Since I am a philosopher, it is hardly surprisingly that I also like science fiction. On specific genre within science fiction is that of alternative reality. In this genre, a fictional world is created that is just like the actual world except for some key differences. In the case of alternative history fiction, the key differences arise due to some change in historical events—thus creating an alternative fictional timeline.
The idea that the world could have been different is not only a matter for science fiction, but is also a matter of considerable interest in philosophy and science. Philosophers have long written about possible worlds and scientists got into the game fairly recently. From a philosophical standpoint, writers who create alternative histories are making use of counterfactuals. That is, they are describing a world that is counter to fact. For example, an author might explore what happened if the American Civil war ended, counter to fact, with the country permanently divided. As another example, an author might set her story in a world in which the Axis won the Second World War. A recent example of this sort of counterfactual alternative history is the movie Inglourious Basterds. This is a rather clever piece of science fiction in which Hitler is assassinated by Jewish soldiers. There are, of course, also more extreme versions that slide towards fantasy, such as the tale in which Lincoln hunts vampires.
In addition to liking science fiction, I also like politics. Interestingly enough, recent American politics seems to involve some interesting exercises in alternative reality fiction and counterfactual history.
While political narratives typically distort reality by including straw men, lies and partial truths, some narratives actually present entire counter factual worlds. In some cases the extent to which the reality of the speech differs from the actual world would seem to qualify the speech as science fiction. After all, it is describing a world somewhat like our own that does not exist, except in the imagination of the creator and those that share the creator’s vision.
In an earlier essay I discussed the extent to which facts have been rejected in favor of what could be regarded as counterfactual views of reality and this matter has been addressed by others. One interesting addition to politicians presenting limited counterfactuals is the creation of entire counterfactual narratives, some of which can be regarded as complete alternative histories and descriptions of alternative realities. For example, the Republican narrative of the Obama administration is that it is some sort of secret-Muslim socialist tyranny that is at once ineffective and a relentless destroyer of jobs and liberty. Paul Ryan’s speech is an excellent example of this sort of narrative. The world he describes is somewhat like our own and a version of Obama is president of that America. However, the world of Ryan’s speech differs from the actual world in many important ways, as presented by Sally Kohn over at Fox. The actor Clint Eastwood also nicely illustrated the counterfactual approach of the narrative by blaming Obama (or rather a chair standing in for Obama) for the invasion of Afghanistan—which happened long before he was president. Romney is, interestingly enough, creating his own counterfactual history regarding his past but also being targeted by the Democrats attempts to craft a narrative in which he is an uncaring oligarch who will take the country back to Bush’s policies. Political people also spin positive narratives, typically creating fictional pasts of an ideal world that never was and also of a wonderful world that never shall be. While I could list examples almost without end, to keep up with the latest truths, lies and distortions from politicians and pundits of all stripes, PolitiFact is an excellent source.
In the case of science fiction, the authors are aware they are creating fiction and, in general, the audience gets that the works are fictional. Of course, there can be some notable exceptions when fans lose the ability to properly distinguish counterfactuals and alternative histories from truth and history. William Gibson presents an innovative fictional example of reality failure in which a photographer assigned to take pictures of surviving 1930s futuristic architecture begins to slide into an alternative reality, the Gernsback Continuum, in which the world of 1930s pulp science fiction became real. This story can now serve as an interesting metaphor for what happens in the alternative realities crafted by the creative minds of political speech writers and political pundits. They are, indeed, engaged in works of creativity: changing facts to counterfactuals and presenting fictional narratives of a world that was not, a world that is not and a world that almost certainly will not be. As in the “The Gernsback Continuum”, people can become drawn into these alternative realities and live in them, at least in their minds. This creates the fascinating idea of people living in fictional political worlds that are populated by fictional political characters. Naturally, it might be wondered how this would work.
One obvious explanation is that people who do not know better and who are not inclined to engage in even a modest amount of critical thinking (checking the facts, for example) can easily be deceived by such fiction and accept it as reality. These people will, in turn, attempt to convince others of the reality of these fictions and they will also make decisions, such as who to vote for, on the basis of these fictions. As might be imagined, such fiction based decision making is unlikely to result in wise choices. As I have argued in a previous essay, people tend to not be very rational when it comes to political matters. Even when a factual error is clearly shown to be an error, people who accepted the claim because it matches their ideology will tend to be more inclined to believe the claim because (and not in spite) of the correction. This has the effect of making true believers almost immune to corrections in the case of factual errors. While this is clearly a problem for those who are concerned about facts and truth, this supplies those who spin the counterfactual narratives with the perfect audiences: believers who will reject challenges to the narrative in which they dwell and thus are willful participants in their own political continuum, be that the Republican Continuum, the Democrat Continuum or another one. For these people, art does not imitate life nor does life imitate art. Life, at least the political life, is art—albeit science fiction.