Alternative Truths, edited by Irene Radford and Bob Brown, is an anthology titled in dual references. First, it points to rhetoric issuing from the current White House administration when certain members are challenged on the veracity of their statements. Secondly, the title is a reminder that Speculative Fiction occupies the center of a web of infinite worlds and possibilities and is the perfect genre to provide a set of mirrors to scry possible futures. Anthologies have the advantage of being able to present a range of material; conspiracy theories, aliens, brain washing and spirit possession are all advanced in service of explaining how we got here. In the interests of space I am going to focus on several stories that struck my fancy and stuck in my head, with the usual invitation for the reader to investigate further.
In “The Frame,” Bobby Lee Featherson draws a direct line of descent from Richard Nixon’s administration to that of Donald Trump. What makes the story so eerie and satisfying is the unusual method this legacy takes. The overlap between Trump and Nixon goes beyond simply sharing the Republican political party affiliation. It is not hard to imagine Trump as the spiritual and political successor to a man whose administration was determined to roll back the New Deal. I think the most horrific aspect is the implication that Nixon would be an improvement over Trump, and the story makes this case quite convincingly.
“Letters from the Heartland” by Janka Hobbs is a short volume of correspondence I can imagine taking place between my mother and myself, in similar circumstances. The causal expressions of sturdy faith, the assurances that what seems alarming is only temporary, or meant for the “real” criminals, the determination to look on the bright side even as it might be dimming are all achingly familiar to me. It’s hard for me to guess if my mother would have reached the same place as the story’s correspondent in the end, but I can hope in equally stubborn fashion that she might have. Hobbs makes excellent use of the subtleties possible in the epistolary form.
Voss Foster, in “The History Book,” gets the tone and the setting just right. I own a set of Ridpath’s History of the World, from such time as the final volume is bound in faux rather than real leather and optimistically titled “The Great War.” It is easy to forget that World War I only came into being after World War II, and the idea that the interstice could be chosen as a workable place to excise the atrocities of the Holocaust and attempt to stitch the cloth of historical narrative so as to hide the seam isn’t as far-fetched as one might hope. Children grow up learning what they are taught; textbooks are easily altered, and it’s short distance from simplifying for clarity to revising by omission and angle of perspective to fake news of one stripe or another.
Rebecca McFarland Kyle’s “We’re Still Here” dodges a lot of the easy dystopian scenarios for one of the more nuanced pieces in the book. I found it to be a favorite, all the more striking for the obviousness of the premise. The events leading to the final scene were so focused on the travelers over the path that the result felt dismayingly appropriate even as I realized I had seen all the signs clearly pointing out the way. I was instantly drawn into the family drama, and the ardor of the protagonist brings her to vivid life. There were touches of L’Engle and Heinlein in the dynamic of the parents with the children, a solid reciprocity of feeling that family takes care of each other in a crisis, so that, in spite of the odds, it seems reasonable they might survive. “We’re Still Here” brings the anthology to a close with a defiant note of hope, even as it showcases the irrationality and fluid nature of the absurd situation we all find ourselves in now.
To close on a metaphor, the doughty ship US Government, even in the age of the internet, steers incredibly slowly in spite of a seemingly responsive tiller. Captain President may think he wields an absolute power associated with his station, but the real functioning of the ship of state relies on the crew’s individual actions, the network of sailors, far more than the presence or whims of the person “in charge.” When the ship seems to be foundering in the short term it’s good to tell ourselves stories like these to both occupy our minds and keep us ready to do the right thing when the opportunity is presented.