Issues in Interdisciplinarity 2018-19/Truth in Uchronia

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Introduction[edit]

Amazon's poster for The Man in the High Castle

Uchronia, or "that which has no historical reality", is also known as "alternate history". It emerged as a literary genre which explores the possible outcomes in history if an important global event had occurred differently. This article aims to elucidate how uchronia acts a vivid and effective medium for understanding truth. We will be exploring how an interdisciplinary approach through uchronia can provide deeper insight into the disciplines of history, literature, and philosophy. Uchronia wields the power to 'reverse' history and can be viewed as the "black mirror" of the contemporary world, revealing deeply entrenched political corruption and a brawl for power. What collective society holds as true and undeniable may be challenged in fiction, which acts as a conduit for reflection into how we approach history as a subject. In this chapter, we will discuss how truth is constructed in alternate history fiction and the philosophical discourse of truth in history, as illustrated through The Man in The High Castle (1962) by Philip K. Dick.

How is truth constructed in uchronia?[edit]

"The truth of art lies in its ability to break the monopoly of established reality (that is, of those who established it) to define what is real."[1]

—Herbert Marcuse

Uchronia as a literary genre[edit]

The concept of truth is inevitably linked to terms such as fact, reality, and authenticity which can be viewed as diametrically opposed to fiction. Uchronia falls within the literary genre of fiction, thus truth in uchronia may be perceived as purely fictional or even nonexistent. However, uchronia is also a literary genre based on historical reality; it must contain some truth since we are able to recognize the authenticity constructed within alternate history and learn from it. In uchronia, authors construct imaginative developments in historical realities which allow us to explore universal matters. Through changing incidental events and exploring the resulting ramifications, we are able to gain an understanding of the essential factors that affect the choices and values which built the world we know today. This reveals how uchronia, as a literary genre, can allow us to perceive certain truths in vivid actuality.

USA in The Man in the High Castle

Divergence point[edit]

Uchronia paves the way for contemporary reflection on historical determinism by providing another result to a contingent event. The moment the author steps away from historical reality is known as the Divergence point. In The Man In the High Castle, this point occurs in 1933 when Roosevelt's assassination takes place, after which V2 rockets were not requisitioned by the United States but instead contributed to Germany's technical superiority, resulting in World War 2 ending with Germany and Japan's victory instead of the Allied forces. Dick implies that in the 1960s, America's victory was not absolute, and neither would it have brought about permanent peace to the country since the United States never actually ceased to be at war whether it lost in the novel or won in reality.[2] Through uchronia, the author calls for readers to reflect on World War 2 history against the backdrop of mainstream historical discourse in post-war America which was prone to manipulation by government powers of the time.

In typical historical novels, events are not modified but rather enriched with fictional content that does not contradict the historical reality. It can be argued that fiction enhances reality and hence makes it more compelling. In uchronia, authors posit the question of "what if" to construct an alternate reality, lending credibility to the story. Uchronia acts as a comparative dimension to historical reality and encourages active reading; through discerning the differences and similarities between the fictional reality laid out for us and our current reality, important features of truth are revealed to us. It is through learning about the driving forces behind historical narratives, such as greed, envy, and the pursuit of national interests that the reader learns to question his own reality through his own subjectivity.[3] While constructing these truths in alternate history, novelists expose the virtues and vices of the present.[3] In this way, history is "renewed" in modern culture, and alternate history becomes the production of popular culture.[4]

What do Uchronias tell us about History?[edit]

Challenging History[edit]

Truth is commonly understood as what objectively exists and has an impact on the "real" world. However, this view can be questioned since many communities have begun to challenge the official and authoritarian character of history.[3] K. Singles states, history is a narrative "with the actual world as a resource of representation"[5]. If this is indeed the case, this would mean there are alternate histories obscured in our collective memory which could prove just as valid as the official narrative of history.

