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  • R E F E R E E D P A P E R

    Mapping the Ontologically Unreal Counterfactual Spacesin Literature and Cartography

    Barbara Piatti and Lorenz Hurni

    Institute of Cartography, ETH Zurich, 8093 Zurich, Switzerland

    Email: [email protected]

    This paper deals with the realm of alternate worlds. Although the emphasis of such creations relies on historical alteration

    (resulting in an alternate time stream), settings can impressively support the historical alternative: most alternate history

    plots come with shifted or even newly drawn political borders and are set in transformed urban and rural spaces. Not

    surprisingly, actual maps or at least remarkably detailed layouts of the geographical framework play a significant role. In

    other words, counterfactual spaces can be mapped with words or cartographic symbols; they can be both told and

    visualized. By including both concepts from the field of theory of the narrative and from a cartographers point of view,

    focus is laid on various strategies in order to map and/or remap cities, countries, as well as entire geopolitical situations.

    Keywords: alternate history, counterfactual history, novels, maps, history, World War II, Berlin, New York, Melissa

    Gould, Robert Harris, Rupert Thomson


    Simply stated, a counterfactual history also calleduchronia, allohistory or alternate history is the descriptionof a historical what if: a speculative historical exercise.Alternate histories revolve around the basic premise thatsome event in the past did not occur as we know it did, andthus the present has changed. (Hellekson, 2001, p. 2). Themoment at which history shifts to a parallel world is called anexus event. Perhaps the most common themes incounterfactual history are What if the Nazis had wonWorld War II? and What if the Confederacy had won theCivil War?, but alternate Napoleons, Roman Empires andKennedys are also popular subjects.

    Historical counterfactuals are ambitious thought experi-ments, acts of imagination, which include a leap into theontologically unreal (Staley, 2007, p. 115). Yet they are byno means defined as a freely invented imaginary past. Tohave some kind of value, the alternate version should appearas real options within the historical record. The Germanphilosopher Max Weber recommended to attempt onlyminimal or plausible rewrites of history, to pursuecounterfactuals that were embedded in reality. (Herwig,2006, p. 324).

    The majority of counterfactual history is written underthe conditions of deliberate fiction and is commonlyclassified as a sub-genre of science fiction (for scholarlynon-fiction writing, see, for instance, Ferguson, 1997;Brodersen, 2002; Rosenfeld, 2005). Without doubt,Philip K. Dicks novel, The Man in the High Castle

    (1962), is with regard to contents and style one ofthe masterpieces of counterfactual narrative, and paved theway for the whole genre by making it highly popular. Theplot is set in America in 1962. In 1948, the former USAlost the war and is now occupied jointly by Nazi Germanyand Japan (see Figure 1 the suggestive map on the covervisualizes the essence of the story yet to be told). The USAhas been divided between these two powers, bringingslavery back to the South and imprisonment and death tothe Jews. Meanwhile, the Germans have landed astronautson Mars, drained the Mediterranean for farmland, and havealmost entirely liquidated the black African population in anextension of the final solution.

    Although the emphasis of the genre relies on historicalalteration (resulting in an alternate time stream), settingscan impressively support the historical alternative: mostalternate history plots as in the example by Dick comewith shifted or even newly drawn political borders and areset in reorganized, remodelled urban and rural spaces.Thus, a theory of counterfactual narratives is closely relatedto current developments within the nascent research area ofan advanced literary geography (Piatti, 2008; Piatti et al.,2009). Not surprisingly, actual maps or at least remarkablydetailed layouts of the geographical framework play asignificant role in those narratives. In other words, counter-factual spaces can be mapped with words or cartographicsymbols; they can be both told and visualized.

    In this paper, focus is laid on the conception ofcounterfactual spaces in novels and maps, by including

    The Cartographic Journal Vol. 46 No. 4 pp. 333342 Art & Cartography Special Issue, November 2009# The British Cartographic Society 2009

    DOI: 10.1179/000870409X12554350947386

  • concepts from the field of theory of the narrative, and froma cartographers point of view. The examples chosen reflectthe importance of mapping concepts, maps or map-likeproducts within the frame of the counterfactual: the firstdiscussed are two novels The Yiddish Policemens Union(Michael Chabon, 2007) and Fatherland (Robert Harris,1992). As for the plots, both alter historical events duringWord War II and its outcome. This is also the case forMelissa Goulds thought-provoking alternate history mapNEU-YORK (2000) which can be read as a genuinestorytelling cartographic product and is compared to thewritten counterfactuals. The analysis concludes with a lookat Rupert Thomsons map-based dystopia or social sciencefiction Divided Kingdom (2005), a scenario of the future,which also develops a parallel world and hence shares acouple of aspects with counterfactual experiments.


