By Brian Click
Alternate history sometimes gets a reputation for doom and gloom. Commercially successful AH fiction tends to explore the ugly consequences of Confederate or Nazi victories, while many classic online timelines like “For All Time” or “What If Gordon Banks Had Played” lean hard into grim dystopia. As we read these stories, our enjoyment is tinted with equal parts schadenfreude and relief: no matter how dissatisfied we might be with the way things are, it could always be worse!
Most of us, though, are no Panglossians. Sure, we know things could be worse, but we don’t believe we live in the best of all possible worlds either. Now of all times, as we face down a pandemic with a planetary ecological crisis looming in the background, we may like to imagine better timelines. What paths not taken in our world’s past could have led to a rosier reality? There is utopian alternate history out there – and it has the power to either inspire readers or make them roll their eyes.
Successful utopian fiction, no matter the genre or medium, tends to be a mixture of escapist and didactic. The creators of the original Star Trek, for instance, set out to depict a pacifist and egalitarian future, with a united human race working together to explore the cosmos. While episodes were rarely subtle about telegraphing their anti-war or anti-racist messages, the fantastical setting and memorable characters kept viewers engaged. It was an excellent way to tell stories with strong political points.
Less fondly remembered works, such as Ernest Callenbach’s 1975 novel Ecotopia – a success at the time but rarely read today – tend to lean on the idealistic message at the expense of storytelling. In Ecotopia, a reporter from the rump USA visits the titular secessionist state, a secretive enclave on the West Coast that has embraced simple, environmentally responsible living. Initially skeptical, he soon learns the virtues of their way of life, finds love, and settles there permanently. There’s not much conflict and the characters are paper-thin; personally, I couldn’t tell whether to nod in agreement with the message or just nod off to sleep.
The example of Ecotopia shows the pitfalls of utopian writing: it can easily veer into screeds. Since alternate history examines what might have happened in our real-world past, utopian alternate history setting is thus inherently more nakedly tied to real-world political issues than utopian fantasy or sci-fi settings are, so getting your point across without either boring or infuriating your readers is an even harder row to hoe.
What makes a successful utopian alternate history story, then? One that will entertain your readers while ensuring they reflect on your political message? Unlike many contributors to this blog, I’m not a published author, but I think I’ve gleaned a few tips from my reading:
Don’t take yourself too seriously
At the beginning of L. Neil Smith’s The Probability Broach (1979), Detective Win Bear is living in a depressing near-future. The American government has slipped into statist kleptocracy; while government employees live high on the hog, private citizens suffer under strict rations and discipline, with “unnecessary” businesses frequently closed as wastes of resources. Everyday vices such as tobacco are banned, and thanks to widespread poverty and strict gun control, crime is rampant. Win is broken out of his hardboiled routine of surveying gory murder scenes and pining for his wife when he is called to investigate the murder of a libertarian physicist. As it turns out, the physicist had found a portal to an alternate universe – one where the Whiskey Rebellion overthrew the nascent United States back at the turn of the 19th century, ushering in a minarchist, technologically advanced utopia across the North American continent. As Win navigates this brave new world, however, he finds himself pursued by federal gestapo from his own timeline, intent on wiping out this alternative universe.
The author makes no apologies for proselytizing: Smith is an anarcho-capitalist (an ideology described in two previous articles on this site) who has run for office several times as a Libertarian Party candidate, and he wrote the book as an explicit argument for his views. His foreword to the e-book edition even makes the dramatic claim that the relative drop in American households’ net wealth over the years since its publication “might easily have been avoided if more people read The Probability Broach.” When I came across that sentence, I nearly abandoned the book before I’d started, expecting an Ayn Rand style turgid tract on libertarian philosophy.
As it turns out, I enjoyed it, despite not sharing Smith’s politics. The hardboiled detective tropes were entertaining, and the satire was lighthearted rather than bitter or venomous. Trying to piece together the alternate timeline through characters’ views of figures such as Alexander Hamilton and Albert Gallatin is a fun exercise for historically literate readers. The book only failed the eye-roll test once or twice, most notably when Win (a Ute Indian) and his alternate universe counterpart lament their ancestors’ supposed lack of “civilization” that left them open to conquest by the white man.
The key is that The Probability Broach is fun. It makes its argument through humor and contrast while mostly avoiding didactic speeches. Smith might not have convinced me of anything, but by not taking himself too seriously, he did get me to sit down and read through an anarcho-capitalist polemic, which is no mean feat for utopian fiction.
The usual rules about telling a good story still apply
As David Flin succinctly puts it in How to Write Alternate History (available from Sea Lion Press): “One of the important things about writing Alternate History is that it not only involves Alternate History, but it also involves writing.” A utopian story still has to be a story; it still requires a compelling plot, believable characters, and an element of conflict or stakes. Without these things, your utopian novel is just a manifesto. (And being bogged down by a framing story will probably mean it’s not a very zippy manifesto, either.)
