|image by Jing Wei|
It is the feeling of learning each day of new disasters, disrupting and destroying lives - fires, floods, shootings, assassinations, invasions, massacres, family separations, downed airplanes, territorial incursions, children in cages - of knowing that these disasters are caused by people, that people could prevent them, but that instead they are being allowed to continue, that aid is being withheld, that these disasters will continue indefinitely because people have chosen to cause them to do so. It is the feeling of watching the future one once thought inevitable come unraveled, of watching the threads tangle and fray, leaving only a horrible suppurating void in their place.
It's the feeling Hannah Arendt described when she said "The ideal subject of totalitarian rule is not the convinced Nazi or the convinced Communist, but people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction and the distinction between true and false no longer exist," when she wrote "In an ever-changing, incomprehensible world the masses had reached the point where they would, at the same time, believe everything and nothing, think that everything was possible and that nothing was true. The audience was ready at all times to believe the worst, no matter how absurd, and did not particularly object to being deceived because it held every statement to be a lie anyhow. One could make people believe the most fantastic statements one day, and trust that if the next day they were given irrefutable proof of their falsehood, they would take refuge in cynicism; instead of deserting the leaders who had lied to them, they would protest that they had known all along that the statement was a lie and would admire the leaders for their superior tactical cleverness."
This is the zeitgeist I think lit-fic and lifi authors are responding to. And their response has been to imagine scenarios where facts are not facts, truth is not truth, the past is rewritten to serve the needs of the present, and leaders who hold worldly power also hold a certain dominion of the fabric of reality itself.
|The Book of M by Peng Shepherd, published June 2018|
For the infected, reality is as maleable as in Nick Harkaway's The Gone Away World, but for people who still have their memories and their shadows, the world becomes a terrifying place that responds to everyone else's desires but not their own, a world both unchangeable and constantly changing. Because they remember the truth, they struggle to adapt to a world made of lies. (I'm indebted to Electric Lit's review for bringing this one to my attention by pointing out information that wasn't in the publisher's description.)
|The Heavens by Sandra Newman, published February 2019|
|Famous Men Who Never Lived by K Chess, published March 2019|
|All My Colors by David Quantick, published April 2019|
|This is How You Lose the Time War by Amal el-Mohtar and Max Gladstone, published July 2019|
Another quote about M from Electric Lit: "We recognize 'the habit of testing everything by reason' is at best an incomplete goal - sometimes impossible. Bloody wars and public discriminations were carried out over the doctrine of transubstantiation; Catholics and Protestants didn't 'test it by reason' until one side convinced the other, we just learned it wasn't a question to kill each other over."
That metaphor feels imperfect, because the questions at the heart of today's epistemic and are about our ability to live meaningful lives in democratic societies, or whether we will be immiserated and slain by poverty, autocracy, and carbon pollution. The war at the heart of Time War is truly a matter of life and death. If one side wins, the other will cease to exist. Their solution is compromise, mutual surrender. They have the advantage of symmetry and reciprocity, however. In the real world, we suffer from a lopsided polarization, where one side requests equality, and the other demands fealty.
|The Memory Police by Yoko Ogaway, published August 2019|
The terror in Memory Police is more realistic too, it isn't the fear of hallucinogenic transfigurations, it is fear of the police, a terror that is all too real. Anyone who remembers an object that no longer exists, no longer ever existed, is subject to the brutality of the titular Memory Police, who will make them forget, or punish them for remembering. (I should note, Memory Police was published in Japan in 1994, but its reissue in America now is in perfect synchronicity with a developing theme.)
|The Future of Another Timeline by Annalee Newitz, published September 2019|
Newitz imagines a world where change is possible, but violence is unavoidable, a tool that can be used to accomplish many different goals. The morality of using violence, in the world she's created, is determined moreso by the morality of the goal it's in service of than by considerations such as severity and proportionality. Whether this holds true in our world as it does in the world Newitz has written is a question left to the reader.
|The Memory Thief by Lauren Mansy, published October 2019|
In Mansy's world, worldly power in government and business is built on the elite status that comes from the ability to steal memories from others. The thief from the title is not much of an elite though. She would prefer not to use her gift because she considers it immoral, and she is essentially blackmailed into using it to pay off her mother's debts to save her mother's life.
|They Will Drown in Their Mothers' Tears by Johannes Anyuru, published November 2019|
|ieW gniJ yb egami|
So how do we game with this?
In the CRAWL-thulhu game, when the players investigate Cthulhoid mysteries, the result of their investigations will help determine the fate of the world.
