Alt That’s Fit to Print

I SUPPOSE THE FANTASY SUBGENRE OF “ALTERNATE REALITY” doesn’t altogether count as fakery since such storytelling is usually up-front about its artifice. Nevertheless, I am an easy mark for “what-if-the-Nazis-or-the-Confederacy-had-won” stories and their ilk wherever I can find them. My latest guilty pleasure is For All Mankind, an Apple TV streaming series that imagines what the latter half of the twentieth century would have looked like if the Russians had beaten us to the moon.

Besides all the hyped-up soap-opera among technicians, pilots, bureaucrats, and the people who love them, there are so many intriguing background what-ifs that make up part of the fun: Alexei Leonov, and not Neil Armstrong, becomes the first moon walker; Ted Kennedy is elected president; John Lennon doesn’t get shot; and several American women fly into space well before Sally Ride actually does in the 1980s.

One of those women astronauts attracts the interest of Republican Party campaign guru-goon Lee Atwater as a potential candidate. At one point, the Atwater of this alternate reality says something that he could have said (and likely did) in our own. It’s about pro wrestling being the only “pure” sport because it drops all pretense of true competition. Americans, Alternate Lee maintains, are more into drama than they are into whether or not something is true. This hypothetical but plausible rationalization from a now-dead-in-our-own-time political fixer goes a long way to explain the last actual presidential administration, and maybe a few more within recent memory, as well as the shared delusions of voters who think Joe Biden stole the White House. Believing it’s true makes it so.

Such tendencies worry me somewhat when it comes to—and I realize how ridiculous this sounds—the reception of alternative histories. I am thinking principally of Colson Whitehead’s award-winning The Underground Railroad (2016), which has recently been adapted into a miniseries streaming on Amazon Prime Video. Whitehead blends the grim realities of the antebellum slave trade into an audacious fantasia that transforms what was, historically, a metaphorical “railroad” transporting escaped Black slaves to freedom into an actual subterranean network of tracks and trains. The author tells the story with such deadpan authority that I found myself worrying that some readers with no knowledge of the actual facts would come away believing that Whitehead’s fiction and historical records were one and the same. I thought such worries were idle until I came across a reviewer who described Whitehead’s novel as “a mostly straightforward and realistic account of a slave’s escape.” That “mostly” modifier may be enough to buy him the benefit of the doubt, but . . . really, man? “Straightforward”? “Realistic”? You really think there were tracks and trains hauling runaways northward, and that there were actually skyscrapers in South Carolina in the early to mid nineteenth century, along with quacks conducting quasi-eugenics experiments?

Barry Jenkins's The Underground Railroad, season 1, 2021. Atsushi Nishijima; © Amazon Studios
Barry Jenkins’s The Underground Railroad, season 1, 2021. Atsushi Nishijima; © Amazon Studios

Not having seen the TV adaptation of The Underground Railroad yet, I can’t say how the more phantasmagorical aspects of Whitehead’s narrative will come across on-screen. But there just might be a whole lot of people who slept through or altogether bypassed American history while growing up who are credulous enough to buy Whitehead’s imaginative vision as honest-to-Pete factual data. I don’t, of course, know this for certain. But that reviewer seems a pretty smart fellow; too smart, I would like to think, to see South Carolina skyscrapers before the Civil War as being a “realistic” detail.

Still, like so much speculative fiction, Whitehead’s story, for all its reality-tweaking, offers up emotional truths—truths that might not come across as powerfully in a less-imaginative narrative. He also captures the physical reality of the slave system, and cogently lays out the white-supremacist mythology that propped it up. These elements are as unavoidable in his Underground Railroad as the details in the recollections of those who escaped north through the network of safe houses and hideouts that marked the actual Railroad’s trail. There are many ways to pull a fast one on the gullible. But one of the dividends of alternate history, when it’s rendered well, is how it can illuminate actual things and events that happened in the past and quite often linger on in the present. To be drawn into such stories doesn’t mean you’re being taken. Sometimes, they wise you up.

Gene Seymour is a writer living in Philadelphia.