What if?

Ever mislaid something, convinced you’d left it on the kitchen table and then found it on the bed? Or been somewhere completely certain of having made the journey before?

One answer could be that you did and you have, but you’ve shifted a nano-interval into another reality, according to a short story I’ve been reading (Sidewinders by Ken McLeod).  Perhaps you may see the repeating black cat Neo spots in The Matrix  – a sign of the world about to fall in on you. In Sliding Doors with Gwyneth Paltrow and John Hannah,  we watched the timeline split at a crucial moment when the tube train doors shut. Could alternate realities co-exist?

Looking at the past, history may not be as stable as we think. Goodness knows how many books there are about Hitler winning the war. My favourite is Fatherland by Robert Harris. A master of the succinct style and unsurpassed for developing tension, he guides his detective protagonist into an increasingly shocking discovery. If you haven’t – read it!  Naomi Novik and her Temeraire books are set in the Napoleonic war period where the warring forces use dragons as an air force. She writes in the ‘Regency style’, and has women captains as well as men. Delightfully transgressive. And Kate Johnson’s The Untied Kingdom takes place in an England where the Industrial Revolution didn’t happen. The romantic element is strong, but the heroine, already in difficulty, plummets (literally) into a grimmer reality where she deals with injury and mistreatment, saves a world falling apart and fights for what she wants, including her man.

In the future, J D Robb’s detective Eve Dallas operates in 2057, and fascinates because the details of that world are embedded in the story and thrown into the narrative like scraps, only when necessary and in a matter-of-fact way. Nevertheless, we see a more security-conscious and menacing world, but with urban and criminal problems familiar to us now.

Speculating on the what might have been, Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policeman’s Union is a contrast.  The world-weary detective struggles through the surreal idea of Jewish Alaska. A melancholy tone is relieved by glimpses of optimism and convoluted humour. Strong streaks of reality and universal dilemmas are woven into very rich world-building. Margaret Attwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale and Oryx and Crake unfold to show frightening dystopian societies in the near future, yet perfectly plausible in light of current political and environmental challenges.

Q: So where am I going with this?

A: Into alternatives and speculation

Like any genres, alternative and speculative fiction like the above examples have their rules.
Alternative history has a specific point of divergence from ‘standard’ history: if Hitler won the war, if Constantine hadn’t made Christianity the Roman state religion, if Cathay (China) had discovered America, and usually narrates the consequences of that change, i.e. how the world would look today if various changes occurred and what these alternate worlds would be like. I’ve read a lot where the emphasis is laid on giving detail of the world rather than having a particularly strong plot. This is history in a broad, often fascinating, sweep.

Speculative fiction is a wider arena where the author doesn’t necessarily make a conscious choice to pinpoint a specific turning point in the past, but puts forward characters and stories in their own internally consistent world with an imaginary social and cultural framework. Not necessarily defined by any particular genre, it may bring in elements from different imaginary traditions (science fiction, fantasy, horror, supernatural fiction, superhero fiction, utopian and dystopian fiction, apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic fiction, and alternate history) rather than be pigeonholed into a tight traditional genre.

Generally (a dangerous word!), the characters’ inner thoughts, conflicts and motivation are at the forefront. Some suggest the term “speculative fiction” expresses a desire to break out of science fiction’s genre conventions into a literary and modernist direction. Perhaps it’s a push to escape the prejudice with which science fiction is often met by mainstream critics.

I couldn’t possibly comment. But you might.

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