Remember the time when white supremacists went back in time to 1864 and gave AK-47’s to Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia? Or how about that time at the height of World War II when the aliens invaded earth?
Yeah, me neither.
But Harry Turtledove has written wonderful books about those topics. Not everyone is a fan of his writing because he sometimes gets to “military technical” and also because some of his scenes (the romance scenes primarily) aren’t exactly smoothly written. But I’m still a fan because he writes stories that ask the eternal question, “What if…?”
I ask this question in my writing, and when I write a historical-based novel, there’s always a what if. Perhaps some day I’ll write “historical fiction” but that day isn’t today. Tomorrow isn’t looking too good either.
I like stories where I can explore something that has no direct historical equivalent because I feel that frees me up as a writer to tackle topics I normally couldn’t. And I feel strongly that that is the very purpose of fiction. I am a fiction writer, and I chose that medium not because I’m some head-in-the-clouds dreamer (ok, I am, but that’s not the only reason I write fiction!). I chose fiction, whether fantasy, historical, sci-fi or some obscene abomination of the three, because I can deal with sensitive and difficult topics in a non-threatening way. It’s one thing to write a nonfiction book talking about why faith is important or why drugs can be so dangerous. It’s quite another thing to have those topics come up in a fiction story. It gives people who might otherwise be offended – or simply never think of that topic at all – a chance to explore the issue in a friendly, open way and to do so at their own speed.
So I write fiction. And I seek – getting back to the title – points of divergence. Where could something be different than it actually was, or different than the reader will expect it to be? Where can I change the rules of the story so you’ll pay attention?
I remember when I was a teen – and this goes back to the 1980′s, mind you – when I really began to “get” what books were all about. In my house growing up, my parents fought pretty fiercely, and I would retreat to a fictional world (whatever book I was reading at the time, or to my role-playing games) to avoid the pain.
During this time I became a big fan of Star Trek. Remember that Star Trek: The Next Generation didn’t start on the airwaves until 1987, so my interest was primarily in the original series. In the early 1980′s I discovered Star Trek novels, and began reading them. By the time I had lost interest in those novels, I had read over 100 of them. Some were good, some were bad. But pretty much all of them did two things.
1) They kept true to the original story line up to that point (that point being where the original series ended)
2) They added something that hadn’t been there before
These two points are basically the same for any story that isn’t in a wholly invented world, and even then, only until the second story is written. If I invent a new setting (such as my three suns universe where Bloodsun Rising is set), then anything I write is correct. Doesn’t matter what it is. It’s going to be correct because it’s not contradicting anything that came before. And when I start hard writing on the second book, currently titled The Burning, I can write anything I want as long as I don’t violate the rules laid down in the first book. That is unless I chose a point of divergence.
The most striking place to see points of divergence is in time travel stories. The Back to the Future series of movies is a great example of this. Especially in the first and second movies you see time being changed and things that had or had not ever happened were changed. Biff became a wealthy and powerful man, Marty’s parents didn’t meet the original way, and Doc Brown ended up in the old west. But points of divergence happen other ways as well.
If a writer changes one element of a historical story, there is a point of divergence. If you write a story where FDR never had polio, or where Stalin never came to power because he was killed as a young man, that’s a point of divergence: That’s a “what if?” story.
I have a novel that is about half done called Exanimes where the Great Influenza of 1918-1919 happens – differently. Because I’ve changed a vector of the disease, I’ve created an alternate history.
So where do you see these points in your life? Do you prefer stories that stick to history, or do you like it when writers like me mix it up a bit? Does the term “Alternate History” excite you, or irritate your historical sensibilities? And how do you feel about reboots of existing settings?
Recently, Star Trek was rebooted by J. J. Abrams. Some of the fans were up in arms, furious that anybody would dare to mess with the Star Trek canon (and if you’re not sure what the word canon means, please look it up here.) What about the new movie Man of Steel? That’s a reboot of the oldest superhero story there is, and there have been some changes. Is that good for you, bad for you, or don’t you care? Because if you don’t care, you should know there are lots of people who will get red-in-the-face mad about even little changes.
In the late 1970′s there was a TV show called Battlestar Galactica – of which I was a big fan – which lasted about three seasons. In 2004 it was revived to much critical acclaim, including Peabody Awards and the Television Critics Association’s Program of the Year Award. Yet in spite of this, there are those who refer to the show at Battlestar Galactica: In Name Only.
There’s always someone you won’t be able to please.
I like points of divergence, probably to a fault. I love to think “what if?” thoughts. And I like to write them as well. Not all the time, but often. And I’m not alone. So I’ll keep writing what I feel I must, canon be damned. Actually, canon be totally respected, but changed to answer the question ever-burning in my mind.