Panel 3 – Moments and People of Power
- Francis Gene-Rowe, Birkbeck College (UK), “Blasting Open the Historical Continuum: Antihistoricism in Benjamin, Dick & Le Guin”
- Fred Smoler, Sarah Lawrence College (USA), “Refiguring the Heroic in Two Alternate Histories: Stephen Vincent Benét and Harry Turtledove”
- Jonathan Rayner, University of Sheffield (UK), “‘Forever being Yamato’: Alternative Pacific War Histories in Japanese Film and Anime”
Blasting Open the Historical Continuum: Antihistoricism in Benjamin, Dick & Le Guin
A key premise in alternate history is of distinct historical outcomes, alternatives to the continuum of historical event sequence. Philosopher Walter Benjamin criticised the historicist model of history as one in which specific events are selected as more or less significant chapters of an overall narrative of progress. For Benjamin, such a narrative is necessarily bound up in violence and the interests of power, and as such is both morally and intellectually bankrupt. Present injustice and suffering are connected to our relationship with an unredeemed past, and what is required are responses capable of “brushing history against the grain.”
This paper considers Benjamin’s Theses on the Philosophy of History alongside speculative narratives involved with ideas of alternative historical outcome. Psychotherapist William Haber in Ursula Le Guin’s The Lathe of Heaven exploits his patient George Orr’s “effective dreams” in order to retroactively switch the chain of past events onto a more utopian track, only for his efforts to fail due to the violence and naked ambition underpinning his motives. In Philip Dick’s Counter-Clock World, where time runs backwards, attempts to derail the continuum of history are suppressed by the People’s Topical Library, an organisation committed to the destructive logic of historicism in reverse.
For Benjamin as well as these authors, the solution to a progress-centred mentality is a metaphysical one. Benjamin’s theological response to the problematics of historicism was the redemptive “angel of history”, whilst Le Guin in Lathe proposes a Taoist acceptance of the balance implicit in irregularity. Dick’s later books (most notably VALIS) introduce the idea of transhistory, a modelling which cancels the historical continuum and alters the category of time itself. By bringing these writers’ attempts to ‘brush history against the grain’ into relation with each other, the paper elucidates the confluence of metaphysical and political concerns in the field of alternate history.
Francis Gene-Rowe is a postgraduate student reading at Birkbeck College, researching William Burroughs, Phillip Dick, and William Blake. He has presented Speculative Landscapes: H.P. Lovecraft’s Weird System (“The Weird: Fugitive Fictions/Hybrid Genres”, Institute of English Studies), Escape from Time: Immortality and Reality in William Burroughs & Philip Dick (“Memories of the Future”, Chelsea School of Art & Institute of Modern Languages Research), and Countering “dead, causal reality”: The fusion of material and metaphysical oppression in Philip Dick’s late work (CRSF 2014, University of Liverpool). He directs ORRA magazine.
Refiguring the Heroic in Two Alternate Histories: Stephen Vincent Benét and Harry Turtledove
Modern writers of alternate history are not necessarily interested in the presence or absence of putative Great Men, apparently reacting to and against the notion of the heroic individual as key historical agent, a once-canonical view associated with figures like Carlyle and vigorously disputed by polemicists like Plekhanov. It was not always so: two short stories, one from the beginnings of the genre and the other written close to the beginning of its present and steady proliferation, offer what I hope to show are mirror-image allohistorical renderings of Great Men. I shall consider the figuring and refiguring of heroic individualism in two alternate history short stories, Stephen Vincent Benét’s “The Curfew Tolls” (1935) and Harry Turtledove’s “Counting Potsherds” (1989). After demonstrating how both stories achieve their considerable effects, I conclude that “The Curfew Tolls” is in alllohistorical terms a conservative (i.e. a classical Marxian) envisioning, although a remarkably plangent response to traditional conceptions of the role of the hero in history, while “Counting Potsherds”, one of Turtledove’s best stories, is conservative in other ways—it retains the traditional 19th C. conception of the role of Great Men--but breaks from the Whiggish historical imagination by inventing a plausible dystopian world in which a Great Man in potentia has failed to triumph. Both stories imagine disasters, but Benet’s disaster is limited to the one individual affected by the point of divergence, while Turtledove’s annihilates the possibility of a liberal modernity, indeed of any further historical evolution of any kind. The removal of a Great Man from what had to that point been our history is a traditional trope in older alternate histories, and through reading these stories against each other I hope to explain some of the older alternate history's eerie power to disorient readers before it arrived as a persisting sub-genre of science fiction.
Fred Smoler teaches literature and history at Sarah Lawrence College, where he is Adda Bozeman Professor of International Relations. He published “Against The Current” on alternate histories of the Second World, in First of the Year: 2009 (Transactions Publishers, 2010), and wrote an intermittent and now-vanished column on alternate history for the defunct American Heritage Magazine’s website.
‘Forever being Yamato’: Alternative Pacific War Histories in Japanese Film and Anime
Since 2000, a series of major Japanese feature films have addressed and re-dressed stories, aspects and interpretations of the Pacific War. Films such as Men of the Yamato (2005), Sea Without Exit (2006), Assault on the Pacific: Kamikaze (2007) and Admiral Yamamoto (2011) evince an uneasy balance between lamentation for the destruction of the war, evasion of Japanese responsibility for the conflict, and celebration of self-sacrifice in the past in the creation of Japan’s future peace and prosperity. The vexed status of Japan’s war history, in both political debate and high school teaching, renders the past a contestable and re-interpretable space. Where putatively historical film dramas proffer problematic depictions of the past, Japanese science fiction films and animated series engage in active re-writings of history to posit alternative visions of the Pacific War’s motivations, operations and outcomes. Space Battleship Yamato (2010), a live-action film version of a well-known animated series, revives a symbolic warship of the Second World War for sacrificial duty in the far future. In Lorelei: Witch of the Pacific Ocean (2005), the final weeks of the Second World War, including the atomic bombing of Japan, are re-imagined within a complex narrative of an ultra-nationalist conspiracy obsessed with safeguarding the country’s future existence. The animated series Zipang (2004-5), based on a long-running manga serial, provides an even more fundamental transformation of national history, as it depicts the adventures of a modern-day Japanese warship transported back in time to 1942, to a crucial juncture in the Pacific campaign. In contrast to the equivocation of mainstream cinema, these science fiction texts contain controversial and unpalatable readings and revisions of the country’s past, combining what-ifs and wish fulfilments in fantastic and speculative narratives.
Jonathan Rayner is Reader in Film Studies in the School of English, University of Sheffield. His research interests include Australian cinema, naval history on film, and cinema and landscape. His publications include The Films of Peter Weir (1998), Contemporary Australian Cinema (2000), The Naval War Film (2007), and The Cinema of Michael Mann (2013).