Ever wondered what would happen if the Axis Powers won WWII, JFK was never assassinated, or John Travolta never played Tony Manero in Saturday Night Fever? Until the invention of time machines (preferable in DeLorean form), we may never know for sure. That’s why we have speculative fiction to answer our most burning “what if?” questions about the course of history, particularly the past.
Over the break I had the pleasure of reading Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, a murder mystery neo-noir that takes place in an alternative timeline where Jews were allowed to settle in Alaska during WWII, thus drastically cutting down the number of those murdered of the Holocaust. Probably the greatest parts of the book are the subtle hints that the author drops to indicate that you have entered a world whose history has unraveled vastly different from the one you are living in. Currently, I am engrossed in Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle that seeks to answer my opening query about a victorious Germany, Japan, and Italy in the 1940s. If you have time, Stephen King’s 849-page novel 11/22/63 is an excellent time traveling romp about saving President Kennedy from the wrath of Lee Harvey Oswald’s Carcano Rifle.
I’m a sucker for speculative fiction/alternate timelines. It’s like having the technology that allows us to peek into alternate universes; it’s almost like attending a 19th century carnival freak show as we are shown something out of the ordinary that might surprise or even shock us to the our very cores. This form of literature relies less on the facts and more on the imagination. Once you establish a historical background, you can go absolutely nuts with your own vision of the past or future.
Moreover, you can use this type of fiction to explore important and controversial ideas without getting into trouble (for the most part). For example, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s X-Men comics were created during the 1960s when the Civil Rights Movement were in full swing. The themes of alienation and refusal to accept difference perfectly reflected the turbulent times. Take, for instance, 2011’s X-Men: First Class, which places mutants at the center of the Cuban Missile Crisis.
In the end, speculative fiction is an umbrella term that covers a vast number of genres. Perhaps one of the most famous and popular of these is Steampunk (which is also a sub-genre of science fiction, but that’s a discussion for another time). When enjoying alternative history pieces, it’s best to forget what you know and try to accept a universe that doesn’t get along with yours. There’s no reason to be alarmed…unless Biff Tannen turns out to be ruler of the world.