The winner of the 2017 Arthur C Clarke was announced on Thursday evening – The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead.
I haven’t read the novel – only the freebie excerpt at the novel’s start on Amazon. I must admit the excerpt disappointed me because there was no obvious science fiction element in there – it had the look and feel of a historical novel. The comments about it indicate that it is an alternative history novel, which then, yes would firmly put it into the science fiction genre, where this is science fiction in the wider sense.
But it did make me think about alternate history science fiction novels. The classic ones are Philip K Dick’s The Man in the High Castle, where Germany won World War II, and Keith Robert’s Pavane, where Queen Elizabeth was assassinated in 1588 and England reverted to being a Catholic country. As with Underground Railroad, these novels have an underlying political message to get across about the prevailing politics of the time. I suspect most alternative histories do.
But does this political aspect extend to any ‘time travel’ stories?
Well, it certainly was there in H. G. Wells The Time Machine with the obvious difference between the Morlocks and the Eloi. I would extend this to a lot of the long term themes of Dr Who stories – think Daleks, Cybermen and the Master. Some of the shorter term stories are more like fables or fairy stories teaching the younger generation about what is right and wrong.
In all these societies there is a simplification, a taking out of interfering factors of life that would intervene in the story. It makes the story tighter and more focussed on ‘the message’ it wants to get across. Such stories can be enjoyable, but to me, there is a lack of richness in the world building. The alternative histories will pinch a multitude of aspects from our real history, which makes world building easier for the author. The simplification to focus on the political theme will also make world building simpler because the author only picks up on what he needs for the story.
And this is where I sometimes have a difficulty… without going into details I was given an outline remit against which to try and put a story together. One detail – one very tiny background detail – jarred with my sense of physics and technology. It needed an explanation of how things had got to that point. End result a natural conflict point for a story. And it led to a whole background line of history for the story! The kind you would not get with the vast majority of alternate histories.
This experience goes to confirm in my mind that such alternative histories in the science fiction genre are limited in so many ways. Consequently, as a sub-genre it does not live up to the awe and wonder of some other science fiction sub-genres.