Why alternate worlds?

World map from the Ulm edition of Ptolemy's Geographia 1482 (public domain image)
World map from the Ulm edition of Ptolemy’s Geographia 1482 (public domain image)

Why do we want to have alternate worlds? It’s a way of making progress. You have to imagine something before you do it. Therefore, if you write about something, hopefully you write about something that’s better or more interesting than circumstances as they now are, and that way you hope to make a step towards it.
— Interview with Joan Aiken, Locus Magazine (May 1998)

Inverted Commas 2: The modern world viewed alternatively

In May 1998 Joan Aiken was interviewed for Locus Magazine, which now bills itself as The Magazine and Website of the Science Fiction & Fantasy Field. An excerpt from that interview is available online, entitled ‘Joan Aiken: Wolves and Alternate Worlds’. Soon to be published at the time of the interview was another episode in her Wolves Chronicles, Limbo Lodge (1999), titled Dangerous Games in the US.

I quote this passage because, in times of great ferment, many people feel powerless in the face of forces larger than themselves. Certain powerful individuals do seem to have a vision of where the world is going (even if it’s only back to a past viewed through distorting spectacles) but many others, who don’t share this vision, sense themselves in a living nightmare, rushed towards some malign future where nothing is certain — except that nothing will be certain.

The essential thing is to have alternative visions. A better world where maybe the many aren’t disadvantaged to the gain of the few. Systems geared perhaps towards universal benefits and not for the filthy rich to bask in selfish luxury. Sometimes you have to picture scenarios where things are currently going wrong before you can set about turning them around.

So when Joan Aiken says inventing a fantasy world is a way of making progress what she’s saying is that this world of the imagination almost always bears a relationship to the world you presently are in. They’re rarely utopian worlds where everything is hunky-dory. Whether otherworldly, dystopian or seemingly ordinary there will be “something rotten in the state of Denmark”; whether you write about something contemporary and realistic or somewhere speculative and fantastic there will be a crisis looming, or the worst is actually happening.

Therefore, when as an author she says she writes about something, then she’s hopeful it’s “about something that’s better or more interesting than circumstances as they now are” — so that by imagining fictional solutions she and the reader can in effect move towards real resolutions. Unless we can picture a well thought-out future we really can’t move away from impasse, from stalemate, from helplessness.

To illustrate her point she describes how she was, at this time, “filling in the [Wolves Chronicles] series, because there’s a substantial hole between The Stolen Lake and The Cuckoo Tree. The new book’s working title is Limbo Lodge. It takes place on a spice island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.” Her heroine Dido Twite was in the process of quitting an alternative South America, but instead of heading back across the Atlantic to England she sails around Cape Horn and into the Pacific. When Joan says “There’s a bit more alternate worlds in this one,” she isn’t kidding. Although this is the mid 1830s a lot will be unfamiliar to students of history. “I’m using Emily Bronte’s Angria Chronicles – the fantasy tales the Bronte children made up when they were young,” she tells us.

(Actually, this isn’t strictly accurate. In the mid 1830s Emily and her sister Anne were writing about Gondal, an imaginary island in the North Pacific, and its South Pacific counterpart Gaaldine, while in fact it was Charlotte and brother Bramwell who wrote about Angria; Charlotte’s extant Tales of Angria mostly date to between 1838 and 1839. But, in truth, all these lands belong to the Bronte siblings’ alternative world.)

“It’s all about an imaginary country called Angria, which was obviously a parallel of somewhere like Portugal,” she continues. “They had a terrific reverence for the Duke of Wellington, and he figures in it in a sort of disguised form. So I’m using bits and pieces of these ideas, inventing a Pacific Ocean which has been colonized by the Angrians. And now they’re being pushed out of it by the rightful owners.” Significantly, she adds, “It’s a sort of ecological book.”

The 1990s were a time when concerns about silent springs and deforestation and pollution and global warming were penetrating the general public’s consciousness even more than ever: is it any wonder that Joan’s children’s novel should have green issues at its heart?

But issues, however worthy or urgent, are not what usually recommend a piece of fiction to readers; such issues need to be embedded in the plot, not preached. Instead, Joan reminds us, “people need stories. I was on a panel at the 1997 World Fantasy Convention, and I started describing the scene in the railway carriage in which I came up to London, and noticed the quality of the audience’s attention instantly changed and sharpened. Everyone was listening, to hear what was going to happen next, because it was a story.”

_______________

Another quote to end with. This is from Charles Dickens’ fictional plotline embedded in the real world French Revolution, when rabble-rousers along with idealists were formenting ferment, as described in the opening of A Tale of Two Cities:

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way …

Whenever the time is out of joint we should always remember to picture a better alternative world, the better to conjure it into reality.

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19 thoughts on “Why alternate worlds?

  1. inkbiotic

    A very interesting post, I think without our imaginations to give us that ability to think up alternatives we wouldn’t have got anywhere as a species, we wouldn’t have a civilisation at all. Hopefully those malleable brains of ours will come up with a solution to all the turmoil now. Until then, we have all these imaginary places to escape into 🙂

    1. That’s the beauty of fantasy (I’m using the word in its broadest sense here) — it is, at the same time, both escapist and realist, the first to immerse oneself in imaginary worlds, the second to consider possibilities for the future and ways to ameliorate present difficulties.

      Let’s hope that those with imagination can get us out of these messes, but with our present opposition politicians I’m not sure that’s going to be any time soon.

  2. earthbalm

    A very interesting post (again). I’ve always thought that the ultimate purpose of collective humanity (if there is one) is to explore as many of the different possibilities of everything (without harm to others) as possible in the time given to our species. Diversity is the aim.

