609. Alternate Universes

During the Golden Age, most of Heinlein’s short stories linked together to make a complete future world. I didn’t know that at the time, since I wasn’t born yet. I discovered his Future History as his short stories began to be reissued in collections, when paperback books were relatively new. In the opening pages of several of them there was a chart of future history, showing times, scientific developments, and social changes, all keyed to the stories built around them.

Future history in science fiction is a first cousin to alternate history, which is sometimes seen as SF and is sometimes shelved with ordinary historical fiction.

Historical fiction isn’t history. Studies of history may be inaccurate, even deliberately so, but they aren’t fiction. Sometimes they may be as far away from truth as deliberate fiction, but that’s a whole ‘nuther can of posts.

Historical fiction may be romance, adventure, war, moral advance or moral decline, or any other type of story, just as contemporary fiction can be. It simply uses history as a place for things to happen, just like a boy meets girl story can take place in Palestine or Paducah.

Alternate history does the same thing, but with an additional twist. The author makes a choice of where and when to make a historical change, and then invents a fictional world based on that change. After that, as with science fiction, the story the author tells may resemble ordinary fiction, or it may depend on events special to the created world.

Almost all science fiction creates some kind of future history. Heinlein gets first mention because he coined the term, but his buddy E. E. Smith’s Lensmen series creates an even bigger, badder, and bolder alternate universe. Gordon Dickson had his Childe Cycle (known to ordinary mortals as the Dorsai books), and there are dozens, probably hundreds, of other examples.

Alternate history does the same thing, but starts earlier in time. Fantasy, from Tolkien to Diskworld, creates entirely non-ordinary worlds. Only contemporary and historical fictions are impoverished by a lack of world building.

Once a writer creates a universe, there is a temptation to return to it. After all, much of his work has already been done. The result may be an enriching of the imaginary world, or a steady decline in quality due to self-repetition. It depends on the skill of the author.

My own writings live in two variant futures, one variant past, and a variant past created by time traveling meddlers from a variant future. And a fantasy world.

The variant past story is The Cost of Empire, which could be shelved with science fiction (at a stretch), steampunk (easily), or alternate history. A dishonest capitalist steals a new type of engine; he also talks the British government into starting a spy organization which he then uses to sabotage other engine types, skewing industrial development. That’s backstory; if you are curious about the actual story, the opening pages were presented in posts 486, 487, 488, and 489.

In one of my variant futures a scientist named Lassiter discovers a glitch in our understanding of physics which allows easy total annihilation of matter. That means a star drive for nearby star systems, with all the complications of near light-speed travel, but no FTL. This led to world building for all the stars within about five light years of Earth, and to the novel Cyan which explores one of them.

Such multiple world building calls for other novels, including the one alluded to in Monday’s post.

Not to belabor a point, but the world building in Cyan and the world building in The Cost of Empire are both based on a technological innovation. The only real difference is that one change took place in the past and one will take place in the future. SF and alternate history are often two faces of the same coin.

Incidentally, the Cyan universe came about after I wrote my first published novel Jandrax. I asked myself, where did this universe come from? How did it start? What were the ancestors of the people in Jandrax doing a few hundred years earlier? Then I filled in the missing pieces, and Cyan emerged.

My other early published novel, A Fond Farewell to Dying, is based on a historical change and a technological development. The world in general comes into being through a confluence of nuclear war and rising oceans, ending with the northern hemisphere devastated, and India as the last best hope of scientific culture. The technological event is the creation of a practical, artificial immortality. That world called for two sequels which have been outlined, but not yet been written. One of them has recently been calling my name, so maybe soon.

In FFTD, the bombs fell in the future, so it is clearly SF. If the bombs had fallen in 1957, it might be categorized as alternate history — but probably wouldn’t be because of the immortality theme.

Writers write. Putting novels into categories is the job of editors, critics, and booksellers. We do make life hard for them sometimes.

My latest novel, Like Clockwork, takes place in a quasi-Victorian pocket London and won’t have any direct sequels. It could be published as steampunk, but it is actually a straight SF time travel story.

However the future world of the time traveler who is Like Clockwork‘s hidden prime mover has infinite possibilities. In that world Einstein got it right, there can be no FTL, and only century ships are a possibility. Adventurous souls need not despair, however, because there is sideways travel in time. For fear of destroying their own existence, time travel in this culture’s own timeline is forbidden, but travel to alternate universes is the order of the day. 

My fantasy novels all take place in one created world, but that’s a whole different set of posts.

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