I’ve been asking the question “What if?” quite a lot lately. This is largely because we’ve learned our landlady has to sell our house, requiring us to find a new place to live when our lease ends in August. Obviously this has been dominating my thoughts pretty much constantly. Amid the frantic search for a new home, I can’t help wondering how very different our lives would be if we hadn’t needed to put our son in specialized programs since the age of three. Who knows where we would be now? Another state, maybe, somewhere more affordable where we could easily afford a home and wouldn’t have to worry about changing school districts over and over while switching from one rental to another.
Obviously it’s not healthy to dwell on imaginary scenarios at the expense of dealing with reality, but it’s human nature, I think, to imagine alternate realities. All of fiction is some version of the answer to “what if?” But I’m thinking right now, in particular, of alternative universes. It’s so much fun to change one or two details of an existing narrative and extrapolate how it would go on from there. Sometimes the changes are more on the extravagant, speculative fiction side of things: What if the Napoleonic wars had dragons? Or what if the Civil War and the gold rush were complicated by zombies? Other times the difference is more plausible, like if Elizabeth I had been assasinated, or if the Axis forces had won WWII. Whatever the changes, the strength of the story rests upon how believable the consequences of those changes are. If there is consistency and logic, the results will be satisfying even if the initial premise is absurd.
You might say the entire sub-genre of steampunk (which includes the zombie book mentioned above) is predicated upon alternate history. What if technology took a different direction in the Victorian Era? How would that affect history, culture and everyday objects? Sure, it’s probably gained its insane popularity partly because it’s fun to wear googles and stick gears all over everything, but there’s a lot of genuine curiosity as well. And perhaps, as well, some wishful thinking about a world without so much dependence on a rapidly-depleting supply of fossil fuels. I’m sure the most popular alternate histories reveal a lot about the general mindset of our culture.
I certainly can’t talk about alternate universes without a nod to fan fiction. If you looked at the categories of any given collection of fan fic, I can guarantee that a significant percentage would be marked “AU.” Some of them are vast and far-reaching, like “What if Anakin never turned to the Dark Side?”, but there’s also small scale alternate scenarios that can be applied to almost any collection of characters, to the point of being clichés: the coffeehouse AU, the college student AU, the exchanging-anonymous-love-letters-but-they-hate-each-other-in-real-life AU….and so on and so on. A lot of times, it’s just an opportunity for fans of various relationships to place their favorite love interests in every imaginable situation and see how it plays out. (Spoiler alert: they pretty much always end up together.) Hey, I’ve done it a few times myself. It’s fun, and sometimes it can be a good character study.
Then there’s the AU that a fan writes out of frustration with developments in the official story that they disagree with. It’s kind of a therapeutic way to work out that frustration, to “correct” what they feel was wrong. They can go ahead and reject the “official canon” and adopt their own “head canon” (which is not to be confused with a head cannon, a head that shoots cannon balls.) And who’s to say they can’t do that, if they like it better that way? It’s all fiction. There’s not really any degrees of validity when it comes to your personal preferences about a story. It’s unlikely to be published, of course, unless you’re responding to a work in the public domain, but you can happily write whatever makes you feel better about the story. Isn’t that basically what this is?
No, it’s not healthy to ignore reality. But I think it’s quite healthy to reframe reality in contrast to all the infinite possibilities of alternate realities. After all, to write a believable alternate history, you need to have a pretty firm grasp on the original history.
Sure, I wish we weren’t scrambling for a place to live right now. But no matter how I dream of what-ifs, I still wouldn’t trade my life for anyone else’s.