Alternate histories have always been a source of comfort for me. When the future looks uncertain and the present unstable, these books provide a much-needed escape. But they also remind me that history may seem inevitable in hindsight, but the future is still undefined. Through these stories, I can learn to pay closer attention to the choices that shape our world and to imagine a better future.
Take Colson Whitehead’s The Intuitionist. In this alternate Big Apple, elevator inspection is a sacred charge promising to lift society from the “stunted shacks” of the present into a glorious future of verticality. Whitehead does not actually describe the Safety, the hairdo required by the Guild of Elevator Inspectors, opting instead for its ideas—but I can still picture it, and how different Lila Mae’s hair is because she’s a woman and she’s Black. It does not confer Safety upon her. As a reader, I bring my knowledge of the politics of the real world to the book, and I know that this paragraph is not simply describing the fashion in coifs; it lays out the perilous minefield of racism and sexism that Lila Mae walks daily.
In Jo Walton’s My Real Children, I found an encapsulation of what terrifies me in our current political moment: the way that the previously unthinkable has become accepted. In one timeline, nuclear explosions have become a fact of life, so why worry too much about them? The unthinkable becomes inevitable, and once inevitable, acceptable. Lord grant me the wisdom to accept the things I cannot change. But Rachel Heng’s The Great Reclamation reminds me that stories of inevitability should never be accepted at face value. Heng’s book follows the community of a kampong (village) on the coast of Singapore as the nation throws off the colonial regime. Through this story, I am reminded that none of this is inevitable. It is not only fictional, but a kind of fiction that insists on its irreality as I track how far it has diverged from real life, how it mixes my quotidian experience with things that have never happened.
Alternate histories remind me that the story of inevitability should always be questioned. That accepting the things I cannot change is part of what makes them seem inevitable. That I can choose to pay attention and choose to imagine and work toward a better world. As I write my own alternate history novel, The Shamshine Blind, I hope that its absurdity will give readers space to reflect on the absurd things we accept in our own world. We live in a timeline full of unthinkable things made to seem inevitable, where the calcified history that led to the present blinkers my vision of what is possible. But alternate histories remind me that I can choose to pay attention and choose to imagine and work toward a better world.