“In a world where all fundamental laws can be rewritten, it is also illuminating which of them aren’t.” says Mimi Mondal in the Hindustani Times. Her point being that worldbuilding in specfic always has political overtones. A world where being gay is unremarkable and acceptable is a political statement, but so is a book that doesn’t have any gay characters.
Which seems like a good launch point for discussing how I’ve handled such questions in both Atoms for Peace and Southern Discomfort. The first is an alternative history in which SF-movies of the 1950s are everyday reality; in the second, one small town has been changed by the presence of two elves as the unofficial leaders since its founding. As a result I changed some of the real world in each book, but not all of it.
In Atoms for Peace women have made huge gains compared to our reality. Much like WW II, the government needs them to make up for the manpower shortage caused by men entering the military or the National Guard. A lot of people still give lip service to the 1950s standards of our world, and plenty of people feel like that’s the way the world should be, but in practice women get to see a lot more adventure than they would have in our timeline (no disrespect intended to those real women who pushed the envelope).
Black Americans, however, are doing worse. Blaming integration and civil rights activism on ET agitators works just as well as blaming it on Communists did. In our 1950s, the federal government’s response to civil rights was influenced by the need not to look better than the USSR (Jim Crow did not serve that end); in Atoms for Peace that pressure is removed. So it’s not looking good.
Gays? Well nothing’s changed for them; they’re still in the closet and still barred from serving in the federal government (though some people are willing to turn a blind eye if the gay’s got valuable skills).
That’s all reasonable, I think, but Mondal has a point it reflects my writing choices, not some abstract analysis. I write a lot of women into my stories; I don’t use PoC as often. So it’s not surprising I focused on changes that improve women’s lives. I probably could have made bigger and more positive changes to civil rights too (I really don’t see gay rights budging much), but I don’t like the idea of making everything better — it feels way too utopian. So I made my call.
In Southern Discomfort, by contrast, the big change was race. The black residents of Pharisee County have been better off than most of the south, but they’ve still had to deal with slavery and Jim Crow. The role of women and gays in Pharisee isn’t much different from the real world.
As with Atoms for Peace I think that’s a plausible set of changes, but I could have rationalized different ones. With Olwen McAlister around, women could have easily been given more respect. The McAlisters aren’t bothered by anyone’s sexual orientation, so it could have been a more gay-friendly community than typical for 1973. But again, I prefer better-but-flawed over utopian in my alt.Earth settings.
Good decision? Bad decision? Too limited in rewriting the fundamental laws? Wish I knew.
#SFWApro. Cover by Zakaria Nada, all rights are mine.