The player characters will be called in to investigate the cause of some sort of supernatural phenomenon. The cause will invariably turn out to be a Mythos entity making trouble. The characters can succeed or fail at their investigation. They succeed by figuring out what's going on and getting it to stop. They fail by not understanding the cause of the phenomena, or by allowing the entity to continue causing problems. In my ideal game, after the initial investigation, the players would follow up by taking the fight directly to the Cthulhoid entity in some way, putting the hurt on the Mythos monster to keep it from coming back to bother humanity again.
When the player characters fail at their investigation, things get worse. Natural disasters happen. Democratically-elected governments start getting replaced with dystopian regimes. The English government gets replaced by Big Brother, Russia becomes the One State from We, Canada turns into a brave new world. A successful investigation holds back the tide. Maybe bad things still happen, but not as bad. The consequences are less severe, or the progress of a given disaster are halted mid-way. Taking the fight directly to the Mythos can help claw back some or all of the bad changes. If the player characters fail badly or a lot, the world is going quickly to hell.
Where these recent books come in is by suggesting to me that I should employ a bit of dream logic in the unfolding of events. Disasters of this magnitude already feel unreal, so to game with them, it seems like the thing to do is to lean into that sensation and amplify it.
First of all, the cause-and-effect relationship between the monsters and the disasters should be intentionally ambiguous. It might be clear that failing to stop the monsters in some way contributed to the disasters. But were the monsters themselves directly responsible for the bad things that happened? Did their presence in the world simply make it easier for bad things to happen? Are the themselves monsters like the escaping inhabitants of Pandora's Box, something that only exists because of the evil that lurks in the hearts of humans?
There won't be a simple one-to-one correspondence between the events of the investigation and the state of the world. An investigation that goes badly carries a higher risk - you might get more or worse disasters. But things can still go wrong in the world even if the investigation goes relatively well. Probably just not as wrong. But ideally the players should be left wondering if there was more they could have done, or if that spell they cast or magic item they activated contributed to the deteriorating state of affairs, or if some of the things happening are just bad luck that no one is responsible for. Making that link too obvious and too direct would reduce the beyond-your-control feeling that disasters can evoke.
Secondly, the events should happen in multiples and in rapid succession. This shouldn't be a game where a single campaign event occurs between sessions. This should look like the "outbreak phase" of the Pandemic board game. It's not just that bad things happen. It's that lots and lots of bad things happen and keep happening. This is a flood that can't be combated or contained by trying to go after single events. They must be stopped at their supernatural source.It should feel like the world's a boat that's taking on water and sinking faster than you can bail it out.
Third, these books make me think that it's important to play with time. When a problem happens, maybe it doesn't just happen now, maybe what happens now reverberates backward through time so that instead of needing time to come to maturity, the problem arrives fully grown and fully fledged. If you defeat a monster and manage to undo some chaos, maybe it's not just fixed, maybe it never happened. It should all feel dreamlike and unreal, or what Daniel Sell calls "bumble logic". This has the advantage of letting complex geopolitical events occur and take effect on a timescale that corresponds to the rate of campaign advancement. It also creates some ambiguity around the question of which problems are fixable, and while must be endured.
|ᴉǝM ƃuᴉſ ʎq ǝƃɐɯᴉ|
And if you're like me, you see the "new fiction" section of your local bookstore looking like a new genre in speculative fiction has been curated by the coincidence of so many authors writing such similar books so close together in time. These texts are coming out much too close together for the authors to be responding to one another, but as I said before, I think they're all responding to the same real-world events, and I think they're all drawing on, adding to, and responding to earlier trends in scifi and lifi.
Time Wars: Two of the recent books are overtly about time wars. Time war fiction is a physicalization of the metaphor of the winners rewriting history. I would argue that the first time war novel is George Orwell's 1984. Here the war is over, at least internally - there is no longer any serious opposition within Oceana. And here the metaphor is still basically metaphorical. But we do see the victors multiply re-writing their own history, altering historical documents with scissors and glue and typewriters, cutting out articles from old newspapers, removing the names of un-persons, inserting text to assert their preferred version of the past within the archival records.
Next comes Isaac Asimov with The End of Eternity, which provides the blueprint for all the time wars that follow. Asimov imagines his time bureau working primarily to secure its own existence by safeguarding the history that leads to its founding, primarily against saboteurs rather than an organized rival faction. All future time bureaus look more or less like Asimov's. Fritz Lieber's The Big Time has a full on "change war" between two factions trying to erase each other called the Spiders and the Snakes, which has always made me wonder if he was mashing up Asimov with West Side Story, which was making it big on Broadway around the time he must have been writing. John Crowley's Great Work of Time has a single time bureau again, although their efforts to secure their own existence are made both more morally dubious by tying them directly to British colonial imperialism, and more difficult by the problem that changes to history also ripple backward in time, so that trips extending only hundreds of years into the past end up altering human evolution millions of years earlier. Charles Stross's time bureau from Palimpsest wants to ensure the maximum longevity of the human species, but splinters into factions over questions of what it means to be human, and whether humans must be maintained on Earth or allowed to travel to other stars.