Necessity of history[edit]

History is not simply the assembling of facts and events from the past, but rather, it is our interpretations of these historical truths and knowledge, which allows us in turn to understand the trajectory of our society. Uchronia does not alter historical truths; it is not an account of the author's perspective on what happened, nor is it a different perspective of past events. It is simply a fictional, imaginative account of what could potentially have happened at a divergence point. Uchronia is important as it teaches us about the variability of human nature and the factors which influence how we construct our understanding of present reality.

History as a lesson[edit]

George Santayana claims that “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it".[6] From an optimistic perspective, uchronia can thus act as a warning against potential threats or events that could reoccur. In the case of The Man in the High Castle, we learn that a society created as a result of the Japanese and Nazis winning the war is not desirable. Hence, we learn to ensure this image of the world is not recreated in our reality. Instead, we create alternatives and find solutions through the fictional medium of uchronia to incorporate into our current reality. Conversely, Historical determinism questions if human beings are the authors of history or the unconscious pawns of historical forces? If uchronia serves as a warning against preventing events such as the Holocaust from happening again, then this would merit a degree of individual freedom. Human beings would then be responsible for their own actions as advocated by existentialist philosophy.[7]

Conclusion[edit]

Uchronia offers readers a multitude of perspectives to learn from. It can be viewed as an alternate model which helps us make sense of the world refracted through a prism of varied subjectivities. Each author puts forth an argument about their own worldview through various narrative structures. Despite history being grounded in concrete facts which creates the impression of an unchallengeable view, uchronia encourages us to engage with the relativity of history. Fiction can also be seen as a way of questioning the validity of a worldview. One thing is certain though: if human beings cannot attain truth within the narrative of human experience, at the very least they possess the power of fiction, and its ability to manipulate the past in the pursuit for truth. The symbiotic relationship between literature, history and philosophy, emphasises the importance of uchronia as an interdisciplinary medium in which to discern truth.

References[edit]

  1. Marcuse H. The aesthetic dimension: toward a critique of Marxist aesthetics. Boston: Beacon; 1978.
  2. Gallagher C. War, counterfactual history, and alternate-history novels. Field Day Review. 2007;36(3):52-66. Available from: https://www.jstor.org/stable/30078840?seq=1#metadata_info_tab_contents [Accessed 6th Dec 2018].
  3. a b c Rosenfeld G. Why do we ask "what if?" reflections on the function of alternate history. History and Theory. 2002;41(4):90-103. Available from: https://www.jstor.org/stable/3590670?Search=yes&resultItemClick=true&searchText=Why&searchText=do&searchText=we&searchText=ask&searchText=%22what+if%3F%22&searchText=reflections&searchText=on&searchText=the&searchText=function&searchText=of&searchText=alternate&searchText=history&searchUri=%2Faction%2FdoBasicSearch%3Ffilter%3D%26amp%3BQuery%3DWhy%2Bdo%2Bwe%2Bask%2B%2522what%2Bif%253F%2522%2Breflections%2Bon%2Bthe%2Bfunction%2Bof%2Balternate%2Bhistory&refreqid=search%3Aaf05ebf574a542a3069dfecffd7ac51a&seq=1#metadata_info_tab_contents [Accessed 6th Dec 2018].
  4. Rodwell G. Whose history: engaging history students through historical fiction. South Australia: University of Adelaide Press; 2013. Available from: https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.20851/j.ctt1t304sf [Accessed 6th Dec 2018].
  5. Singles K. Alternate history: play with contingency and necessity . Boston: De Gruyter; 2013. Available from: https://www.degruyter.com/viewbooktoc/product/180152 [Accessed 28th Nov 2018].
  6. Santayana G, Gouinlock J. The life of reason or the phases of human progress: introduction and reason in common sense, volume VII, book one. In: Wokeck M, Coleman M. (eds.) The life of reason or the phases of human progress. MIT Press; 2001. Available from: https://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt5hhk7j[Accessed 8th Dec 2018].
  7. Mittal T. To be is to be: Jean Paul Sartre on existentialism and freedom. Available from: https://yourstory.com/2017/06/jean-paul-sartre-philosophy-existentialism-freedom/ [Accessed 8th Dec 2018].