Stranger Than We Can Imagine: An Alternative History of the 20th Century
The twentieth century is the one about which we know the most, due to explosions in innovation, technology, mass literacy, and documentation. We know about the century in its broad strokes: the child of the industrial revolution, the breakdown of Empire, the horrors of war at an unfathomable scale, the rise of economic powerhouses, the spread of capitalism and consumerism, the rise of America, and the appearance of massive foreign interventionist policies. But what else happened? Most histories focus on the worlds of economy, war, and diplomacy, to varying effect. Many aspects of the twentieth century are swept under the rug by historians, not out of a lack of interest, but in a desire to reign in their scope – an unfortunate and necessary result of composition. But twentieth-century histories have to be ambitious; there has never been a more well-documented century in the history of the world. John Higgs’s Stranger Than We Can Imagine moves the focus away from the typical historical centre stage and offers some delightful (and terrifying) insights into a century we think we know.
The main clue is in Higgs’s subtitle: An Alternative History of the Twentieth Century. It is exactly that: I’ve never read a history, or parts of a history, of the twentieth century quite like it. The book is organized thematically and quasi-chronologically in fifteen chapters, tackling physics, art, mathematics, technology, economics, music, gender, psychology, politics, and, most importantly as far as Higgs is concerned, the self and individualism. And what a collection of individuals, too: Einstein, Crowley, von Neumann, Wells, Woolf, von Freytag-Loringhoven, Joyce, Thatcher, von Braun, Russell, Sartre, Greer, Stopes…
Individualism and the dissolution of the perception of the fulcrum is central to every chapter, and Higgs continually echoes the Joycean metaphor of the omphalos, bringing to mind Stephen Dedalus’s walk down the beach in Proteus, the third chapter of Ulysses. Higgs is channeling Dedalus, and the book is his ash-plant cane, transfiguring the wet and unstable sand through its unpredictable vicissitudes. The world’s navel, or, rather, the lack of said navel and the resulting shifting of perceptions and behaviours away from a focal point to places of indeterminacy and the unknown inform the book at every stop. What better way to describe the century that gave us postmodernism by approaching the book in a postmodern way: he focuses the book on a metaphor that describes the movement away from focus.
He’s ambitious. Higgs tackles a lot of subjects in a very small space, and it is far more reminiscent of an extended pamphlet echoing Thomas Paine rather than an encyclopedic narrative more typical to historians like Margaret Macmillan or Ian Kershaw. For a few days I considered the book’s brevity to be its main drawback; I have since revised this view. Stranger doesn’t claim the be the alternative history of the twentieth century but an alternative history of the twentieth century. The distinction is key; the definite article presupposes a centre, a fulcrum, an omphalos; while the indefinite article creates something far more diaphanous. Such brevity about a wide-reaching group of topics is actually quite refreshing; it reminds the reader that this is just the start and the writer is showing them the right doors to open. And it is doors, plural—why would a book like this focus on just one?
Where Stranger has an issue, though, is its relative lack of information on the computer, arguably the most important invention of the twentieth century. It doesn’t really become important to the narrative until well after its invention, and while it is mentioned throughout, it’s only in passing. This singular object offers an extended version of his metaphor; the computer is the individualist’s tool par example and offers a world where the mere conception of a focal point is simply laughable, and that’s even without an Internet connection. The last chapter discusses the computer and code, but it feels like a second fiddle compared to the attention paid upon social media and the rise of networking in a digital space.
Stranger Than We Can Imagine deserves a read and a re-read. It’s full of wonderful bits of minutiae about our last century, as well as differing perspectives on things about which we already know. It’s also important to remember that this is an alternative and not alternate history of the twentieth century. These things happened; this was our century until not too long ago. The book doesn’t devolve into flights of fancy or existentialist musings; it is firmly grounded in reality, but Higgs asks us to look a little to the left, the right, up, down—anywhere but right in the centre.
Stranger Than We Can Imagine is available now from Random House Canada.