Heroically taking some of the heat off Ed Sheeran this week, Game Of Thrones co-creators David Benioff and D.B. Weiss yesterday announced their next series for HBO: Confederate, a sprawling, speculative fiction that imagines an alternate timeline where the South won the Civil War and successfully seceded, resulting in a divided America where “slavery remains legal and has evolved into a modern institution.” Like Game Of Thrones, the show promises a vast array of characters on both sides of the “Mason-Dixon Demilitarized Zone,” all working through their myriad conflicts and loyalties—everyone from “freedom fighters” to “the executives of a slave-holding conglomerate.” Unlike Game Of Thrones, all its exciting political intrigue revolves entirely around a fantasy where black people are still slaves, a fantasy that America (specifically white America) loves to indulge in. So much so, in fact, that there’s very little argument for doing it again. And as the backlash since has proven, there’s a whole lot of argument for knocking that shit off forever.
As alternate history subjects go, “What if the South won the Civil War?” is second only to “What if Axis powers had triumphed in World War II?” as a point of divergence, both of them producing scores of works about it, of varying levels of imagination. This makes obvious sense: These are epochal turning points in our history, and changing their outcomes have incredible ripple effects that are morbid fun to play out as a thought experiment. (Perhaps one day we’ll be equally besieged with “What if Donald Trump had lost?” alternate histories, where he never even gets to sit in a truck.) But they’re also the most overused tropes in speculative fiction, inspiring hundreds, if not thousands of stories that all basically say the same thing: The bad guys winning would have been bad, especially for the people they were oppressing/murdering, so it’s a good thing they didn’t. Now let that be a lesson to anyone thinking of doing similarly bad stuff in the future!
But the major differences between those two scenarios—and the reason Confederate has been met with such swift controversy—is that, with the exception of a handful of white nationalist trolls, “What if the Nazis won?” is near-universally a horror story, a hypothetical about the triumph of evil that examines just how close the world came to succumbing to its darkest impulses, and a warning to never allow fascism to prey on those weaknesses again. On the other hand, imagining an America where black people are still slaves is really only an exaggerated deviation from the present—a fact that HBO and Confederate’s showrunners are definitely counting on, clearly hoping that the series will have the same timely ring as The Handmaid’s Tale, The Man In The High Castle, et al. with their depictions of authoritarian rule. With racism becoming even more emboldened, cops killing black people in the streets, the prison industrial system trapping them for life, the stars-and-bars still flying all across the South, and the President Of The United States earning endorsements from David Fucking Duke, Confederate is similarly, clearly intended to be a commentary on our current political climate. Yet unlike the Nazi scenario, even the showrunners seem to be aware that, for an alarming number of Americans, putting black people back in chains reads less like a nightmare than a daydream.
And again, it’s a fantasy authors have indulged in repeatedly, to the point where it’s starting to feel less like a sobering speculation and more like an expression of some sick, secret longing. Granted, these fantasies have slightly differing ideas about how it would all go down: MacKinlay Kantor, who became pretty much the granddaddy of all Civil War alternate histories with his 1961 novel If The South Had Won The Civil War, imagined that the two sides would reunify within a century, finally setting aside their differences to face the greater threat of Soviet Russia, and that the Confederacy would abolish slavery within 20 years of its own accord due to, eventually, feeling kinda bad about it. Most of the alternate histories follow that progression; in Harry Turtledove’s The Guns Of The South, even time-traveling white supremacists armed with AK-47s are no match for Robert E. Lee’s crisis of conscience. When slavery does persist, as in the 2004 satirical mockumentary C.S.A.: The Confederate States Of America (which Confederate most resembles, at least superficially), it’s presented as a self-destructive cancer eating away at the nation, eroding its very soul.
On and on it goes, with these minor variations, across literal scores of books, short stories, movies, TV episodes, roleplaying games, comics, YouTube videos, etc. Alternate histories of the Civil War have become so rote and boring, we even started adding vampires and zombies into the mix. And through them all, what have we learned? Slavery is an atrocity, we are better off for its defeat, and we must still reckon with the unfathomable damage it caused to the black race—and if we do not remain vigilant against its modern, more compartmentalized forms, we never will be rid of it. It’s bad enough that, as the recent Oscars controversy pointed out, we only tend to recognize black stories as important when they’re about slavery or racism. (Or in the case of the recently canceled Underground, mostly just ignore them.) Do we really have to force them to act out these play-fantasies too, just so we can pat ourselves on the back for taking away those same old lessons? No wonder people are pissed.
Benioff and Weiss have proven themselves master world-builders, adept at spinning ripping yarns from even well-worn medieval tropes (aided, of course, by one of the greatest yarn-spinners in the business). And here they’ve recruited two black writers, Nichelle Tramble Spellman and Malcolm Spellman, who will hopefully help them create the kind of compelling, fully realized black characters that Thrones has drawn criticism for lacking. Given who’s involved, Confederate will likely be well-written, visually stunning, and filled with the kind of prestige, thoroughly adult drama HBO all but invented. But it’s still a shame all that combined effort will go toward exploring such a warmed-over trope, one that says far more about the creators who keep returning to it as an “exciting” idea than it ever will about race. Maybe there’s an alternate history where Benioff and Weiss… don’t.