execution of them.

Personally I’m a hundred times more excited to watch Jordan Peele’s production of Lovecraft Country (which I reviewed here, BTW) than I am Confederate. Maybe Confederate will be terrible, in which case viewers will be sure to let HBO know. Maybe, like High Castle, it will be brilliant.

But it’s a little rich for dorks who nerd out over E.L. James-scribed Dungeon & Dragons fanfic to shut down an idea before it even steps across the drawbridge. It’s even more ignorant for some of those same people to be writers and artists. They ought to know better.

Does Alternate History Have Value?

Civil War historian Keith Harris posted a review (I know — over a year old, but he just tweeted it Monday) of Harry Turtledove’s The Guns of the South. He liked the book. But alternate history itself? Not so much:

Acording [sic] to historian Mark Grimsley, there are roughly two kinds of counteractual history. First – for the basest of simpletons I suppose – we have the “beer and peanuts” counterfactual. These “what ifs,” such as “what if Stonewall Jackson had lived to fight at Gettysburg” generally make their appearance at various “buff” gatherings. Second, we have “counterfactual theory.” This theory, the brainchild (I believe) of Grimsley himself, couches counterfactuals in the high-toned language of academics. The objective: to derive an element of truth from what did happen by laboriously theorizing about what…ummmm….didn’t.

Frankly, I find both varieties equally absurd. I have always suggested to my students that counterfactual history has limited utility (apart from a few laughs) and analysis of the infinite “what ifs” of history bears little or no fruit. Why, I ask, should we dwell on what might have happened (something that we could never, ever, ever really know – ever…no matter what) when we still have trouble determining what actually did? Ughh.

His reaction is noteworthy as it’s the first time I’ve read a PhD’s opinion on the genre (well, not exactly — Turtledove himself has a PhD in Byzantine history). Overlook for a moment Keith’s conflation of alternate-history fiction such as The Guns of the South with counterfactual history — those scholarly presentations of what-if scenarios that have all the appeal and impact of a green Lunesta moth. And let’s set aside the obvious primary goal of fiction — to entertain — for a utilitarian argument.

Quoth William Faulkner, “The best fiction is far more true than any journalism.” Or history. Now, I’m more fully in the truth is stranger than fiction camp but Faulkner precisely diagnoses how alt history can underscore and engage fact in a way that should interest historians, academic or otherwise. Today there are people who insist, contrary to every scrap of paper written by anybody from the period or even the Confederate Constitution itself, slavery would have peacefully extinguished in an independent CSA. (The motivational poster at right, with its LOL and justice is served punchline, is actually a sincere expression swiped from an apologist’s blog). In my story “Glorieta Pass,” I not only call bullshit on the idea but further speculate that a peacetime Confederacy would have known little internal peace. If I can’t convince apologists of their stupidity outright, then I can mock them while entertaining everyone else. Through fiction.

But alt history further implies a question very relevant to historians, which is: Is history deterministic? Could it have unfolded any other way or is it — like perhaps the fabric of the universe itself — the summation of the only possible series of events? Why didn’t events happen differently? Think about it the next time someone at a dinner party suggests that without Hitler, another dictator would have still come to power in 1930s Germany.

(PS: You might not guess it from this post, but I actually like Keith — he’s a runner! — and I recommend his blog, Cosmic America.)

The War of Southern Aggression

The following passage was written by a Confederate soldier who, on 6 April 1862, was captured at the Battle of Shiloh and eventually incarcerated at Camp Douglas. He describes the events immediately following his seizure by Union soldiers:

On the way, my guards and I had a discussion about our respective causes, and, though I could not admit it, there was much reason in what they said, and I marvelled that they could put their case so well. For, until now, I was under the impression that they were robbers who only sought to desolate the South, and steal the slaves; but, according to them, had we not been so impatient and flown to arms, the influence of Abe Lincoln and his fellow-abolitionists would not have affected the Southerns pecuniarily; for it might have been possible for Congress to compensate slave-owners, that is, by buying up all slaves, and afterwards setting them free. But when the Southerners, who were not averse to selling their slaves in the open market, refused to consider anything relating to them, and began to seize upon government property, forts, arsenals, and war-ships, and to set about establishing a separate system in the country, then the North resolved that this should not be, and that was the true reason for the war.

From The Autobiography of Sir Henry Morton Stanley. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1909.

Jonesing for Something

At the risk of turning this into a one-note blog, I refer you to this book review in the WSJ about another alleged secession effort:

Such is the legend of what became known as the “Free State of Jones,” a county deep in Mississippi’s piney woods. The area was one of many pockets in the state where dissatisfaction with the Confederacy boiled for much of the war, but only Jones County was elevated by folklore, ­especially in the decades after the war, into a scene of noble rebellion.

Reviewer Michael Ballard, a Civil War historian, gives The State of Jones a mixed opinion, asserting Jones County wasn’t so much an independent state with an organized government as it was a rag-tag concentration of Confederate deserters.

But it begs the question: Why are American autonomy movements in the news so much? Apparently in a world of recession, socialized industry, central planning, and overreaching presidencies, secessionism is hot.