The Adjustment Bureau keeps all of Asimov's trappings, but turns the time agents into angels, and transforms their "plan" into something completely unknowable. More recently, Primer dispenses with the well-funded bureaucracies and pits two men with homemade time machines directly against each other in an attempt to rewrite the final version of events since the moment the first machine was switched on - which is the earliest either of them can travel. William Gibson's The Peripheral imagines that when people travel to the past they inevitably arrive in an alternate past that won't lead to their present, then makes time travel the province of bored rich people, who treat these alternate realities they've created as little more than video games, and the living humans within them as nothing but pawns. Tom Sweterlitsch's The Gone World inverts Gibson's premise, locating his virtual alternate realities in the future rather than the past, and having them collapse automatically when the time traveler leaves. (Gone World was also so disappointing that I feel tempted to write a review just so I can catalog its most glaring flaws. The theory of "how time travel works" in Avengers Endgame is precisely the same as in The Peripheral, although Gibson explains it much better, and no one in his world attempts to re-merge the "stub" realities back into the main timeline.)
Alternate Lives: These stories are also a way of literalizing a metaphor. All of us sometimes think back on decisions we made and wonder what would've happened if we'd chosen differently. All of sometimes imagine what it would be like to have a different life. And occasionally it feels like you made a mistake, or the world made a mistake, and that other life is the one you should have. Liana Moriarty's What Alice Forgot has a protagonist who experiences a 10 year time skip and finds her life almost unrecognizable, and the decisions she made over the past decade inexplicable. In J Robert Lennon's The Familiar, the past explicitly changes, and the lead character finds her dead son is alive and her marriage transformed. These stories often focus on the relatively mundane details of one individual's life. Carol Anshaw's Aquamarine has three timelines instead of two, and the turning point is an Olympic swim meet. Heather McElhatton's Pretty Little Mistakes goes even further, using a choose-your-own-adventure structure to multiply her lead character's alternate lives. An interesting feature of Aquamarine and Mistakes is the sexual fluidity of the lead character, whose most important romantic relationships might be with men or women depending on the path their lives take.
Another set of these stories turn on the JFK assassination as a key point where realities diverge, the same way the parallel reality stories I'll talk about next center on WWII, perhaps because for people of a certain age, that moment is the one that feels like the moment things went wrong the same way that 9/11 does for a later generation. Here the changes to the world are much more dramatic. In Jo Walton's My Real Children, the narrator is an old women remembering two incompatible lifetimes, neither identical to our own. In one Kennedy was killed by a bomb but the USSR is more peaceful and more scientific; in the other Kennedy escalates the Cuban Missile Crisis the point of exchanging nuclear strikes, although he lives and steps down after a single term. Children also focuses on intimate family details and allows sexual fluidity across the two pasts. In Kathleen Ann Goonan's This Shared Dream, it's young adults remembering two different childhoods rather than an adult remembering two lifetimes, but again, the success or failure of the Kennedy assassination is the turning point. Goonan's characters are the children of a time traveler. In 11/22/63, Stephen King makes the time traveler his protagonist. But his determination to prevent Kennedy's assassination keeps changing the future for the worse, like a more literary version of the Butterfly Effect movie. Time travel also features in Elan Mastai's All Our Wrong Todays, where a time traveler from a utopian future accidentally ruins the past and gets trapped there. Like in The Heavens, the horrible alternative is our own real world. The trapped time traveler in Mike Chen's Here and Now and Then doesn't ruin the world, but he does start a new life in our time, and lives here for two decades before getting the chance to go home to another family in his original time, our future.
A couple early versions of this sort of story appear in the films Sliding Doors, where we see possible versions of a woman's life depending on whether or not she catches a train on a particular day, and Run Lola Run, where we see several possible outcomes of a single bad day. Most later versions, however, allow the characters to meet their other selves. It's possible that the rise of these stories coincides the ability, using editing and digital effects, to show actors interacting with themselves. Another Earth uses the discovery of a counter-earth to supply its characters with alternate lives. Coherence offers up a multiplicity of alternatives, most of them mundane, accessible by walking around the identical streets and houses of a neighborhood subdivision. The show Sliders and the comic Black Science both star teams of dimension-travelers who frequently run into unsavory alternate versions of themselves. Both are arguable at least as much about those alternate selves as they are about alternate histories. Both Fringe and to a much greater extent Counterpart are about single alternate universes and multiple instances of communication across the barrier, in a way that's reminiscent of Famous Men Who Never Lived.