    Michael Chabons novel The Yiddish Policemens Union(2007) is a perfect example of how a writer acts as acartographer (see the catchy title of Turchi, 2004). The plotis set in a contemporary, alternative version of history inwhich Israel was dismantled in 1948 and Alaska has becomea temporary home to Europes displaced Jews. Chabontook a footnote of history as his starting point, namely, areport entitled The Problem of Alaskan Development(1939/1940). This report includes a proposal to moveEuropean refugees, especially persecuted Jews, to remotelocations in Alaska. It is Sitka, one of the four towns actuallymentioned in this document, that Chabon has chosen as hismain setting: Aside from its geography, Sitka, a boomer-ang-shaped island in the southeastern panhandle of Alaska,has very little in common with the imaginary city namedSitka conjured up by Michael Chabon [...] (Cohen, 2007).This setting supplies the story with some literal exoticism:Jews in Alaska, escaped from extermination, have nowintermingled with the native inhabitants, the Tlingits, andthe small settlement of Sitka has quickly grown into ateeming Jewish homeland.

    In his novel, Chabon renamed some of the streets andplaces, while he stuck to other toponyms [it is worthmentioning that Sitka and its environment already featuresome strange sounding place names, since the region was aRussian colony until the year 1867 keeping this in mind,the existing Jewish autonomous territory Birobidzhan(Russia) might also have been a source of inspiration forChabon]. It is this mixture that gives the Sitka in the novelthe specific Jewish/Yiddish flavour. When the maincharacter, Detective Landsman, stands on a rooftop, hispanoramic view of Sitka is described as follows:

    The lamps of the Jews stretch from the slope of MountEdgecumbe in the west, over the seventy-two infilledislands of the Sound, across the Shvartsn-Yam, HalibutPoint, South Sitka, and the Nachtasyl, across Harkavyand the Untershtat, before they are snuffed in the eastby the Baranof range. On Oyssthelung Island, thebeacon at the tip of the Safety Pin sole remnant of theWorlds Fair blinks out its warning to airplanes oryids. (Chabon, 2007, p. 9; underlined, by the authorsof this article, are the toponyms invented andintroduced by Chabon)

    Since Chabons novel can be precisely located geogra-phically, and it belongs to the category of so-calledmappable fiction (see the crucial differentiation betweenmappable and un-mappable fiction in Stockhammer, 2007,pp. 6771). The map-obsessed [as he puts it in an essaywith the promising title Maps and Legends (2008)] authorhimself was tempted to turn his vision into a cartographicproduct. In an interview, he declares: I did make maps ofSitka. I sensed I could get sucked in very easily to doingbeautifully rich, detailed maps of Sitka and environs, so Itried to be strict with myself and just made crude pencilsketches that arent much to look at, to try to figure outwhere everything was (quotation in Upchurch, 2007).

    In fact, the cartographic pleasure is to be experienced inthe text, and only in the text, where a second, alternativetoponymic layer is superimposed on the existing locale. Adetailed map of this creation might even turn into a threatto the carefully elaborated narrative.



    Robert Harriss Fatherland (1992) is commercially themost successful alternate history novel up to the presenttime. The author developed the what if Hitler had wonWorld War II and were still alive story with a profoundhistorical expertise, and gave great attention to detail.

    Both in the accompanying maps and in the evolvingstory, the reader is immediately confronted with a remap-ping of known and familiar spaces on both a micro- andmacro-scale: Berlin as Hitlers Reichshauptstadt and theGreater German Reich have become reality (Figures 2 and3).

    Harris made extensive use of historical material in fact,his settings are the result of maps and plans of spatial visionsdescribed by Hitler himself and his chief architect AlbertSpeer (Fest, 1999). In the authors note at the end of the

    Figure 1. Paperback cover (Popular Library, 1964)

    334 The Cartographic Journal

  • book. this is explicitly stated: The Berlin of this book is theBerlin Albert Speer planned

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