I write to escape. Instead of looking around and asking “Why?” (which I find myself doing more and more often these days) I want to look into the mists and ask, “What if?”
Then my job is to clear away the mists and show people what “What if?” would look like.
Some fiction takes place in worlds where just about everything is different. Flatland, a story about a square living in two-dimensional space, is one of the most extreme examples. An example we’re more familiar with is Alice in Wonderland. I’m in awe of writers who can manage that sort of worldbuilding.
By contrast, the fiction I write usually takes place in recognizable worlds where one small element is different. For an alternate history, it might be a past in which two people who never met encounter each other. I’ve written time travel stories in which people from the past encounter each other and build a different future. This approach is certainly inspired by my fascination with Philip Jose Farmer’s Riverworld series.
Quite a few speculative fiction works examine humans in settings where a major physical or cultural rule is different: A world where gender roles are switched or societies have multiple or fluid genders, such as the one described in Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness. Dystopian fiction, such as Stephen King’s The Stand, often looks at the ways in which humans might respond to a disaster (nuclear war, alien attack, or a pandemic).
One of the most fascinating variations on the “one change” theme involves the ways in which a completely isolated group of people build or maintain a culture. Would we do it better this time? This includes Riverworld (again), Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy, and Mike Resnick’s astonishing short story “For I Have Touched the Sky,” (available online), part of his Kirinyaga novel. (If you are familiar with Resnick through his humorous space opera stories, Kirinyaga is quite different, and deadly serious. I recommend approaching it without reading any spoilers.)
I have more to say on the topic of writing to escape, but I’ll stop here for the moment. Go read “For I Have Touched the Sky.”