Another way to literalize the metaphor of alternate lives is with uncanny duplicates without dimensional travel. These are sometimes clones, sometimes inexplicable, but they always lead a life you could have been living. Also sometimes they want to kill you. For some reason that's a really common feature of the film version of these stories that pretty much never happens in the books. The Double and Enemy opened the same weekend, making them uncanny doubles of one another. The One I Love and Living with Yourself both have the doubles appear as the result of a spa visit promising to turn the visitor into their ideal self. The One and Gemini Man amplify the killer replacement angle until it becomes their entire plot. And in very different ways, Orphan Black and Us expand from single duplicate to virtual armies of them.
Parallel Realities: These stories are maybe the most overtly political, because they inevitably imagine a reversal of real-world geopolitics. It's not just incidental like the previous subgenre; here it's baked directly in to the definition. And they're not just alternate histories, especially the recent ones, because they tend to imagine a reversal whose parallels go beyond what might be historically plausible, or even possible, and because they tend to posit that at least some characters become aware of an eerie parallel world, that is, they become aware of our real world, with our actual history. They also tend to be set in the author's present day, rather than taking place in the historical past.
Philip K Dick's The Man in the High Castle is the origin of this particular subgenre, and it establishes all the tropes I mentioned above. Those tropes are pretty much what makes this a separate body of work from the larger world of alt-history. Dick imagines the Axis Powers winning WWII, with North America partitioned the way Germany and Berlin were in our world. Norman Spinard's The Iron Dream focuses much more on the book-within-the-book than the world surrounding it. The Grasshopper Lies Heavy is a recurring presents in High Castle, but Lord of the Swastika takes up most of the text of Dream. Spinard imagines Adolph Hitler immigrating to America in 1919 and become a pulp-scifi sword-and-sorcery author, whose overtly fascist fantasies are well-received by American science fiction readers.
Matt Ruff picks up much later with The Mirage, about a world where the rogue third-world states of North America launches a Christianist terror attack on the twin towers of the World Trade Center in Baghdad, in the United States of Arabia. Lavie Tidhar, meanwhile, has practically set up a cottage industry. Osama takes place in a world without terrorism, where Osama bin Laden exists as a fictional character in a series of popular thrillers. A Man Lies Dreaming takes place primarily in a world where the Nazis never rose to power, Germany became a Communist country, and Hitler moved to England where he became a typical noir-fiction detective, still virulently anti-semetic, but rendered harmless by his circumstances. But this world is literally the dream of a Jewish man dying in Auschwitz during the Holocaust, who escapes his misery by reimagining his tormentor as a bumbling and ineffectual character in a detective novel dreamworld. In Unholy Land, a Jewish author of pulp detective novels gets on a plane to Israel and instead lands in Palestina, a Jewish state established in Uganda in 1903 after a politician had an accurate future vision of the Holocaust. Palestina has a similar relationship to the Ugandan people that modern Israel has to the Palestinians. The author experiences his visit to Palestina as kind of a waking dream.
Magical Plagues: Fantastical or science fictional pandemics have been sweeping the world at least since John Wyndham's The Day of the Triffids, where everyone who looks at a particular meteor show all go blind and the world is overrun by carnivorous plants. Jose Saramago wrote Blindness and won a Nobel prize for it, which I have to think is part of what inspired the lit-fic authors who started writing plague novels after that. One trend I see in the plague novel, though, is that the diseases keep getting more magical.
Charlie Huston's Sleepless, Karen Russell's Sleep Donation, and Kenneth Calhoun's Black Moon all deal with plagues of insomia. Huston and Russell both allow the transfer of sleep from the healthy to the ill, like some sort of psychic blood transfusion. (Again, I wonder about inspiration. The movie Sleep Dealer came out the same year as the film adaptation of Blindess. Its plot has nothing to do with this concept, but its name is evocative, and someone paying attention to scifi film reviews that year might have noticed the title.) Karen Thompson Walker inverts the pattern in The Dreamers, where the plague causes sleep, rather than sleeplessness. The plague victims in Ling Ma's Severance aren't exactly asleep, but they are almost sleepwalking, repeating common mundane activities compulsively in something like a fugue state.
Ben Marcus's Flame Alphabet and Alena Gradon's The Word Exchange both cross the plague genre with the premise from Mark Dunn's Ella Minnow Pea. In Marcus's book adults develop allergic reactions to the sound of children's speech, those who don't abandon civilization for solitude end up like plague victims in Severance. Grandon imagines a flu that causes people to forget words, a problem compounded by the complete absence of printed text and the total reliance on a ubiquitous internet platform that appears to be deleting language as well. It's only a short leap further to the more recent texts, where forgetting doesn't just cause the loss of a shared language, but the disintegration of all observable reality.
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