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.