Sunday, 31 July 2016

Wish Fulfillment

Alternative history fiction can be utopian, dystopian, speculative or bizarre:

What is the best history that we can imagine?
The worst?
What would have happened if (fill in the blank)?
How different could things be?

Robert Heinlein imagined a future society where magic works like a technology - a flying carpet transport company must pay compensation to a church because the flying spell ceased to work above consecrated ground - and Poul Anderson, more consistently, relocated this magical technology idea to a parallel Earth. SM Stirling imagined maybe the worst possible scenario with his Draka. I have noticed a further possible motive for writing alternative history fiction: wish fulfillment, not so much "How might we build an optimal society now?" as "How might this world have been a better place all along - even though it wasn't?"

It is logically, and maybe also quantum mechanically, possible that there is an indefinite number of alternative Earths with unpolluted environments, multiple Atlantic Oceans with no trans-Atlantic shipping lanes or air routes, innumerable opportunities for lucky cross-time travelers to make a fresh start and get it right this time. This vision, plus the retro social setup of New Virginia, is a large part of the appeal of Stirling's excellent Conquistador.

Anderson was perhaps too realistic to present such a wish-fulfillment scenario. His Eutopian cross-time travelers seek the Good Land but then conclude that it is to be found only in the many imperfect worlds of their experience.


Sean M. Brooks said...

Kaor, Paul!

I didn't think the socio/political system of the Commonwealth of New Virginia that we see in CONQUISTADOR that retro! Because it worked, because most people in the Commonwealth were happy with it. Recall my "Political Legitimacy" note--given those circumstances the Commonwealth was LEGITIMATE.

Another socio/political system described by S.M. Stirling that seems very worthy of respect is the Angrezi Rajai we see in THE PESHAWAR LANCERS.

I can see why you might think these regimes a bit too implausibly well run and good to be realistic. And, yes, we see Poul Anderson the faults and weaknesses of a socio/political system as well as its strengths.

I suggest that we see both the Commonwealth and the Angrezi Rajai in its younger, vigorous, even idealistic phases. Two or three centuries later we might well see, alas, plenty to criticize in both regimes.

And my favorite "what if" of history remains wondering what kind of would have resulted from the Sarajevo assassination not occurring.


Paul Shackley said...

I meant "retro" as in soda fountains, fashions, attitudes etc.

Sean M. Brooks said...

Kaor, Paul!

Got it. I forgot about that use of "retro."