Finest Hour 149, Winter 2010-11
Churchill Proceedings - Future Shock? The Contingency of What Lies Ahead / Churchill’s “Fifty Years Hence” (1931)
We must now choose—or somehow avoid—wars and weapons that may destroy the human race. Or we may take a road to the nightmare vision of a world without moral guidelines, with genetically engineered robots whose thoughts as well as physiology and actions are controlled by the State.
By Paul Alkon
Dr. Alkon, a Churchill Centre Academic Adviser, is Leo S. Bing Professor Emeritus of English and American Literature at the University of Southern California. He has published books on Samuel Johnson, Daniel Defoe, science fiction, and Winston Churchill’s Imagination (2006). He won our 2003 Somervell Prize for his Lawrence of Arabia features in Finest Hour 119.
While writing my book, Winston Churchill’s Imagination, what surprised me most was his affinity with science fiction. He mentions works by Jules Verne, George Chesney, Karel Čapek and Olaf Stapledon. He enthusiastically praised the science fiction (though not the politics) of H.G. Wells. Churchill’s 1930 essay, “If Lee Had Not Won the Battle of Gettysburg,”1 is an outstanding early example of alternative history, now a very popular form recognized as a major branch of science fiction.
Alternative history revises the past. In the world postulated by Churchill's essay, Lee does win at Gettysburg and the Confederacy achieves independence, frees its slaves, and coexists alongside the United States.
Churchill's narrator speculates on what might have happened if the Confederates had lost. He suggests that instead of the enduring European peace achieved (however implausibly from our viewpoint) as a consequence of Union defeat in the Civil War, there might have been a world war early in the 20th century.
Triumphant Confederacies became a minor staple of science fiction, although most such works show no good coming from a Southern victory, e.g., Ward Moore's 1955 classic, Bring the Jubilee. It is a virtue of Churchill's story that, going against this strain, "If Lee Had Not Won the Battle of Gettysburg" invites readers to make a more difficult leap from their preconceptions.
It is shocking enough to provoke reconsideration of the moral issues at stake in the American Civil War. More importantly, however, Churchill dramatizes and invites acceptance of the idea that there was nothing inevitable about that war's outcome, or perhaps about most of what we now take for granted as settled history.
One of Churchill's great themes, as conspicuous in "Shall We All Commit Suicide?" as in "Fifty Years Hence," is the contingency of human events. Alternative history is called "counterfactual history" by historians. Some regard it as a thought experiment, indispensable in exploring chains of causation, but others warn against it as fallacious reasoning.
As a writer, Churchill often includes within historical narratives brief counterfactual passages—miniature alternative histories. They are a major feature of his method as an historian. As a reader, Churchill liked stories that portray possible futures rather than imaginary pasts. He judged science fiction by its accuracy as prediction. Accordingly, he preferred Wells to Verne on the grounds that Wells is in tune with 20th century trends, even though he (like Churchill ) got started as a writer late in the Victorian fin de siècle milieu: "Jules Verne delighted the Victorians. He told them about all the things they hoped they would be able to do. He showed them the possibilities of science applied to the 19th century. Wells took up his work in the 20th, carried it much further in a far more complex scene—and Wells saw the bloody accomplished fact, illustrating his pages while their ink was wet."2
Thus, for Churchill, the convergence of reality with fiction, of the actual future with a fictional forecast, was a hallmark of the best science fiction.
But "Shall We All Commit Suicide?" and "Fifty Years Hence" are not science fiction. They are essays in prediction—attempts at what we might now call futurology, without stories or imaginary characters as vehicles for their views of possible futures. What these two essays most significantly share with science fiction is that both stress the contingency of what lies ahead. They show that different possibilities exist, many already available to present-day imagination. They imply that there is no single inevitable future.
We must now choose—or somehow avoid—wars and weapons that may destroy the human race in ways outlined in "Shall We All Commit Suicide?" We may embark on a road to the utopian future sketched in "Fifty Years Hence." Or we may take a road to the nightmare vision of a world without moral guidelines, with genetically engineered robots whose thoughts as well as physiology and actions are controlled by the State. That would be another way of rendering humans extinct even worse than being blown to oblivion by atom bombs.
In a very science fictional image, Churchill suggests that such dehumanization is a fate "from which a fortunate collision with some wandering star, reducing the earth to incandescent gas, might be a merciful deliverance."3
Yet Churchill also makes clear that merely preserving the human race as we now know it is perhaps equally unsatisfactory: "Under sufficient stress—starvation, terror, warlike passion, or even cold intellectual frenzy, the modern man we know so well will do the most terrible deeds, and his modern woman will back him up" (294). Events since this was written in 1931 have done nothing to diminish its accuracy or relevance.
