My brother, who is a very smart man, went through a phase when he was a single-digit kid. Being the youngest, he got away with essentially driving us crazy. No matter what the topic, no matter what we said, he could come up with a “What if?” question to go with it. If we were lucky, it was only one question. At the time, it was maddening. He knew the effect perfectly well and therefore never stopped at one question. But looking back, it may be simply because he was the smartest and best critical thinker in the family. This from a kid who declared loudly that he wanted to be a ditch digger when he grew up. I was never sure if he was just yanking our chain.
Decades later, wearing the hat of a fiction writer, there is no better question.
As a fiction writer, you may ask the Fifty Shades question. What happens if a straightlaced, relatively innocent woman suddenly decides to dive into the world of S&M, dominance and submission? I never finished the book (it’s very rare that I don’t finish the book), so I don’t know. You may ask a question about what happened during the Great Depression, the Civil War, World War II, or the individuals involved and how their lives were impacted by history and events beyond their control. In fiction, these types of questions are asked over and over, and usually reveal new insights into the experience of those in the mix of human history. You may be more like my wife, who is as rational as a Vulcan and studies genealogy as a hobby to develop the story of our family reality.
For myself, I find this entirely valid. There is no number of individual perspectives on the story of humanity, no matter whether documented or fictionalized, that doesn’t add the to the value of what it means to be human and to answer the questions we are all asking. We all know that the stickiest stories are not judged on the basis of fact, but on the basis of impact. (See: current events.)
As a speculative fiction writer, the field breaks open like a good block on a linebacker. Sometimes the question runs for a first down and makes for a good story. Sometimes, it runs for a touchdown and leaves the general sense of, ”How did that happen?” SF writers not only ask questions about what we have experienced in the most granular and personal sense, but on what we may experience in the broadest sense. What are those questions? Well, they boil down to the intellectual property of the writer, in the sense that I have lots of ideas I keep close to my vest, but I can almost guarantee that every person with any amount of insight and introspection out there has a few of their own. I can guarantee it on the basis of hearing about it from many different people, and by asking those who don’t offer their ideas up for examination. Humanity is inherently creative, and that’s both beautiful and terrifying. We have it within us to create our future, or another nightclub shooting.
The masters of SF, from my point of view, may be 75% obsolete, but that doesn’t matter one bit. I spent my time in a small town mall bookstore that gradually became less about books and more about greeting cards and Christmas figurines. The manager knew me, and kept me abreast of the latest arrivals. Considering the modern state of that mall, minus one bookstore, I count myself lucky to have grown up as a SF geek at the exact time when I did.
Larry Niven was the master of worldbuilding. Robert Heinlein was the master of pitting the broad futurist ideas against social mores he considered ridiculous at the time. While Heinlein made it clear that considering women as anything less than men was the highest level of stupidity, in 2018 terms, his worldview may as well have been an episode of Mad Men with really smart women. Anne McCaffrey was the consummate builder of harmonious, Irish influenced societies with enough conflict to make it worth my while. She taught me how to work through a book full of weird names and culture far better than reading Chaucer in high school. If she were the saleswoman for the Irish model of life, we might all be in a better place. Madeleine L’Engle created stories that still resonate today for me, forty-plus years later. I read the entire set again recently, to discover that I found them good and bad in exactly the same way I did when I was a kid, which is bizarre, since much of the comedy of my youth falls flat in middle age. It’s safe to say that she found the mixture of simplicity and complexity that completely superseded the span of my life. Meanwhile, there was a huge litany of SF authors that completely exceeded my youthful ability to make heads or tails of their work. At the same time, there are anthologies that I would pay good money to reread just to flesh out the ideas that stuck with me over the years. There are even elementary school readers I would love to see again.
Although I can legitimately count myself a fan of Stephen King, I can also admit that he’s a step or two beyond me more often than not. That’s a good thing. I prefer to look up to my authors than to feel as if I can level a top-down critique. In the very modern sense, I can look up to a number of great authors who bring a great deal to the discussion of what I care to discuss. I have a shelf full of SM Stirling hardbacks that I can give and take on certain aspects, yet manage to impart the fundamentals that I believe to be true. We know nothing, and if you can deal with what’s in front of you, no matter what that may be, you are far better off than the vast majority of people around you. John Scalzi, for whom I’ve named a very good cat, is a master of humanizing a variety of concepts that would bring most of us to our knees. Incidentally, using the words “Good” and “Cat” in the same sentence is not natural to me. You can credit the cats or John Scalzi as you see fit. I can say that Scalzi the cat is my friend and devoid of most of the cat traits that turn folks into dog people. In sheer bonus points, that cat worships me like a minor deity. Who can argue with that?
The point is that you can come from almost anywhere on the spectrum and find that there is no way to navigate without asking the “What if?” questions. I’d suggest that the real question is “What do you want?” and ask it knowing that there is no way to answer without understanding the real consequences and costs of the questions. Let me bring it right home.
If you are fortunate like me, and happen to have a spouse with the best health insurance American money and employment (outside of Congress) can buy right now, and you consider the effects of universal health care… There is no way that universal, single-payer health care doesn’t degrade your own health services. No way. What is your stance?
