Game of Thrones’ show runner David Benioff and his collaborator D.B. Weiss announced on July 19th
that HBO had commissioned Confederate, elsewhere described as an alternate history drama imagining, among other things, slavery in a Confederacy surviving into our own day. An immediate twitter storm ensued, followed within few hours by the first of three NYT articles about the tweets, two of them enlivened by serial fatuities from notional experts—after all, there are no experts on television programs that have not yet been written, nor on history that didn’t happen. Within a week a phrase first used in an early tweet, “Give me the confidence of white showrunners telling HBO they wanna write slavery fanfic”, migrated into the title of an op ed, “I Don’t Want to Read Slavery Fan fiction”. Within ten days the author of Underground Airlines, a fine 2016 novel published on a similar theme, hastened to concede the reasonableness of such apprehensions while being interviewed on NPR.
But excluding a minute amount of obscure racist fantasy self-published by lunatics, tales of the Confederacy victorious do not celebrate visions of durable modern slavery, and the few relatively cheerful speculations about a Confederate victory—Churchill wrote an intricately ironic one titled “If Lee Had Not Won Battle of Gettysburg” in 1930–invariably assume a pretty swift emancipation. So the implication that Confederate would celebrate the survival of slavery is not only unwarranted—as one of the first news articles reported, “No scripts have been written, and not a single frame has been shot for Confederate”—but deeply improbable. For one thing, HBO is not a neo-Confederate outpost of the alt. right, and for another, the many alternate histories of the American Civil War are almost invariably dystopias.
And there are an awful lot of them. A Confederate victory was the theme of a foundational text in the genre of American alternate history, Bring the Jubilee, Ward Moore’s novella of 1952, expanded into a novel the following year. Moore’s protagonist, a farm boy in a bleak, impoverished, economically exploited and deeply racist North, becomes an historian specializing in Lee’s victory at Gettysburg, a battle as crucial in his history as it is in ours, unwittingly destroys his own timeline, and lives out the rest of his life in ours. In the only remotely comic moment in a pretty grim book he is at least initially horrified by what he has done, a pitch-black joke as morally unambiguous as Huck Finn’s vow to go to hell. Along with fantasies of a German victory in the Second World War, also a dystopian subgenre, a Confederate victory is proverbially one of the most common themes in fictions of alternate history. Harry Turtledove is one of the most prolific and widely-read novelists producing alternate history, and in his eleven novel series on the subject the two dystopias even fuse: a twice victorious Confederacy undertakes the equivalent of the Final Solution directed at black Americans, then initiates and loses a nuclear exchange (a complete Northern victory is followed by a bitter and apparently permanent occupation, one punctuated by Southern terrorism and serial reprisals entailing mass shootings of Southern hostages). A once common third theme—the defeat of the Reformation—was also at the center of some celebrated genre novels (Kingsley Amis’ The Alteration, 1976, in part inspired by Keith Roberts’ Pavane, 1968), and also tends to be dystopian.
Why is dystopian fantasy on these subjects so common in British and American alternate histories, and why did the modern form of the genre began in the wake of the Second World War? Possibly because while for much of the preceding century a sunny Enlightenment optimism about futurity had enjoyed a pretty good run, serial catastrophes during a few decades of the twentieth century dented that confidence. The three nightmares—Hitler victorious, the Confederacy victorious, and the Counter Reformation victorious—centered on events imagined as the most obvious ways of aborting liberal modernity by writers who quite obviously dreaded that possibility. The fictions were not very indirectly celebrating a couple of apparent near misses; in the UK and Great Britain, at any rate, most alternate histories were not reactionary fantasies; they were rather liberal nightmares. nightmares. With the West triumphant in war, and with many exulting in the first flush of the Civil Rights movement, several versions of Whig history again (if briefly) looked pretty sturdy, which probably made the thought of things turning out hideously differently both shocking and mesmerizing. The post-war alternate histories were at first uncommon, and because they were uncommon could be obscenely fascinating. Alternate history is nowadays ubiquitous, thus less shocking, and utopian as well as dystopian. A growing sub-genre consists of generally unironical versions of A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, and imagines time-travellers accelerating rather than aborting liberal modernity. The first dates from 1939, but their startling multiplication suggests people whistling past a graveyard. After all, liberal modernity now looks shakier than it has since 1945.
Why the flaring anger at the news of what will almost certainly be a more traditionally dystopian alternate history? The people furiously opining on the subject seem to know remarkably little about the literary genre, and not necessarily too much about certain crucial properties of literature of any description. Complaints about the race and gender of the show runners are for my money at best unpersuasive, and their implications seem perverse–who would choose to live a world in which a woman who could not vote would never have had the audacity to set a novel around the passage of the First Reform Bill, nor a man refrain from writing one turning on the psychology and fate of an adulteress, nor a Warwickshire glover’s son turn out plays about kings? And if you despise Game of Thrones, why assume that its presumed sensibility, rather than the gifts that produced Benioff’s City of Thieves, a dazzling novel of the siege of Leningrad and a mix of the macabre, the picaresque and the heroic, or Weiss’ witty, touching and remarkably inventive Lucky Wander Boy, a novel centering on video games, will prevail this time around? Why assume that the impressive work by their collaborators, Nichelle and Malcolm Spellman, will count for nothing? Why take seriously people who simultaneously insist that the legacy of slavery remains the core of American experience and that we should almost never imagine a world in which it horrifically survived? And why not consider that ‘a twitter storm’ is only a meteorological metaphor, rather like ‘a tempest in a tea pot’?