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 Riverworldseries.
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.”
“Bonding over stories is an ancient, primal pastime. Bards and tale-tellers kept the lights on through the dark times, and hopefully we can do the same.”
On November 7, we’ll know if the Democrats and progressives have taken back Congress — or if the Republicans have, once again, succeeded in doing what people keep saying they can’t possibly get away with.
What does the future hold? For the past two years, the people at B Cubed Press have been grappling with that question.
Bob Brown, a publisher from Eastern Washington, pulled two dozen of us together in the wake of the presidential inauguration to work on Alternative Truths, an anthology so successful that he followed up with More Alternative Truths, After the Orange (stories about a post-Trump future), and Alternative Theologies: Parables for a Modern World. Each anthology added more writers and more points of view. B Cubed Press projects have attracted some of the sharpest futurists around, among them poet and children’s book author Jane Yolen, blogger Jim Wright (Stonekettle Station), and science fiction authors David Gerrold and Brenda Cooper.
Brown says that when he formed B Cubed Press and published the first Alternative Truths anthology, he thought he knew what he was doing. “It was meant as satire about the political situation. Not as prophecy.”
He was taken aback when many of the dark stories and poems in his science fiction anthology were rapidly outpaced — by the daily news.
“We wrote assuming there were constraining structures in place, things that would have prevented some of the great idiocies,” he says. “We were wrong. We wrote about the presidency and the accompanying absurdities, not imagining the collaboration that would come from Congress. Things we envisioned as dark possibilities became prophecies — and now a shameful history that will shape our country for most of our lives.”
Brown has a fifth anthology, Alternative Truths: Endgame, in the works. While the pool of contributors grows, many of us keep returning to the challenge of describing the country’s political future through fiction and poetry. My first story for Brown was a dystopian tale of an architect acclaimed in 2020 for designing the eldercare community of the future. Forty years later, when the story takes place, she’s trapped in her failing community after the country’s human services and healthcare systems have collapsed. For my second Alternative Truths story, I turned to humorous fantasy, imagining a feisty Molly Ivins and vengeful Walter Cronkite sending LBJ and J. Edgar Hoover back from the afterlife to haunt the Trump White House.
With the mid-term elections just a few weeks away, I asked my fellow B Cubed Press authors to look back on what they wrote in 2017 and early 2018. Were their predictions accurate? Were their fears justified? Are any of their proposed solutions being implemented? Are we still on track for some of the far futures outlined in After the Orange? Is there anything in their stories they’d change? Are they optimistic or pessimistic about the political future? Do they feel that we, as writers, can make any difference?
As usual, they had plenty to say. Their responses touched on topics ranging from the future of the environment to the power of fiction as a political tool. Some saw reasons for hope, others a darkening horizon. Here are excerpts from their responses, with links to the B Cubed Press books in which their stories and poems appear.
Reasons for hope
James Dorr, whose poem “Tit for Tat” appears in Alternative Theologies, is putting his hope in future generations. “I’m optimistic if younger people will invest more into the political process, including voting,” he says.
Manny Frishberg, editor of After the Orange, is “guardedly optimistic” about the future. He notes: “As Winston Churchill said, ‘Democracy is a very bad form of government, but let me remind you, all the rest are so much worse.’”
Marilyn Holt (author of the Alternative Theologies story “Everlasting Due”) is looking to the Midwest for leadership. “Medicine is strong in the Midwest, and there are some excellent schools,” she says. “This combination gives me hope. The Midwest could become a financially vibrant middle ground. It will look more like California or the Puget Sound area than Georgia.”
Lou Antonelli wrote the alternate history “Queens Crossing” for More Alternative Truths. “I believe America is a more durable and resilient nation than some people think,” he says. “Whatever you think of the present political climate, ‘this too shall pass.’”
Elana Gomel, author of “The Desert of the Real” (After the Orange), speaks from an immigrant’s perspective. “I am optimistic by nature,” she says. “Our family escaped one of the most evil regimes the world has ever known: the USSR. At the time, that behemoth of the empire, straddling half the world, seemed invincible. And yet less than a decade later it was gone. The USA is a great country with great people. Its relative youth, its immigrant diversity, its fierce individualism are its great strengths. I don’t believe it will ever go down the rabbit hole of totalitarianism. My grandmother survived Hitler and Stalin. Surely the people of this country can survive Trump.”
Philip Brian Hall, whose stories appear in More Alternative Truths and Alternative Theologies, also believes the people will prevail. A U.K. citizen, he says: “I fear, in short, that the roots of democracy may be shallower than we thought and the still relatively young plant frailer. But in both our countries I see a great number of good people who have shown they cannot be ignored for too long and pushed too far by professional politicians who have forgotten, if they ever knew, what it is like to be an ordinary citizen. This encourages me to believe that we can yet revitalize our political life and reconnect with the sound underlying principles of government to which our two countries, in particular, first gave expression in thought and deed.”
Faith in the mid-terms
Blaze Ward’s story “The Last Ranger” (Alternative Truths) is about the last federal park ranger certified to protect public lands. Ward hopes the mid-term elections will ensure that his tale remains a fantasy. “If we can overturn the House and maybe even the Senate, we’ll only be a decade undoing the damage,” he says. “If not, we’ll be generations.”
