Writing has long been speculative, concerning itself with what might happen, imagining future possibilities, weighing up decisions and consequences. 5th century BC playwright, Euripides, wrote a kind of alternative history in his play Medea. Shakespeare’s Hamlet describes a young man agonising over different options and how they might play out.
In some ways it is clear that life only gives us one chance to make a decision, hence Hamlet’s paralysing desire to make the right one. This is an important topic, because potentially if you make the wrong call, you might end up with something like, oh I don’t know, World War Two. In the 1930s, the British government decided against taking military action to suppress Hitler’s growing power. Condemning this decision became an accepted part of history. Anthony Eden, who was foreign secretary in the 1930s, became prime minister in 1955. An overwhelming desire to rewrite the past drove him into the Suez Crisis of 1956, where he tried to take what he saw as preemptive action against a budding dictator – in this case, Egyptian leader Gamal Abdel Nasser. The military operation against Nasser was a disaster, which made Britain look like a bully of smaller nations. Tony Blair made the same mistake for the same reasons when he agreed to support the American invasion of Iraq in 2003. As Heraclitus said – you can never step into the same river twice. There is only one chance to make a choice. Suez in the 1950s and Iraq in the 2000s were different rivers to Germany in the 1930s.
So given these high stakes, perhaps a story serves to help us imagine what might happen in the future, given a certain set of present circumstances – so that when the time comes we have a better chance of doing the right thing. Margaret Attwood defines speculative fiction as writing that deals with possibilities in a society that have not been enacted but are latent. Perhaps a story like The Handmaid’s Tale – and others like Nineteen Eighty Four, or Fahrenheit 451 – help us avoid dark possibilities by imagining them ahead of time. In this sense, stories can sometimes serve as a kind of early warning system. People ask where writers get their ideas. One source would be a pile of rubbish somewhere, which might catch fire in the future. A story about this potential fire, could persuade us to do some house-keeping, averting disaster before it happens.
On the other hand it is difficult to really view stories as imaginative briefing scenarios for politicians, military planners, civil servants, or fire chiefs. After all, Hamlet is not a morality tale about making the right decision. It’s more about the paralysis that comes when we fret too much about making the right decision. Many stories show that different outcomes, better in some ways, worse in others, are no more correct overall. Matt Haig’s The Midnight Library is a recent story of this type. Going back to history, who knows what might have happened if the British government had actually decided to take action against Hitler in the 1930s. Britain’s armed forces were under strength at that time and public opinion was firmly against war. Any attempted military operation could have turned into a kind of Suez disaster, serving only to hand Hitler a propaganda advantage. In that scenario, pre-war prime minister Neville Chamberlain would now be known for his reckless use of force rather than for his support for appeasement.
With this in mind it is undeniable that while stories can serve as early warning systems, the quiet, meditative business of reading often shows us that decisions are not as decisive as they seem. I mentioned Heraclitus earlier, that 5th century BC Greek philosopher who said you can never step into the same river twice. There was another philosopher around at about the same time, who felt differently. His name was Parmenides. Rather than seeing the world in terms of constant change, Parmenides saw it as timeless and uniform. He thought it didn’t really matter what decision you made, because nothing really ever changed. Much storytelling reflects this view – The Midnight Library, we have already mentioned. Honourable mention could also go to Groundhog Day, about weatherman Phil Connors, who is condemned to live the same day over and over again. He can only escape by accepting his situation, learning to make changes to his routine, which eventually make his day a good one. Phil has endless chances to try again because essentially his day is always the same.
So stories are often about vital decisions – about what might happen if we make the wrong ones – but other stories show us that choice is more mysterious. Stories help us ask questions about the future, but also help us relax and accept whatever happens – as Parmenides said, whatever is is and what is not cannot be.