    1. Like you, I’m not convinced we’re exactly placed here for a purpose — I’m a bit too existentialist for that — but collective humanity should really be able to come up with humane solutions. Those who think that humankind’s essential nature is kill or be killed, to extract an eye for an eye, to throw the first punch etc. are doing the human species a great disfavour. And even if they think humans are only the apex of the animal kingdom they’d best remember that not all nature is red in tooth and claw.

      As always, getting a bit carried away with the rhetoric. Comes of reading It Can’t Happen Here which is full of such high-flown phrases as 1930s America deals with the fall-out of electing a Fascist President …

    1. I’m always minded of the Pandora’s Box myth whenever things seem bleak: whatever evils are set free in the world we still have Hope to sustain us. Lose hope and we are utterly lost.

  3. I’m afraid I teeter between hope and despair, depending on whatever part of the day’s news leaks through my filter (which mostly comprises closed eyes and ears). But as James Baldwin said, “History is not the past, it is the present. We carry our history with us. We are our history.” I’m hoping that more of us come to recognize the truth in that statement, and then to use it to make a difference for good.
    But I also keep in mind Max Planck’s statement that “Science advances one funeral at a time.” Mordant, but true. (I rub my hands and whisper “Excellent!” like Charles Montgomery Burns.)

    1. Apologies for belated reply, Lizzie, the last few days have been a bit hectic, largely filled up with singing workshops and choir rehearsals, as well playing for the odd wedding reception, charity fundraiser and instrumental exam.

      Luckily that has mostly taken my mind off unpleasant political developments but of course they don’t go away. Mr Burns I gather is based on global media tycoon Rupert Murdoch, who through poisonous organs like Fox in the States and tabloids in the UK has ensured we’ve got to our present parlous political position. I know Mr Burns is not all bad but I’m afraid that his association with Murdoch colours my view of him.

      1. I envy you your musical duties, even those connected to exams. The immediate or eventual goal of your work is providing pleasure for others, and that’s a good thing — much more important and productive than chatting on the internet.

        Mr Burns is not someone I admire; he is unredeemably bad. Yet it gives me pleasure to use Burns’s OTT language (and gestures) against my enemies. I console myself with thoughts of their funerals, which, I realize, is a despicable sort of consolation. I suppose there’s a bit of Burns inside each of us. Recognizing this, I try to funnel that little bit into something harmless. Usually I succeed.

        1. Just trying to get a couple of posts dusted off, but it’s slow going after a bit of a gap. But there’s no denying that the live music-making is a reward in itself, and a fair compensation for not being more online.

          I suppose we all envy Mr Burns his sheer effrontery whilst condemning his mean and selfish actions. That’s the joy of The Simpsons, allowing us to acknowledge our own faults, shortcomings and contradictions played out in front of us at the same time as granting us permission to have a soft spot for these flawed characters.

  4. So glad you did your round up of the month as I missed this post the first time round. Love the thought that writing alternate worlds is a practice for creating them in real life. Really interesting. And you’re right, good fantasy is so often a blend of reality and imagination, spinning what we experience off into alternative possibilities. Great post Chris

    1. I had a discussion only this weekend about my conviction that we soon learn to script a narrative for our own lives according to such basic fiction plots as Overcoming the Monster, Rags to Riches or Tragedy. By predeterming early on what our life’s trajectory would ideally be we start to shape that journey — a feedback mechanism where Life imitates Art, just as Art imitated Life.

      Anyway, that’s my considered view, and I think my discussion partner agreed! Glad you enjoyed this, Lynn — does it apply in any way to your fictions? (Rather dark, if you don’t mind me observing!)

      1. I think you’re right – we see our lives as narratives, fulfilling ideas we have about ourselves and how are lives are progressing. Always the MC in our own story.

        As for me, I’m not sure why my writing is so dark sometimes, though I was always drawn to dark, escapist fiction as a child. Looking back, I suspect this was because I was often anxious and unhappy and there’s nothing lovelier if you’re an unhappy child than disappearing into Susan Cooper or Alan Garner or CS Lewis books where children are scared but ultimately gain control and triumph. Fiction is wonderful for giving us the sense that justice is being done, right is winning out, where in real life these things are not always possible. At least good triumphs somewhere, if only in fiction.

        1. I think psychologists talk about people ‘scripting’ their response to things, which comes near enough to the same thing. There’s a line from a blues song covered by Cream — “If it wasn’t for bad luck I’d have no luck at all” — which to me typifies the life scripting we do. Well, some of us!

          Please don’t think my mention of your ‘dark’ plots implies criticism, Lynn! I like ‘dark’ as much as anyone (Susan Cooper certainly knows a thing or two about that, and Tolkien, and George Lucas!) but it’s the return from the dark that we most anticipate after going as far as possible from the light.

          Unless one is a horror fan (I’m not) there has to be a glint of optimism at the end of long narratives, something Joan Aiken allows Dido, though short stories don’t have to obey this convention — the reader can usually supply their own ending, happy or otherwise!

          1. I guess as a writer, it’s good to show your characters traversing the dark – it’s interesting for the reader to see their response and satisfying to see them triumph in the end.

            Although my stories are dark and many of the shorts end unhappily, I don’t think I could write a novel that ends badly for the main character. After getting to know them for months, I want them to suceed as much as anyone else 🙂

            1. It’s hard, I think, for writers to relinquish a strong main character, unless of course they’ve deliberately created a tragic figure. But if they’ve achieved things or made significant changes in their lives then the sense of progress may make it easier to allow them to go. I don’t think readers would want to invest in a character who had no redeeming features or didn’t develop as a person.

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