Brenda Cooper, whose “Maybe the Monarchs” (After the Orange) is about failed attempts to mitigate climate change, is also focused on the mid-terms. “We are in a race to save the planet, and the people running America right now clearly don’t care,” she says. “But as we approach the mid-terms I’m hoping that we manage to pull out a blocking move by taking at least one of the House and/or Senate. I see more women running, more people of color running, more voters who are energized. I work in a local government, and our government works well and is reasonably responsive to constituents, cares about the planet, and works hard to create what we call an ‘inclusive and welcoming community.’”
Rebecca Kyle, who co-edited More Alternative Truths and contributed stories to three of the anthologies, is also putting her faith in the mid-terms. “We have a solid chance to vote some of the worst of them in the House and Senate out,” Kyle says. “I’ve noted some ‘career’ Republicans in my state have retired. ‘Cashed in’ is the description some political pundits are using. They may see their party now as a finite resource and their reputation is better served by getting out.”
Several of the B Cubed Press authors report that they are losing hope.
“I’m still pretty wrung out from the whole Kavanaugh drama — and that isn’t even finished yet,” says Elizabeth Ann Scarborough. Her story “Wishcraft.com” appears in More Alternative Truths.
Stuart Hardy lives in the UK, which faces a similar political situation. His story, “A Beautiful Industry” (More Alternative Truths) portrays immigrants scapegoated for taking working class jobs when, he says, “it’s actually the mechanization of industry that’s seen a decline in manufacturing work.”
“If we don’t tackle the causes of political unrest, the next Trump may not just happen but the next Trump may be competent and be able to cause even greater damage than Trump’s managed,” Hardy says, “and that’s what terrifies me.”
J.G. Follansbee, whose story about global warming, “The Orange Street Parking Garage is FULL/OPEN,” appears in After the Orange, warns that time is running out. “Our government is showing no inclination whatsoever for tackling this problem in a serious way. I’m glad localities, such as my home town of Seattle, and many states are taking action, but only the federal government has the wherewithal to encourage the kind of change we need,” Follansbee says. “Instead, it seems that Washington will fiddle while the Earth burns.”
E.E. King (“The Faithless Angel” in Alternative Theologies) reports: “I’m pessimistic, but happy — fortunate that I still live in a beautiful world, sad for the creatures in it.”
S. Workman says, “Despite the bleak outlook of my story (“Sandarakinophobia” in After the Orange), I enjoyed having the opportunity to write about a futuristic underwater civilization, and speculating on what kind of society might result from it.”
Debora Godfrey, who wrote “Non-White in America” (More Alternative Truths) and “Don’t Get the Bible Wet” (Alternative Theologies) says her outlook these days is pessimistic. “My story ‘Non-White in America’ could be in the newspaper any day now,” she notes.
Hindsight about foresight
Quite a few of the authors said they’d have written their stories differently if they’d known what the next 18 months would bring.
Christopher Nadeau, who wrote “Ultimate Messiah Smackdown” for Alternative Theologies, says “If there’s an inaccuracy to be found in the story, it’s in the mild, yet easily dashed, optimistic undercurrent. If I’d written that story now, that would not be present.”
Paula Hammond contributed stories to three of the anthologies. “Good Citizens” (Alternative Truths) imagines the aftermath of a second civil war in a ‘whites only’ America while “Ghosts & Glory” (After the Orange) is a climate change story in which vast areas of America are under water. “To be honest, the worlds imagined in these stories are, sadly, becoming even more likely,” she says. “Now I realise that I didn’t go far enough!”
Charles Joseph Alpert wrote “Sunday with Javier and Papi” for After the Orange. The story is set 100 years in the future after a political civil war between the Reds and the Blues. “In the last year, I would say that we’ve only gotten closer to something like a civil war,” he says. “I’m surprised by how misogynistic the Trump camp seems to be growing. I didn’t think to put misogyny in my story.”
Mike Morgan says he would have upped the tension in his tale, “A Spider Queen in Every Home” (More Alternative Truths). “In light of recent events with the Supreme Court, I think I would’ve been tempted to have my lead character defend an obviously egregious sexual assault perpetrated by her manager as — somehow — the fault of the victim,” he says. “Because, it turns out, right-wing folks, they be happy to tie themselves up in logical knots tighter than anything I could’ve predicted in my wildest delusional fantasies.”
Larry Hodges would have given “The Monkey Cage Rules” (Alternative Truths) a more resounding ending. The story currently concludes with the question, “Can anyone rule the monkey cage?” (where “monkey cage” means “politics”). “I’d rather be more blunt,” Hodges says. “Our current politics shows that nobody can rule the monkey cage because our country is too split. I might even want to work in the Lincoln quote, ‘A house divided against itself cannot stand.’”
The story “How to Recognize a Shapeshifting Lizardman (Or Woman) Who Has Been Appointed to a High-Ranking Government Cabinet Position” (More Alternative Truths) is “not so funny anymore,” according to its author, Kurt Newton. “Now that the outlandish has become the norm, the poke is not as funny as first imagined,” he says. “I’d probably either rewrite the piece and take it up a notch to be even more ridiculous, or turn it into something more satirically biting.”
