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RECURRENT VOICES: Michael Kluckner

RECURRENT VOICES: Michael Kluckner

February 25, 2016

by Michael Kluckner

An essay in a recent New York Review of Books, “The World Turned Upside Down” by Adam Kirsch (January 16, 2016 issue), reflected on The Man in the High Castle, a new television series based on the 1963 novel by Philip K. Dick. The story is counterfactual, set in an America that lost the Second World War and was partitioned along the Rocky Mountains between victorious German and Japanese occupiers. Presumably Canada, unmentioned of course, was similarly partitioned.

Kirsch writes that alternate or counterfactual stories are usually disdained by historians as a “betrayal of the historian’s calling, which is to explore what actually did happen, not to speculate about what didn’t.” Novels in that genre are often seen either as sci-fi or pulp.

However, Kirsch noted that a few academic historians have speculated on alternate histories, and mentions Virtual History: Alternatives and Counterfactuals, edited by Niall Ferguson (London: Papermac, 1997); and What If?: The World’s Foremost Military Historians Imagine What Might Have Been, edited by Robert Cowley (London: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1999). As with the Philip Dick novel and Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America, published in 2004, much of this kind of writing has taken the Second World War as a launch pad; other plotlines have involved the assassinations (or lack thereof) of American presidents such as John F. Kennedy.

It is not an enormous stretch to imagine a Japanese invasion of underdefended British Columbia in 1942 or 1943, and a counter-invasion from the USA; the Alaska Highway, after all, was not built on a whim. What would some other counterfactual British Columbia events look like? How about these three scenarios?

– Smallpox not being introduced into North America by the Spanish in Mexico, or not making its way up Aboriginal trade routes into British Columbia in 1782, and thus the following situation not happening: “This epidemic kills approximately two-thirds of the Stó:lo population in less than two months. Survivors are unable to put away sufficient winter supplies, and malnutrition and starvation devastate Stó:lo communities.” (p. 162, A Stó:lo – Coast Salish Historical Atlas, Keith Thor Carlson ed., D&M 2001) The First Nations population would have been much larger, its culture stronger and perhaps better able to resist the influx of gold-miners, settlers and colonizers.

– The great Confederation debate, which ended in 1870 with the terms of union with Canada, reaching another conclusion. British Columbia would have been absorbed by the USA or, perhaps, continued as an isolated British colony – a west-coast version of Newfoundland. Indeed, what if the “54-40 or Fight” election of 1844 in the USA had not ended with the Oregon Treaty and the establishment of the 49th parallel as the international boundary? Would there have been any need for Vancouver, such a short distance north of Seattle? Or would Vancouver – that is, a city at the mouth of the Fraser River on Burrard Inlet probably known as Jeffersonburg – have become the dominant port on the northwest coast?

– What if Joseph William Trutch had fallen to his death from the Alexandra Bridge in the Fraser Canyon while he was building it, rather than continuing in BC public affairs and, notoriously, reducing the size of Governor James Douglas’s Indian reserves by 91% and making it impossible for Aboriginal people to be full partners in the evolution of BC? There’s a chance a less-racist official would have become the Chief Commissioner of Lands and Works.

There are so many tipping points in our history. George Anthony Walkem might have led BC to secede from Canada in the 1870s. A superhuman effort at bridge-building might have made Victoria the terminus of the transcontinental railway. The federal government might have kept to its intent, as established in 1942 at the beginning of the Pacific War, to be the custodian of Japanese-Canadian property, rather than acting on the suggestion by the Vancouver Town Planning Commission to sell it off to preclude the re-establishment of Japanese communities on the west coast, including Vancouver’s Japantown, after the war. (Research undertaken by Jordan Stanger-Ross at the University of Victoria as part of the Landscapes of Injustice Project, 2011 – 2015)

Adam Kirsch, in his New York Review piece, describes how the detective novel brings justice to the world, satisfying readers’ desires for tidy endings and punished criminals. “But real history is the opposite of a detective novel, in that it exposes the hollowness of such retribution.”

Thus, is there any value, other than entertainment, to counterfactual histories? Perhaps an alternate historical treatment, likely a novel or some hybrid called “speculative non-fiction,” would make readers curious about the real world and better able to analyze the consequences of real historical events?

There is always the suggestion that floats around any discussion of historical fiction, and especially recently of graphic novels, that they dumb-down the historical record. The Wolf Hall series of novels by Hilary Mantel would suggest not. A future blog post here will explore that question, and also ask whether new types of storytelling such as graphic novels give voice to people, especially minorities, who have not been able to make themselves heard in the more traditional forms of scholarship and literature.