Churchill's dystopia of dehumanizing thought-control in "Fifty Years Hence" partly anticipates George Orwell's 1984. This novel dramatizes, among other things, the replacement of humans by mindless creatures of the State. Orwell's working title was The Last Man in Europe.4
Orwell named his protagonist Winston Smith, in tribute to Churchill. As Smith is being brainwashed in 1984's terrifying prison scenes, his interrogator O'Brien asks, "Do you consider yourself a man?" When Smith says "Yes," O'Brien replies, "If you are a man, Winston, you are the last man. Your kind is extinct; we are the inheritors."5
Churchill's vision of genetic engineering even more closely anticipates Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, published in early 1932, shortly after "Fifty Years Hence" appeared in the December 1931 Strand Magazine. Inspired mainly by Karel Čapek's play Rossum's Universal Robots, Churchill arrived independently as well as slightly ahead of Huxley at the same core idea of people biologically and psychologically conditioned by their government in ways that eliminate human freedom and even what is commonly taken to be human nature.
Churchill treats the idea concisely and somberly. Huxley's longer work is a comic tour de force that points an equally somber moral. Brave New World has achieved enduring fame, thanks to its hilariously effective satire as well as the ever-increasing relevance its warning shares with that in Churchill's "Fifty Years Hence." In science fiction, Churchill is very far from the equal of Orwell and Huxley. Nevertheless Churchill was alert to the social, intellectual, and artistic currents that prompted their masterpieces, and well able to try his hand to good effect at related forms of writing.
What is most original and, I believe, most relevant now in "Fifty Years Hence" is Churchill's insistence that we can no longer take the past as a guide to the future. The accelerated pace of change induced by the rapid progress of science, he explains, has created an unprecedented discontinuity in human history. Therefore, attempts at prediction as a basis for current decisions must adopt the scientific method of extrapolation, and discard the historian's quest for past patterns and cycles of events that may be expected to recur with only slight variations:
There are two processes which we adopt, consciously or unconsciously when we try to prophesy. We can seek a period in the past whose conditions resemble as closely as possible those of our day, and presume that the sequel to that period will, save for minor alterations, be repeated. Secondly, we can survey the general course of development in our immediate past, and endeavour to prolong it into the near future. The first is the method of the historian; the second that of the scientist. Only the second is open to us now, and this only in a partial sphere. (288)
This perceptive insight amounts to a paradox that Churchill wisely made no attempt to resolve. He, after all, was a historian—and a prolific one at that— who believed deeply in the importance of knowing history. He preached what he practiced. "Study history, study history" turns up prominently, and rightly so, on Churchill Centre literature.
Nor was Churchill averse, even in the decade of writing "Fifty Years Hence," to drawing parallels between the past and the present. In his biography of Marlborough Churchill scatters implied and explicit comparisons between the dangers of Louis XIV's aggressive regime and the totalitarian threats looming in the 1930s. But in Marlborough, although not putting the matter in the theoretical terms of his comparison between the methods of historians and scientists, Churchill remarks the paradox that history must be studied, even though "the success of a commander does not arise from following rules or models. It consists in an absolutely new comprehension of the dominant facts of the situation at the time, and all the forces at work...every great operation of war is unique."6
And by implication, surely not just operations of war. There can be no mistaking the import or relevance of Churchill's view of history: know the past but never, never count on it as an exact guide to the present or, especially, the future. Expect the unexpected.
No lesson could be harder.
1. “If Lee Had Not Won the Battle of Gettysburg” appeared in Finest Hour 103 and is available from the editor by email. First published in Scribner’s Magazine, December 1930; reprinted in volume form in If It Had Happened Otherwise, ed. J.C. Squire (London: Longmans Green, 1931), 73; The Collected Essays of Sir Winston Churchill, 4 vols., ed. Michael Wolff (London: Library of Imperial History, 1975), IV: 73; and, heavily abridged, in The Great Republic, ed. Winston S. Churchill (New York, Random House, 1999), 246.
2. Winston S. Churchill, “H.G. Wells,” in The Collected Essays of Sir Winston Churchill, III: 53.
3. Winston S. Churchill, Thoughts and Adventures, ed. James W. Muller with Paul H. Courtenay and Alana L. Barton (Wilmington, Delaware: ISI Books, 2009), 293. Subsequent page references for quotations from this edition of Thoughts and Adventures are given parenthetically in the text.
4. Bernard Crick, George Orwell: A Life (1980; revised edition, Harmondsworth, England: Penguin Books, 1982), 582. For an excellent account of the biographical and historical contexts of 1984, see Jeffrey Meyers, Orwell: Wintry Conscience of a Generation (New York: W. W. Norton, 2000). See also Robert Pilpel, “Churchill and Orwell,” Finest Hour 142, Spring 2009, 33.
5. George Orwell, 1984 (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1949), 273.
6. Winston S. Churchill, Marlborough: His Life and Times, 2 vols. (London: George G. Harrap, 1947), I:105.