The plot of a utopian story can follow a threat to utopia, as in The Probability Broach, or the process of building a utopia, as in Fire on the Mountain by Terry Bisson (1988). In Bisson’s novel, the Raid on Harper’s Ferry is a success, thanks to the involvement of Harriet Tubman. Armed by Tubman and John Brown, enslaved people rise up across the South, and the American Civil War unfolds as a war of liberation. One half of the narrative follows a young Black man who becomes one of John Brown’s medics, while another focuses on his great-granddaughter, living in an Afrofuturist 1959.
The former half of the story is a thrilling tale of fighting for utopia. The scene in which a Virginia slave plantation is raided by horsemen flying a red, black, and green flag gave me slight chills: both of revolutionary inspiration and of the uncanny valley that is alternate history at its best. In fact, it was such a stirring moment that I didn’t stop to think about the fact that the Pan-African colors weren’t used until the 1920s in our timeline.
Unsurprisingly, Bisson is a communist and a supporter of the Black Power movement; the foreword to my edition was contributed by the controversial incarcerated writer Mumia Abu-Jamal. Perhaps a reader more firmly opposed to those views than I am would have gone into the book skeptical and lost their suspension of disbelief at moments like the early Pan-African flag. A compelling plot and eloquent narration, however, do a lot to quiet the plausibility police in your readers’ heads.
Claire Hall’s McCallandia: A Utopian Novel (2015) falls down a little on the “compelling plot” aspect but makes up for it through characterization and historical insight. In our reality, Tom McCall served as Governor of Oregon from 1967 to 1975. An independent-minded moderate and a skeptic of economic growth for its own sake, he is best known nationally for telling out-of-state tourists to “visit, but don’t stay.”
In McCallandia, Richard Nixon, seeking an uncontroversial nominee for Vice President after Spiro Agnew’s resignation, picks McCall over Gerald Ford. Once Nixon resigns, McCall brings his unique political vision to the American stage. The book is pure wish fulfillment: not only is he a wildly successful President, he appoints Ken Kesey to his cabinet, and alternate-historical butterflies lead to legendary University of Oregon runner Steve Prefontaine, who died young, surviving to win Olympic gold. It’s a bit much.
The strength of the novel, though, lies in its human touch. Hall is a local politician in Oregon who got her start working on McCall’s unsuccessful comeback campaign in 1978, and she personally knew many of the people she wrote about. No matter how fantastical the tale gets, the characters seem real, especially in the many scenes where McCall and his wife Audrey discuss their next moves. Believable characters make the utopian narrative feel more plausible. They also make the novel more interesting than a simple list of “good things happening.”
Utopia doesn’t have to be absolute
In some alternate history literature, the world is objectively superior to ours in one way – but in some ways, it’s much worse. In other works, the point of divergence required to make the positive changes came with its own wages of pain, death and destruction. Yet others present a world in which some readers would gladly live but others are repulsed by.
Ambiguous utopianism might actually hew closer to the original meaning of the word, as coined in Thomas More’s 1516 satire. More’s Utopia is a well-ordered society, but its inhabitants’ practices of divorce and euthanasia would have been seen as immoral by readers at the time. The implicit message is that the islanders can only get so close to virtue without knowledge of the Bible. An imperfect utopia encourages readers to reflect on the ideas the author presents, and to consider whether or not this is really a better world. What would the reader be willing to give up in exchange for the positives of the alternate timeline?
Jane Hill’s Reds! (available from Sea Lion Press) and Jonathan Edelstein’s Malê Rising are both classics of online alternate history. In the former, a different path for the American socialist movement and the survival of President William McKinley (a topic also explored in a recent Article by Tom Anderson) send the United States down a different track that culminates with a successful communist revolution in the 1930s. In the latter, the eponymous slave rebellion is more successful and ends with its leaders founding an Islamic republic in West Africa; the historical butterflies lead to a more multipolar world with greater freedom and prosperity for non-European peoples. In both cases, part of the stories’ appeal comes from their ambiguous utopianism. It perfectly suits the discussion forum medium in which they were first published: readers on the forums debate whether or not these worlds are better than ours, and in the process, they engage with the ideologies and themes the authors want to explore.
It’s a more subtle approach than simply presenting a perfect alternative universe, but if you want your readers to take your arguments seriously and expand upon them on their own, a better-but-flawed setting might do the trick.
Since an alternate history setting naturally invites comparisons between the text and the reader’s reality, it naturally lends itself to political polemics, and if you have some strongly held beliefs it can be very tempting to base a work around them. As I’ve argued, this doesn’t have to be a bad thing. If it’s well done, utopian alternate history can exist as both appealing literature and persuasive argument.
Very rarely does a work of fiction singlehandedly change a reader’s outlook on life. I can think of maybe one or two personal examples, and none of them are from this very small subgenre! A good book can get the gears turning, though, and you don’t need to be some kind of Master Persuader to make your argument in a thought-provoking way. And who knows? Maybe your story eventually will help popularize your ideas. After all, as readers of alternate history we know that small changes can have big ripples.
Brian Click talks about amateur history in the Pacific North West over on his blog The Heavy Finger