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Saturday, January 07, 2006

Alternate History

I'm trying to read Gettysburg: A Novel of the Civil War by Newt Gingrich and William Forstchen. I'm about 100 pages into it, and I'm realizing that I don't know enough to truly appreciate it as an alternate history.

Unlike Daniel, who's been a Civil War buff for most of his life, and was fairly close to being a history major in college, I have not ever had much interest in history. Most of my knowledge of the Civil War comes from The Killer Angels, and having Dan give me the tour of Gettysburg, explaining what happened where. So, while I have a general idea of the main events of the battle, I don't have nearly close to the ready familiarity with the events of those days required for me to understand how this novel changes things. I'm getting a vague idea that the first day of battle isn't going quite the way it did in real life, but I wouldn't be able to tell you in any detail what's different.

What all this means is that, while I will still undoubtedly enjoy the book, I will not be able to judge how well it works as an alternate history. I don't have enough appreciation of how things truly happened to decide whether the alternate presented to me is plausible or not. Fortunately, the authors make it clear that this is a work of fiction and not how things really happened. If it were presented to me as authentic history, I know I wouldn't be able to identify which parts were real and which ones weren't, or which parts were emphasised to reflect the biases of the authors. What I don't know is whether the typical American high school student who, theoretically at least, knows more about the Civil War than I do, would be able to identify fact from fiction in this book.

If we don't have access to all the facts about a situation, how do we tell fact from fiction? Would we even know that there is an alternate story out there? What would you have done had you been one of those listeners to Orson Welles' broadcast that night? What if you only had access to one news source, or didn't have the time to read more than one and compare their versions of what happened in any given event? What if we didn't have bloggers to give us the man-on-the-scene point of view? Is it possible for people to create 'alternate realities' of how things happen, based simply on the fact that they control the media people get their news through?

I get most of my news through blogs, rather than official news sites, and this is one major reason why. If the blogger is making things up, I won't be able to find confirmatory reports, and I will most likely find several refutations of his points. However, newspapers, or news web sites, and especially news on TV, make a point of being "objective, unbiased, professional, etc." and I have to trust to their reputation for being honest with me. There's no transparent fact checking like there is with blogs. I suppose a blogger determined to fool the world could set up a number of blogs whose sole purpose was to provide false information to the world, but the effort required would be huge.

I don't think this is because of the nature of blogs as a medium as much as it's a function of the fact that blogs are new, untamed and uninstitutionalized. Newspapers once were revolutionary and incendiary too, but as they got big and respectable, they got populated by people to whom power was more important than truth. Blogs could get the same way, given time, I'm sure, and then the people making the news will have to find some new means of getting the true information out to the public. But that will take a while, and in the meantime, blogs are the best source of unbiased news (or openly biased, which is still better than having an agenda but claiming to be objective) we have available.

The main reason we can identify alternate histories to be "alternate" is that we know what really happened. And that's because the event is in the past. In the present, we have to keep in mind that the story we hear may not be the complete one. We might not be deliberately being deceived (on the other hand, we just might be); the person reporting might just have only a partial picture, and we have to wait for other points of view before we know the whole story. But, to quote the book that gave rise to this post, "the rear of a battle always looks like a battle lost," and even today, we sometimes need to wait for the smoke to clear before we can make any statements about what really happened.


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