The Future Alternative Past: I’m the Fat Lady. And I’m singing.

The current run of the Seattle Review of Books is ending soon. For me, it’s over now, with this column.

Yes, our cessation of publication is COVID-19 related, though probably not as directly related as you think. Neither of the founders have died or are ill. The connection between the pandemic and our closure is complicated. Which is a thing SFFH teaches us about changes and their implications: they stack up oddly, they link laterally, they branch. “It’s after the end of the world; don’t you know that yet?” Sun Ra’s Arkestraasked back in the day. I’ve quoted that song here before, when discussing trends in apocalypses. It’s pertinent now, too, when we’re experiencing one.

Yep. hat’s what this is. An apocalypse.

I teach this online course on writing alternate histories, “Turning the World.” One exercise involves querying the ways everyday objects are transformed by the students’ chosen points of divergence. If a cure for equine malaria is introduced into Equatorial Africa in the 9th century, what does that mean for the region’s clothing? Do the newly created riders wear boots? Kilts? Chaps? And do non-riders assume riding costumes as marks of prestige? So forth. So on.

Pacifist that I am, at one stage during its drafting I wanted to write World War I out of my alternate history novel Everfair. But a bit of research revealed that if I did I’d lose one of the primary causes of the Harlem Renaissance, a period crucial to the rest of the plot. What a tangled web life weaves. Reproducing it even partially in fiction is hard work. Extrapolating from it is much harder.

That’s a lot of what we SFFH authors do: extrapolate. Actually, extrapolation is something the whole SFFH community is interested in. Improbable though the current situation seems, we expect to see it develop further. Question is, along what lines? What happens when the status quo stops? After the fat lady sings?

Every apocalypse is also a potential point of divergence in the histories we write simply by existing in the world. From where we are now we can make our way to times and places like those in the Cory Doctorow’s Walkaway or NK Jemisin’s “The Ones Who Stay and Fight.” Or we can wind up in quite different sorts of scenarios. Bad ones. It’s worth studying. It’s worth trying to do properly. Trying to create exactly the effects we most deeply desire, note by note.

And that’s it from me. Thank you for listening all these months. I hope my songs have moved you, and also that they’ve given you ideas for how to go on after their end.