Sunday, October 1, 2000

The political scene in alternate realities


By Ben Brickman

The Republican and Democratic conventions are already fading memories, but this Fall will undoubtedly give us the best and worst of political fighting. It's the American way.

The good news is that when politics is in full swing, so are the best political satirists. This month's ebook recommendations are the acclaimed alternative history stories "Danny Goes to Mars," and "Hillary Orbits Venus," both by author Pamela Sargent. The two political satires are available in Palm Doc, Rocket eBook Reader, MS Reader, and Adobe Acrobat format at

Alternate history

Both of these are stories in the "alternate history" genre, which many of you may not be familiar with. In this relatively new genre, real past events are modified based on "what if" scenarios. These stories are not presented as "tongue in cheek," rather they use a deadpan style, as if this is the way things really happened. They illustrate how a slight twist in events could lead to bizarre changes in history.

I have to admit that before I read my first alternate history story, I was skeptical. I usually prefer hard science fiction, horror, fantasy, and an occasional mystery or action story. What I found was that alternate history can be very satisfying and that it actually owes a lot to both science fiction and fantasy. Some authors consider alternate history to be in the same category as science fiction, fantasy, and horror--the so-called "speculative fiction" genres. You can find good alternate history stories appearing on the ballots for the Nebula award and World Fantasy awards with increasing regularity as more authors test the limits of traditional science fiction and fantasy.

Some alternate history stories have a definite science fiction bent and get lumped into that category. You can see this in alternate history stories based loosely on time travel themes or parallel universe themes. Others, like the two highlighted here, involve science fiction only in passing (both involve space travel but are told as if this is just the way things happened).


Pamela Sargent explained the relationship between alternate history and science fiction this way:

For some time now, I've had the feeling that we're all living in a continuum that has branched off from the main historical line--that line where the Soviet Union still exists and there are moon bases and the first manned mission to Mars is underway. Or maybe the main line isn't that one, but a world where anyone still alive is sifting through radioactive rubble after a global nuclear war. Imagine believing in 1975 that in less than two decades Ronald Reagan would become president of the United States, the Soviet Union would collapse, Nelson Mandela would lead South Africa's government, and average people would have home computers more powerful than the ones NASA used to land on the moon. People who wonder about the plausibility of alternate history stories should remember how strange real history has been.