Alternate History: Threat or Menace?

by Mary Anne Mohanraj

Do you read a lot of alternate history?  

It’s not actually a genre I’d read a lot of, before I started writing for Wild Cards.  Oh, plenty of historical fiction, but that tended to hew pretty close to the timeline for real world events, maybe with some minor changes.  In Wild Cards, we have a single new event in the 1940s, the arrival of the Takisian virus on Earth, and then that has dramatic ripple effects across the globe – governments rise and fall, countries plunge into war, the entire Earth is reshaped in a variety of ways, and people’s lives are forever changed.

That obviously offers a lot of fun scope for a writer to play with.  The game of ‘what if?’ is a delicious one:

 – What if a conservative religious government rose to power in America, taking away women’s rights and cutting the country off from the rest of the world?  (The Handmaid’s Tale, Atwood.) 

 – What if the African natives of the Congo developed steam power (and magical steampunk abilities) ahead of their Belgian conquerors, during the era of King Leopold’s War?  (Everfair, Nisi Shawl).  

 – What if a group of people develop the ability to go without sleeping (and also become super-smart)?  (Beggars in Spain, Nancy Kress)

– What if aliens invade Earth – but decide to settle in the U.S. Virgin Islands, rather than New York, D.C., London, or some other major urban center?  (The Lesson, Cadwell Turnbull)

 – What if women develop the ability to release electrical jolts from their fingers, strong enough to kill a man, and as a result, become the dominant gender?  (The Power, Naomi Alderman.)  

All of these novels offer readers the opportunity to envision a world that is radically altered  from the one we know, and as a result, the writers get to play with aspects of social custom and practice that are normally so taken for granted that they’re often invisible to us.  They’re part of the air we breathe – of course men are generally stronger than women.  Of course, the colonizers have more weaponry and power than the natives.  

Until a writer comes along and asks, what if?

But I don’t want to claim that it’s all sunshine and roses in alternate history land.  Sometimes, you’ll run across an alternate history that seems born out of a longing to return to an earlier time.  Perhaps a time the author thinks was better?  What if the South had won the Civil War, for example, and America still had slavery today?  Some of those visions of a different past, and thereby, a different present, seem intent on returning us to a time when, for example, the British still ruled the Empire, only now, it stretched across the planet (or across the stars).  

A skilled writer can use that concept to carefully probe at and expose the underlying racism that supports that kind of society – Yudhanjaya Wijeratne’s The Inhuman Race is a prime example of that, an alternate history narrative set in Sri Lanka that explores AI, sentience and AI rights in a futuristic world where the British Commonwealth still dominates the Indian subcontinent.  But dismayingly often, it seems like writers who engage in that kind of narrative are yearning for a return to a time when their ancestors held far more power than they do today, and used that power to dominate and abuse other human beings.

Whenever I write alternate history for Wild Cards, these issues emerge.  In Three Kings, I was working with Alan Turing, and had to contend with what I was saying about homosexuality in the Wild Cards universe.  In my alternate history, Turing isn’t persecuted for his sexuality; he gets to live a long (extremely long) life.  He gets to marry, and have a nice house with a garden, and use his Wild Card powers to serve England as a member of the Silver Helix, and is celebrated and rewarded for doing so.  Of course, things do eventually fall apart in interesting ways, because otherwise there would be no story, but the difficulties Turing must face aren’t because he’s gay, and to me, that’s part of the joy of alternate history, that I can imagine such a world for him.

Right now, I’m drafting a Wild Cards story that’s set in Sri Lanka (my homeland) a few decades ago, and while there’s a little of the Wild Cards universe history that’s set regarding Sri Lanka, mostly, it’s a big, blank empty slate.  It’s established that the conflict with the LTTE, the Tamil Tigers, ended much earlier in the Wild Cards universe than it did in ours (where it dragged on for 30 years, causing much misery).  I could have written a story of an idyllic Sri Lanka, where various ethnic groups, Tamil and Sinhalese, lived in peace and harmony, and my story took place against that backdrop.  

But that seemed like it might not be right, and when I ran the concept by two writer friends who actually live in Sri Lanka (the aforementioned Yudhanjaya, and Suchetha Wijenayake), they definitely didn’t think that version was very realistic.  Although they’ve lived in relative peace for over a decade now, they pointed out that in today’s Sri Lanka, there are still many factions vying for power, many ethnic, religious, cultural tensions still affecting everyday politics, and people’s daily lives.  

If the Wild Card came to Sri Lanka, and there were suddenly aces around, they pointed out that those people would immediately have political factions trying to control them, corrupt politicians, gang leaders, etc. who would greedily grab at any edge that Wild Cards power would give them.  And if there were jokers in Sri Lanka, then they might not be treated very well, given the history of how various marginalized groups have been treated over the past several decades.  

I abandoned my vision of an idyllic Sri Lanka (the kind of Sri Lanka that perhaps never was), and instead, set to writing a story that stayed closer to reality.  Suchetha kindly read my first draft, and gave me comments, so I could do a better job of crafting an authentic alternate history for the Wild Cards Sri Lanka.  I go back when I can, but I live in America, airfares are expensive, and visiting just isn’t the same as actually living in a place.  As a diasporan Sri Lankan, I feel an extra responsibility to get things right, when I’m representing the country to the rest of the world, even in science fictional form.

In the end, I hope that my Wild Cards version of history will be able to illuminate, a little bit, some of what is already true about my homeland, and also, perhaps, offer a vision of what could be, if things go a little differently.  That’s the real power of alternate history – it helps us look more clearly at the world we have now, with all its flaws and ugliness.  It helps us ask ourselves, “What if?”