Thursday, October 18, 2018

Worlds of Maybe

In Worlds of Maybe, a 1970 anthology edited by Robert Silverberg, seven authors explore the idea of worlds where history took a different path than it did in our own world. "The writer makes his one, basic history-changing assumption; then he plunges his characters into a world that never was, and investigates all the imaginable consequences of that world's divergence from the 'real' time-line," Silverberg writes in his introduction. "The result, if the work is done intelligently and perceptively, is an excursion into speculative history, stimulating and strange."

The results in this book are outstanding, but how could they be otherwise with such writers as Larry Niven, Isaac Asimov and Poul Anderson? It remains one of my favorite anthologies, and not just because of the theme. The oldest story in the book, Murray Leinster's "Sidewise in Time," is from 1934. While not the first alternate history story ever written -- that honor probably belongs to  Ab Urbe Condita Libri by the Roman historian Livy, published in the First Century BC, in which Alexander the Great lives long enough to conquer Europe -- but it is the modern progenitor of the Alternate History sub-genre of Science Fiction, though it probably owes more than a nod to British historian Sir John Squire's 1931 book, If It Had Happened Otherwise, an anthology of essays from leading historians about the turning points of history. Since none of Sir John's contributors was an experienced fiction writer, the results are mostly interesting, but dry as yesterday's cracker and totally lacking in humor.


Another of my favorite Alternate History stories is Bring the Jubilee by Ward Moore, which I first encountered in an old edition of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, then later tracked down the paperback edition which expands upon the original story and brings in more characterization. It's a tale about what happened when the South won the Civil War, and yet it isn't. It uses a technique I call double-blind, in which it starts out in an alternate time-line where the Confederacy is an ascendant victor and the U.S. a backwater rump state, then introduces a variation via time travel, ending that time-line and starting history on a path that results in a world very much like our own, yet not quite. So, two separate worlds, neither our own, and yet exactly our own, since it is the very nature of Alternate History stories that no matter how odd the time-line is, it is always our world that is under scrutiny, just as Aliens in SF tales are never aliens, but merely different aspects of ourselves.

An attempt to actually bring us an artifact from an alternate world was made by Norman Spinrad in The Iron Dream (1972), which, actually, is not the title of the book he wants us to read. The book presented for our reading "enjoyment" is Lord of the Swastika (1952), written by a science fiction fan and artist named Adolph Hitler, who emigrated from Germany in 1919 and became involved with First Fandom as an illustrator for the pulp magazines of the time. Spinrad's presentation of Hitler's pulse-pounding pulp story of a post-apocalyptic Earth is paired with a scholarly dissertation written by NYU Professor Homer Whipple in 1959, in which he examines the influence of the Hugo-winning novel on fandom, as well as taking a look at Hitler's other science fiction novels -- The Master Race, The Thousand Year Rule, and The Triumph of the Will, all titles that will resonate in much different ways for readers in this time-line than they will in Whipple's, but that is as intended. The same is true of the novel itself, as we will see much darker themes than did Hitler's readers, to whom it is nothing more than an exciting story, worthy of receiving that year's Hugo award. The book is a curiosity, nothing more, because the story itself becomes tedious after awhile. The most interesting portion of Spinrad's book is the dry and pedantic essay by Whipple, where we have tantalizing glimpses and suggestions of a strange new world, teases which remain unfulfilled.

Despite the popularity of the Alternate History theme with SF fans, it remained obscure among non-fans. Possibly it was too esoteric or demanded too much thinking. The general public got a big dose of it with the television series Sliders, a show that started well, then swiftly deteriorated. The various iterations of Star Trek dipped a toe into the waters of Change with "Mirror Universe" in Star Trek: The Original Series (also in DS9 and Enterprise); then a cannonball into the swimming pool of Change with a reboot of the franchise, a move that pandered to younger fans but has not yet produced any decent films. Literary critics took notice of the genre and Science Fiction in general with Philip K. Dick's 1962 The Man in the High Castle ("This book is too good to be science fiction," the critics said), but did not make it to the masses till Amazon's take on it began streaming into homes in 2015. The book was great; the adaptation of it, not so much.

Notice, the absence of the words "Science Fiction"
from the hardcover edition of Dick's novel.
An appeal to Literary Critics?