Let’s broaden the equation. If you bought into the Obama version of American value, which he frequently espoused on foreign soil, and have decided that American values are morally bereft… Is there any way that you decide that American citizen success supersedes the success of some random person from El Salvador heading for a symbolic showdown against our evil President? I’d say not likely. Yet, that value equation is based on the idea that the benefits that we enjoy as Americans are essentially bottomless. While our politicians behave as if the fountain of American benefits is indeed bottomless, the truth is that every asylum-seeking individual costs us roughly $70k to adjudicate. For perspective, this is much more than the average $40k per year for every federal prison inmate. In purely rational terms, which seems to be a hard ask these days, we have to accept people into our country on the basis that they are worth more than $70k. Is this a tough standard? Not at all. I can reach out to my first level of contacts and find a whole range of Mexicans who are willing to work hard, meet their obligations, and add value to our country without having to stretch into any philosophical realms to justify their benefit to our country. How is this a hard problem? An immigrant who is willing to work hard and follow the legal path to citizenship is a no-brainer.
An immigrant who shows up at our border with a claim for asylum based on unsupported evidence is equally a no-brainer. It’s not a moral failing to say, “We can’t find support for your claims but you are welcome to start your long path to American citizenship.” The fact is that American Citizenship is, and should be, a hard path. We offer the best outcome that exists in the world today.
Despite the best efforts of a great many strong PR pushes around the world, America still is the best bastion of opportunity on the planet. Ask any turban-sporting Sikh convenience store owner you encounter. Presumably, that man could start a similar store anywhere in the Sikh world and he would make far less than he does by slightly confusing Western Washington residents. Presumably, and fairly, he would confuse far more people in other parts of the country as he half ignores his customers in favor of the cell phone conversation he is having in his native language. This is a man who is making virtually no effort to assimilate to American culture and is still making far more money to send home to his family in the Middle East without any real consequence to his balancing act. Other than what we offer him through political correctness… He makes out like a bandit in both American and Middle Eastern terms, and we support his efforts through our tax dollars in the form of underwritten loans that we could not get for ourselves.
Broadening further, the discussion of exchange has never progressed beyond this. The instant someone slides into the territory of a fair exchange of value, someone else throws the “shame” finger in the air and starts wagging it. If I walk into a car dealership and try to shame-finger my way into a free car, I’ll be lucky if I’m simply ignored. Why is it not okay to categorize potential American citizens in terms of their potential or even actual value to our country? The answers to this question are not easy, because it’s all too easy to remind everyone that we are all immigrants in one form or another. I’m the descendant of immigrants who wandered in over the past 400 years. My Native American friend’s people wandered in at some point as well, somewhere between 40,000 years ago and 1983. While it’s fair to say that prior claims have value, it’s also fair to say that very few pieces of real estate on this planet have not been taken by some new group at some point in time. In most cases, we have no idea who owned that land first, and even trying to seek the answer leads to a logical cascade of non-ownership. The debate becomes pointless.
And that’s where we find ourselves, wrapped up in pointless debates. For every position, there is a “what if” question that renders the position pointless. Even at seven years old, my brother knew this.
Let me demonstrate in SF author fashion. A very good friend of mine has cancer. It’s bad. There is some hope for optimism based on the technical details and her sheer bulldozer of willpower, but statistically speaking, she’s got a fight on her hands. As I write, she and her family are probably making all kinds of plans and tough decisions to fight for a positive outcome, and knowing her, she has a better than average chance of yanking a fluffy white rabbit out of a weatherbeaten hat.
What if the oncologist on her case dies in a plane crash midway through her treatment? We live in a world where it’s entirely possible that another oncologist can read her records and pick up right where the original doctor left off. It could have a profound impact on the outcome, or almost none at all.
What if the grieving relative of a former patient decides to shoot everyone at the oncologist practice where my friend’s treatment is being conducted? I’d say that injects enough disruption into her treatment that the best outcome is in jeopardy. The odds of this exact event occurring are incredibly low, but in the land of “what if” it’s not the likelihood that matters; it’s the impact.
What if the Yellowstone caldera explodes midway through her treatment? Her state is buried in a foot of volcanic ash. The entire emergency and medical response system is overwhelmed almost immediately. Basic services are gone. Food disappears in a heartbeat, and no one can even move from whatever shelter is available after all the roofs collapse from the weight of the ash. Whatever plans she had are gone – irrelevant and impossible. The same applies to everyone else with a medical condition as well. The availability of treatment and prescription meds just disappear in a cloud of ash. The healthiest people will have their hands full trying to cope with that scale of disaster, and those with serious problems will get shunted to the bottom of the priority list. Again, the odds are incredible, but the power of “what if” is that it’s not impossible, and if that particular event occurs, then every decision being made today is rendered pointless.
We can’t live happily in a world of extreme “what ifs,” yet we do. Turn on any news channel. It’s nothing but extreme questions designed to lead us into a quivering corner of fear-based decisions, backed up by the mindset of those who have something to gain from our fear. Those questions not only traffic in the extremes but they serve to break down our ability to even discern the level of effect on our lives. If every ideological crisis is tantamount to personal destruction, eventually it’s very hard to separate the wheat from the chaff.
Maybe your biggest problem is that your kid is being bullied at school. That’s a real problem with real responses that all carry the weight of potential downsides to your entire family. Meanwhile, the 24-hour news cycle parade of talking heads has convinced you that your real problem is that the reanimated corpse of Hitler may show up with a flamethrower and burn your house down, or some well-meaning politician may suddenly decide that your kid should be reallocated to a school across town to teach everyone the value of living with a long commute.
The issue is usually on the agenda of one side or another, and usually a pointless “What if?” for the vast majority of us.
There are endless “What if’s?” that none of us can answer, but there is good news. It really boils down to what (and who) matters in your world. Your spouse, your kids, your family, your friends, your pets can all be defined in a “What if,” that can be answered easily. What if I apply more kindness? What if I apply more support? What if I apply more forgiveness?