What person these past few years hasn’t stopped to consider the possibility that we are mired in an alternate reality? Authoritarianism is on the rise across the globe. The gap between haves and have-nots continues to widen. Climate change brings more and more powerful calamities every season. And now, the coronavirus has turned our fragile world into the opening sequence of a disaster film. It is hard to tell what awaits us in the coming months, from the delay of elections to social upheaval unseen in decades. We don’t know. And for many, that’s the most troubling thing of all.
Given all that, it’s not hard to understand the popularity of a wave of new TV alternate histories and speculative fiction, from Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale (based on Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel) and Amazon’s The Man in the High Castle (based on Philip K. Dick’s 1962 novel) to HBO’s Watchmen (based on the comic book series by Alan Moore, Dave Gibbons, and John Higgins). The latest contribution to this mode is HBO’s new adaptation of Philip Roth’s iconic alternate history The Plot Against America (2004), which premiered last week.
What person these past few years hasn’t stopped to consider the possibility that we are mired in an alternate reality?
Early in the novel, aviation hero and prominent anti-Semite Charles Lindbergh lays out his case for the 1940 presidency against incumbent Franklin Roosevelt. “To prevent a war in Europe is now too late,” Lindbergh says in the book. “But it is not too late to prevent America from taking part in that war. . . . the choice is simple. Vote for Lindbergh or vote for war.” Us versus Them; fascists against antifascists; America First or L’Internationale—what’s old is new again. With the series debut and millions of people around the globe now glued to their screens in quarantine, Roth’s dystopian tale will now find a whole new audience.
It is a timely story, wrestling with questions of citizenship and the balance between republic and empire. It is also a timeless story, because of the warped reality it plunges readers and viewers into. In forcing us to imagine a different America, it forces us to confront different possibilities of everyday life, as well—possibilities that, alas, may now include our own near futures.
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Roth’s novel belongs to a very old literary tradition, and a proud one. As his own country transitioned from republic to empire, the Roman historian Titus Livius (59 BCE–17 CE), contemplated what might have happened had Alexander the Great survived typhoid fever some three centuries earlier, just to go on to attack Rome. In American literature, for its part, the hard consequences of lives almost lived, of what if, summon lines never crossed, and reckonings never experienced. Wars and famine and plague are to happen elsewhere. Laced deep in the mythology of the United States is that things always turn out fine, in the end (for “us,” at least)—but, of course, that’s a tale in and of itself. And it’s one we’ve been telling each another for generations. (As Joan Didion said, “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.”)
The narrator of The Plot Against America is a young, fictionalized version of Roth himself, growing up in Newark, New Jersey. It’s ground-up worldbuilding: as the narrative unfurls, we see the alternate course of history as Philip the boy does. Lindbergh defeats Roosevelt, and anti-Semitism flourishes. Some elements of the story are not so unfamiliar after all. The family’s idealist, cousin Alvin, is so infuriated by what’s happening he enlists in the Canadian Army to fight Nazis in Europe. He returns home months later, having lost a leg in combat and deeply embittered. Philip’s older brother, Sandy, is one of many Jewish teens selected to be sent to exchange families in America’s heartland. He comes back to Newark “Americanized,” and accuses his own parents of being subversives and “ghetto Jews.”
“The historian is always conscious of destiny,” his narrator muses near the end of the novel. “The participants rarely—or mistakenly.”
We’re only one episode in to HBO’s rendition, but so far it’s a decently faithful retelling, albeit utilizing more points of view than the novel. Show creator David Simon has hinted that he’s strayed from Roth’s ending, however, which jolts back to “normal” when President Lindbergh disappears during a solitary flight and Roosevelt returns to power to save the nation and the world. As the book was published in 2004, in the wake of 9/11 and before George W. Bush’s reelection, one can understand Roth’s authorial instinct, to forewarn in a muted, non-hysterical way. Sixteen years and many crises later, though, darker ends seem more appropriate.
The country in The Plot Against America is a republic turned against itself, one united only in name. It’s more decisively fractured in Ward Moore’s delightfully weird Bring the Jubilee, set some seven decades after the South swung the pivotal Battle of Gettysburg in its favor. In Moore’s imagined history, the United States has become a rump state, a provincial backwater compared to the sprawling Confederate Empire, which has gone on to conquer Mexico and much of South America. The book is preoccupied with themes of action and inaction and personal culpability, throwing in a dash of time travel and the generational effects of Gettysburg for good measure. (Dwight Eisenhower becomes a minor military academic.) What if one or two people can change the big course of history, Moore asks, in a small, messy moment of self-interest? “The historian is always conscious of destiny,” his narrator muses near the end of the novel. “The participants rarely—or mistakenly.”
Bring the Jubilee served as a major inspiration for Dick’s The Man in the High Castle. Given Americans’ evergreen interest in World War Two and the significance of the Allied victory for us and for the globe (both in truth and the sanitized versions), it’s small wonder that Dick’s book has captivated scores of readers since it first published in 1962. “A psychotic world we live in,” Dick writes, giving readers a sense of authority and kinship with the characters trapped in a vast Nazi empire.
The madmen are in power. . . . But what . . . does it mean, insane? . . . It is something they do, something they are. It is their unconsciousness. Their lack of knowledge about others. Their not being aware of what they do to others, the destruction they have caused and are causing. No, he thought. That isn’t it. . . . Do they ignore parts of reality? Yes. But it is more. It is their plans. Yes, their plans.
These lines carry a renewed force today, as much of the world grapples with what we “do to others.”
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Alternate history—and its broader genre, speculative fiction—crystallizes, even while distorting, a paradox Margaret Atwood may have had in mind when writing these lines in The Handmaid’s Tale: “When we think of the past it’s the beautiful things we pick out. We want to believe it was all like that.” Set in a world where Christian fanatics topple the U.S. republic and form their own theocracy in its stead, The Handmaid’s Tale sees an alternate history through to an alternate near future, which allows the dystopian story both to suppose and to forewarn.
More recent literary alternate histories have tried to both honor and subvert their predecessors. Sophia McDougall’s Romanitas (2005) conjures a modern world in which Rome never fell (a possibility that would no doubt appeal to Titus Livius), while Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policemen’s Union (2007) combines a detective noir tale with a backstory where a nascent Israel collapsed and Jews settled in remote Alaska instead. Ian McEwan’s Machines Like Me (2019) melds a Britain that lost the Falklands War with breakthrough artificial intelligence technology. And my own offering to the tradition, Empire City, out next month, imagines an America that emerged triumphant from the Vietnam war, thanks to a foreign legion promising citizenship in exchange for service.
In forcing us to imagine a different America, it forces us to confront different possibilities of everyday life.
These books, these worlds, aren’t filled with dragons or aliens or temperamental deities. Even alternate histories that are suffused with the supernatural are driven by humans and human decisions, and for good reason: that connection can often be the most disturbing sort of escape, because it heightens the plausibility. The effect is all the more potent at a time when so many feel they are mired in something that wasn’t supposed to be. One conclusion of that thought exercise: is some other version of ourselves creating us to make their own existence more palatable?
A dispiriting thought. But then again, perhaps not? Maybe it’s nice to imagine some version of ourselves living on a less broken earth, one that’s confronting more normal problems and issues. What’s old is new again. Even in pretend.