How Robert E. Lee Lost the Civil War, out now, is the latest book to argue this case.) Yet Lee came close to wiping out the North's advantages. A few minutes difference in the race to control Little Round Top and the world might well be a different place. A successful Pennsylvania campaign by Lee might have ruined Lincoln's hopes of re-election.
The really haunting turn in the war, however, involves Lee's Lost Order. Entering Maryland in 1862, Lee issued an order splitting his troops. A Confederate officer wrapped his cigars in a copy of the order, then lost them. In the most improbable event in American history, the order found its way into Union hands, precipitating Antietam.
What if that had not happened? What becomes of the Civil War when one subtracts from it its bloodiest day? Can chaostory accommodate such an equation?
For many, the possible answers are less alluring than is the mystery inherent in the event and its consequences. Carlyle was right: Every event in the world is the offspring of all other events. But there can be no total history. Some dimensions of history remain the province of art.
Ferguson's definitional limits to the counterfactual may serve history well, but they appear to orphan counterfactual fiction. A word should be said in its favor, because as a literature of history's unrealized potentials, it is an expression of the inherently possible.
It is ever more apparent that one of the reasons for the West's immense success is that--unlike its predecessors and alternatives--it has accommodated chance and complexity, building them into its system. Our unending open carnival of expression and markets puts into play a panorama of concepts and things--vulgar, mediocre, sometimes sublime--that yields results that cannot be planned or predicted. Science writer James Burke calls it "the pinball effect"; REASON editor Virginia Postrel terms it "dynamism." History may have surrendered its shape, but in doing so it also surrendered its limits.
That is the subject of counterfactual fiction, only directed at the past: history without bounds. It is deeply popular genre, in that it willingly vulgarizes history's actors, great and evil: Hitler as a demented American immigrant pulp artist in one story; Disraeli as a Victorian gossip columnist in another; the poet Byron as the King of Greece in a third. But this is less a trivialization of historical role and causation, and more a boisterous, unrestrained inquiry into them. Though the process may sometimes shrink a mythic past, the potential of the future expands.
"Footfalls echo in the memory," wrote a wistful T.S. Eliot, "Down the passage we did not take/Toward the door we never opened/Into the rose garden." But history's imaginers--Philip K. Dick, L. Sprague DeCamp, and their successors--have gone roaring down that passage and ripped open the door. Out in that rose garden, they've staged an anything-can-happen party to which everyone's invited. Bring your own History.