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Last week, in the Guardian Review, Owen Hatherley wrote this review of Altered Pasts: Counterfactuals in History by Richard J Evans. It was an interesting review that attacked much of what Evans had said in his book. But Hatherley seemed to go along with Evans in assuming that counterfactuals (and alternate histories, the two were discussed without discrimination) were inherently conservative.

I had to disagree. I wrote the following letter to the Guardian, but since there seems to be no letter column in this week’s Guardian Review, I include it here (note, I kept this short for a better chance of being published, but I could have written on this subject at far, far greater length).


In repeating the claim by Richard J. Evans that counterfactuals are inherently, and indeed always, conservative, Owen Hatherley (President Gore? Prime Minister Portillo?, 19 April) is simply wrong.

Yes, many are conservative, but not by any means all of them. Of American counterfactuals concerning the Civil War, for instance, Ward Moore’s classic Bring The Jubilee examines the social and economic devastation wrought by a Southern victory, while Terry Bisson’s Fire On The Mountain presents a utopian state brought about by John Brown’s victory at Harper’s Ferry. Neither could possibly be considered conservative.

As for British counterfactuals about Hitler winning the Second World War, Katherine Burdekin’s Swastika Night is a powerful condemnation of the Nazi regime, while both Keith Roberts, in ‘Weinachtsabend’, and Jo Walton, in Farthing, present devastating critiques of British willingness to work with the Nazis.

In fact many of the most important works of counterfactual fiction are deliberately and specifically critiques of conservative positions, and are usually meant satirically as attacks upon current contemporary conservatism.