POST #16: Counterfactuals In Fiction

Question: What great unknown would you most like to find out?

(My) Answer: The ‘What if?’ [or counterfactual] of everything! 

Counterfactuals are something I think about a lot. Probably too much – but there we go. There are the ‘great unknown’ of Economics; the one aspect it would be incredibly useful to know but is impossible to.

So most Economists (apart from the genie ones!) are resigned to working round the annoyance of only being able to predict the ‘Counterfactual Cost’ of any given event.

However, there is another field which finds it easy to know the counterfactual cost; can peruse it at leisure and choose, or choose not, to deploy it.

And that is fiction. The writers’ ability to know everything and every possible thing there is to know about their own creation is essential to writing a story, and an ability I can only wish we could have in the real world.

Although this ability lies in every writer, only some have grasped the concept and used it as a crucial element in their storyline. Here are a few of my favourites; however counterfactuals are used much more widely than just these, and in contexts of historical and sci-fi works too.

   1. Its A Wonderful Life

Its A Wonderful Life

Basically the best Christmas film of all time. This story follows the life of George Bailey, as he gives up his dreams for the benefit of his small town. When an accident causes him and his uncle’s bank to lose a lot of money, he contemplates suicide. Suddenly Clarence, his guardian angel appears, and decides to show him what life would have been like if George Bailey had never been born – and as he soon notices, every action he ever made had an effect, and without his presence, the world would be an indescribably worse place. This is a heartwarming tale, as it shows us that every little positive action we make has positive consequences, and if we hadn’t been there to make it, these consequences would never have happened.

2. The Road Not Taken

the road not taken

I’ve already let slip how much I admire Robert Frost as a poet. Its definitely genetic – my parents had this poem read at their wedding! So, in the poem Frost uses the metaphor of ‘two roads diverging in a yellow wood’ to describe the decisions we must make in our lives. He can look down them, and see what they may be like to experience (perhaps similar to our ability to predict what will happen if we choose a particular path in life?), but he cannot choose both, and ‘be one traveler’. He, of course, ‘took the one less traveled by’, and ‘that has made all the difference’.

3. Station 11

Station Eleven

I read this haunting book a while ago now, and while I can’t remember exact details, I’d strongly recommend it. It’s a strange book, in some ways. It takes flu, a common illness easily treatable with antibiotics, and asks what would happen if antibiotics didn’t have an effect. Add in the fact that its pretty deadly, and soon 99% of the world’s population has died. But its the author’s descriptions of life thirty to forty years after this horrific, and thankfully, imagined event that really make it a masterpiece. Details of today’s life that we take for granted become scarce, while other things, like Shakespeare’s plays, are kept alive among the vastly diminished human race of the story. This is an imaginative counterfactual of a book, and I’d thoroughly recommend it.

4. Sliding Doors

Sliding Doors

Gwyneth Paltrow stars in this, one of my favourite films ever. Running to catch a tube before it leaves, her life splits – in one version, she catches the tube, returns home unexpectedly to find her lover in bed with another woman and then meets another man, with whom she eventually falls in love with. In version 2, she misses the train and is delayed, returning late enough to remain unaware of her boyfriend’s infidelity. The two paths of her life are shown in tandem, the plot flipping between them; something that we would never be able to see in real life, and making for a pretty awesome storyline.

FURTHER READING:

http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/173536

http://michiganradio.org/post/year-end-reading-station-eleven-novel-set-post-apocalyptic-michigan#stream/0

http://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/sliding-doors-1998

http://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/1010792-its_a_wonderful_life/

And, if you haven’t understood a word of this post, click here to find out the definition of counterfactual!

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