What if the Axis Powers had won the Second World War? What if the Confederates had won the American Civil War? What if Napoleon had won the Battle of Waterloo? Or what if the Roman Empire was still intact?
The majority of alternate histories focus on military and political ‘what ifs?’. And certainly, the most high profile examples, which have been turned into films and TV shows – The Man in the High Castle and Fatherland – fall into these categories. There are others, intricate and specialised political/military/economic ‘what ifs?’ that are nothing short of hardcore.
Whatever blows your whistle. It’s all good.
It’s not for me however. Pop culture is more my thing. This too plays an important role in the majority of people’s lives and its influence is seen and felt everywhere within our society, in the way we dress, talk, and behave. After all, kids don’t tend to grow up wanting to dress or style their hair like their favourite politician or military leader, do they? (Although I’m sure those people are out there – somewhere!)
I’m talking about rock stars, movie stars, TV stuff, books, fashion, fads, trends, movements, music and cultural revolutions. The possibilities for writing alternate histories around these subjects are both endless and fascinating. It’s all about what sort of ‘what if?’ you’re asking.
So with that in mind, here are a couple of suggestions for any authors interested in doing a ‘pop culture’ alternate history.
The Dead Live
This is what I’ve been working on recently with the FAB trilogy. Take a famous dead person and imagine – wait for it – that they’re not dead. Not overly original but extremely interesting in terms of what to write about. In my case it’s John Lennon.
Who’s your favourite rock star? Your favourite movie star? (Deceased, remember!) Think of someone you admire or someone whose life and work you’re familiar with or that you would be interested in becoming familiar with. It’s important that you know your subject otherwise you might as well just invent a fictional character.
Now imagine that this person never died. There was no car crash, no drug overdose, no plane crash, no whatever. They’re still alive. What sort of future do you envision for this rock star/movie star in your alternate timeline? What are they doing? What have they grown into over the years? How have they fit in with subsequent eras? (James Dean in the swinging sixties?) Of course, what you write doesn’t have to be what you actually think would happen. Personally, I subscribe to anything that’s entertaining.
So use your imagination.
What really would have happened to John Lennon probably doesn’t make for good or interesting fiction. More solo albums, perhaps even a Beatles reunion? Cool, but not much of a story in there. That’s where you – the writer and your imagination come in. In FAB, I turned John Lennon inside out, envisioning him as a right-wing politician who goes after the big seat in the White House. Along the way, he becomes corrupted and bad things happen. Do I think that’s what would have happened to JL in the 1980s? Not in a gazillion years. But – alternate history is fiction remember? Do whatever the hell you want, just make it a compelling story.
Worried about your ideas being seen as ridiculous? Okay, if anybody says that just give them the following spiel – had OJ Simpson died in the late 70s or early 80s, he would have been remembered today as a poster boy of black/American sporting pride. A symbol of masculinity, a hero, and all that. Now, imagine that an author in this alternate timeline (with dead OJ) writes a story in which legendary sporting hero OJ Simpson lives on into the 80s and 90s, going on to brutally murder his wife and another man and then goes off on a crazy car chase with half the LAPD on his tail. That author is going to get some funny looks, no?
Bottom line – we have no idea what would have happened. So we might as well use our imaginations.
Recommendation – Check out The Rebel by Jack Dann, which imagines a world in which James Dean doesn’t die in the 1955 car crash.
Quick Word About Legal Stuff
Regarding the legality of using real people in your fiction, be cautious. My advice would be – wherever possible – to write your stories around these people rather than feature them as central figures. Although lots of people do it and have no problems. Personally, I prefer to write around John Lennon in FAB. He’s there, but he’s not always there if you know what I mean. He’s more of a presence than a main character. It’s entirely up to you of course, but if you’re writing about a real person always write a disclaimer at the start of your book stating that it’s a work of fiction. And avoid slander – don’t go there or you could be in real trouble further down the line. Generally, the more ridiculous the scenario you invent, the more obvious it is that it’s fiction, the better.
If you’re curious about legal stuff, here’s a link to a great post with advice on using celebrities in fiction. Be sure to go through the comments too as there’s some good stuff in there.
You could also write an alternate history using a particular era as your backdrop. For example, the second FAB book (released in August) is set during the Britpop era. For anyone who isn’t aware, Britpop was a musical phenomenon/movement/scene in the 1990s. British guitar bands ruled the post-grunge landscape, saluting The Beatles, all things British, and the Union Jack. Think bands like Oasis, Blur, Suede, Pulp, Elastica, and others. I’m inserting a fictional band in here and messing about with history to serve my plot.
You could use something similar as a backdrop. The grunge scene of the early 90s? There was also the acid house scene of the late 1980s. You could go further back to the early hip-hop years in the 1970s. Or the swinging sixties when cultural revolution was at its peak. You get the idea. Go back to that scene, whatever it is, and change something – maybe a famous band from that period who split up stay together. What effect will that have on the future? A famous event/tragedy from that period never happened. Mess about with things. Use your imagination.
Of course it doesn’t have to have anything to do with music? Maybe a famous celebrity couple from a particular era stayed together? (Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor?) You could write about the impact on someone close to them – a staff member perhaps? Or just write about the couple themselves.
Recommendation: Speaking of famous bands who split up, I recommend The Death and Life of Mal Evans by Peter Lee, in which The Beatles’ former roadie gets a second chance at life, and tries to prevent the fab four from breaking up.
This is just a brief introduction, highlighting a couple of ways to incorporate pop culture into your alternate histories. If you’re interested in this kind of thing, here are a couple more. Maybe they’ll fire up your imagination:
What if social media had been invented earlier? What if it had been around in the 1980s?
What if a famous actor playing a monster in a movie turned out to be a real monster? (I nicked this. See Shadow of the Vampire starring Willem Dafoe)
And so on and on.
For me, alternate history is all about letting your imagination run wild. Whatever you do, whatever you write, have fun with it. Because if you’re having fun, it’s guaranteed that somebody else out there will too.