Poet Gwyndyn T. Alexander, who wrote “America Year Zero” (More Alternative Truths) and “A Liberal Prayer” and “A Conservative Prayer” (Alternative Theologies), says “I wish, looking back, that I had found more room for hope. As things get bleaker, hope is harder to find, and each smidgen of it is more precious.”
Manny Frishberg (After the Orange) concludes, “As the editor of a book of post-Trump future stories, I would have tried to find a few more hopeful, optimistic futures to project. Who knew the world would continue to get darker?”
Dreams (or nightmares) come true
While some of the authors felt they’d missed the mark, others were astonished to watch scenes from their fiction appear on the news.
When John A. Pitts penned “The Last Flight of Captain Kittredge” for After the Orange, he thought his tale of a GOP oligarchy taking control of all three branches of our government was pretty outrageous. But now? Not so much. “We have psychosis gripping the nation, and Russians influencing our populace at an unprecedented level,” Pitts says.
In “aboutthechange.wav” (Alternative Truths) Joel Ewy‘s protagonist becomes unhinged as the truth twists and changes around him. “It was an attempt to understand the consequences of taking part in a forceful redefinition of truth and reality,” Ewy says. “If anything, the events since the time I wrote it have intensified this situation.”
Gregg Chamberlain saw a milder version of a scene from his story “Alt Right for the President’s End” (Alternative Truths) play out. “Trump did appear at the United Nations, but did not ‘break down and explode into cybernetic pieces’ on his way to the podium,” Chamberlain says. “The actual result of his U.N. visit was even better: getting laughed at by the General Assembly for his typical outlandishly inaccurate and fanciful claims.”
Daniel M. Kimmel notes that “It’s All Your Fault” (Alternative Truths) “is a rare story that marks me as prescient. When I wrote about aliens trolling on social media it was long before it came out that there was extensive Russian involvement in influencing the election.”
Edd Vick wrote “Call to Order” (After the Orange) and co-wrote with Manny Frishberg “Twitterstorm” (More Alternative Truths). “All I can say is that the president’s Twitter messages are more outrageous, more deranged, and more unintentionally funny than anything Manny & I could write,” Vick says. He explains, “We had to create a narrative, where Trump just has to stream his consciousness with no regard for consistency or the truth.”
A vote for the power of fiction
Several of the writers and editors involved in the project expressed the hope that their stories might inspire others — to activism, to understanding, and to action.
“I am proud of the authors that have submitted, spoken out, and taken what someday might be a real risk in putting their names on these books,” Bob Brown says. “This is not paranoia — this is looking at what happens under one party rule where the press is vilified, the courts are stacked, and opposition is considered treason.”
Mike Adamson, who stands by the dystopian future he portrayed in “Hellrider” (After the Orange), observes: “Creating dystopian science fiction used to be a warning, 40, 50 years ago; now it is a commentary on an ongoing situation, an ‘I told you so’ from the genre to the world. I doubt it gives any writer pleasure to be the one to say that, but, to steal a line from an American president of the past, ‘it must be said again and again with fierce conviction.’ If not by the writers of speculative fiction, then who?”
Perhaps the best way to end this roundup of observations from the B Cubed Press futurists is with Diana Hauer, who wrote “The Trumperor and the Nightingale” for Alternative Truths. She says “I wrote the story with a level of sympathy towards the Trumps that I no longer possess. I’m not sure I could write the same story today, I am too disgusted with everything. That said, I hope we can hold onto some of our human empathy for the other side, even the most deplorable examples. My hope with the work B Cubed is doing is that fiction can start knitting things back together. Bonding over stories is an ancient, primal pastime. Bards and tale-tellers kept the lights on through the dark times, and hopefully we can do the same.”
I encourage you to explore the participants’ pages, where you’ll find excerpts from the work of pros like Andy Duncan, Vonda McIntyre, Elizabeth Bear, Louise Marley, Rachel Swirsky, Kelley Eskridge, and Nisi Shawl, and emerging stars like Vylar Kaftan, J.M. Sidorova, and Cat Rambo (to name just a very few of the 228 participants).
In the next few days, I’ll be posting here about my own Write-a-thon goals — which including writing three short stories inspired by Jonathan Coulton songs and publishing them on Writer Way. (Thank you, Jeff and Allen, for your generous support!)
Here are a few early progress reports from Write-a-thon participants:
Brenda Cooper is writing 1,000 words a day on a novel — plus training for the STP (Seattle-to-Portland) bike ride event.
I’m writing this post from the 4th Street Fantasy Convention in Minneapolis, where I just had the honor of moderating a writers workshop on storytelling that featured Oneal Isaac, Scott Lynch, Beth Meacham, and Mary Robinette Kowal. I was so inspired by their presentations and Q&A with the workshop attendees that I’m tempted to repair to my room and spend the rest of the weekend writing. But there are too many other great panels to attend, such as “Story Templates and the Folk Process” — which is starting in 10 minutes.