Lately, I have been reading novels by science-fiction/speculative-fiction writers like Philip K. Dick, William Gibson, Kevin Brockmeier, and others, and am topping off this jag (unrestrained and compulsive) with Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman’s Good Omens. In every instance except the last, the writers create dystopian worlds functioning badly for the earth and/or its inhabitants. Neither hope nor redemption salvages those worlds, although one could argue Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle hints at rebellion and reversals of fortune. Of all those works, I prefer The Man in the High Castle because like Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America, which imagines the ascendancy of ultra-conservative politics and bigotry in the USA (what’s new?), it explores an alternative history: how would the United States differ today if Hitler and his allies had prevailed and not lost the Second World War.
A lot of fiction proposes alternate histories. For example, I found listed in Wikipedia at least 50 such novels and short stories about the American Civil War, not to mention films and games. The list includes Fire on the Mountain by Terry Bissnon; Harry Turtledove’s Crosstime Traffic; the 1931 anthology If It Had Happened Otherwise; Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter by Seth Grahame-Smith; and All the Myriad Ways by Larry Niven. Wait, wait, there’s more: what if Presidential assassinations had not occurred; what if the colonies never had rebelled against His Imperial Majesty; or what if two manufacturers, Samuel Slater and Francis Cabot Lowell, had not introduced mechanized textile manufacturing to the United States in the late 1790’s and early 1800’s, which initiated the Industrial Age in America? Imagine the novels or short stories those propositions could inspire.
Today, marking the 17th annual remembrance of the triple terrorist attacks on New York City’s Twin Towers, on the Pentagon, and aboard Flight 93, I have been wondering if this country’s acute and focused xenophobia would have surfaced had those attacks never materialized. Did they lay the foundation for such a bitter response to the world crisis of massive migrations across the globe, most often populated by people whose skin tones and religions are not well tolerated by a vocal and growing minority in the USA? That intense, even irrational dislike or fear of people from other countries may have emerged anyway in the climate of ever-intensifying suspicion and apprehension we experience today. Imagine the promise of all those lives and potential future lives cut off by the attacks. What if even one of those lives had not ended, but blossomed into a person with great leadership qualities, like respect, intellect, and gravitas. What would our country be like today if that person were steering our ship of state?
But that did not happen. That terrible day was anything but science fiction. Sci-fi plays with circumstances, in imagined worlds where “what-ifs,” alternative histories, or visions of our future supply the context for philosophical or narrative investigations. A science fiction writer can be a little god. She can dictate the narrative’s course and drive home her message from the vantage point of omniscience. Figuratively standing here today and facing each day’s onslaught of challenging circumstances, you and I do not have that advantage. Only in retrospect can I even suggest that the immense strength of contemporary xenophobia in the USA has its roots in 9/11.
Bigotry and hatred have stained our national character for a long time, well before the events of 9/11. Perhaps someday, a speculative fiction writer will dare to imagine a world where those horrible events never occurred and will propose instead a utopian dream to assuage our age of anxiety. For now, I will end with a quotation from 2300 years ago, when for many the future held no more promise than it does today:
The first man knew it not perfectly, neither will the last search it thoroughly; for its understanding is wider than the sea and its counsel deeper than the abyss. [referring to Torah]
-Ben Sira 24: 28,29 Wisdom writings. This Hellenistic scribe and sage urges us never to give up studying and searching for a better world.