“What If?”: The World’s Most Powerful Question

Fabulations as explanations

Posted May 11, 2016

Wonder powers imagination. Sometimes, wonder arrives in the form of awe, as in those instances when we stand awe-struck and insignificant before immensity or dumbstruck before complexity. (The witty theoretical physicist Richard Feynman once joked that he could not understand his own lecture.)  Other times, wonder takes shape as conjecture, where we put the emotion to the work of innovating new scenarios. (And under the influence of this searching impulse, great builders have designed “wonders of the world,” which include, among others, Stonehenge, Florence’s Duomo, the Taj Mahal, and the Brooklyn Bridge.) And oftentimes, wonder assumes the form of a question that propels thinkers toward novel answers.

It’s easy to observe this last kind of wonder in the fragile latticework of religion and politics—where speculation leads to explanation, which begets dogma. Where did we come from? What is the good society?  Cosmologies and political theories, however, come and go as devotions of both kinds burn brightly and then burn out. Philosophies, too, thrive and then fail to succeed as circumstances, discoveries, and technologies change and invalidate indispensable assumptions and convenient truths. (Who now thinks that monads comprise the irreducible units of perception or that an ether pervades the universe? Who currently believes that mind and body are divided, mysteriously and categorically? Who nowadays subscribes to the notion that mental disease among women arises from a wandering womb?)

Wonder has been on my mind recently for two reasons. The first is basic. All play begins in wonder in the form of anticipation: ladies and gentlemen start their engines, runners at the starting line get ready and get set, and chess players ponder their opening gambit.  In a second instance, I’ve found a more focused reason to wonder about anticipation and play while working with a museum team that’s developing an exhibit about the material culture of science fiction.

A primary and perennial question propels science-fiction: “what if”?

Writers have dreamed up dizzying iterations of the provocative questions. Even casual fans can list them easily: What if angry Martians coveted our planet? What if a sole passenger spaceship could leave a doomed earth? What if spacefarers could travel faster than light? What if genetic engineers could resurrect dinosaurs? What if the freezing point of water rose to 114 degrees Fahrenheit? What if monks or megacorporations inherited the Earth? What if robots could think independently and feel emotions? Or what if scientists discovered a cheap and abundant source of energy? (This last science-fiction question rides ever so close to current reality, as did real innovations like submarines, atomic power, trips to the moon, energy weapons, cell phones, and videogames that first appeared as fantasies in short stories and novels.)

But another kind of what-if question attracts the historian in me, such as the alternative histories and fabulous counterfactual speculations about the divergent outcomes that may result if a single important historical fact changed. What if a modern warship and its crew were transported while intact to the Bronze Age? (S.M. Stirling follows this thought meticulously in his Nantucket series.) Robert Silverberg’s Roma Eterna envisions a parallel history, where the Roman Empire survives. Winston Churchill imagined an alternate history, a Confederate victory in the American Civil War, and had his main character, a historian, wonder what would have happened if General Lee had failed to win the Battle of Gettysburg. (That alternative reality cleverly doubled history back on itself.) Harry Turtledove’s Bombs Away pictures a Korean War in which General MacArthur stopped a Chinese advance with nuclear weapons—a tactical decision of world-historical import.

I recently read a rewarding new alternative history that combines with an alternative literature. It’s set in Denmark and Sweden during the Protestant Reformation—John O’Donnell’s ingenious Revenge at Elsinore.

By J. Gurney & Son, N.Y.
Source: By J. Gurney & Son, N.Y.

In this plausible, alternate version of events, the Danish prince Hamlet (yes, that Hamlet) conspires with the Vatican to kidnap Martin Luther—the heretical Augustinian monk whose incendiary challenges to Papal authority would soon set Europe aflame. Like the best of these excursions, the novel traces a course of events that unfolds the way history seems like it should have been. Along the way, the novel makes good sense of longstanding mysteries and puzzles, some of them historical and some literary. There is more to Hamlet than literary scholars have guessed and even more to Martin Luther than historians know.

I found the novel especially helpful because Shakespeare’s Hamlet puzzled me since my first encounter with the play. I remember, for example, asking my high school English teacher why the Black Prince killed Polonius after discovering him hiding behind a curtain. (In fact, Hamlet also leaves an unnecessarily high pile of bodies on stage at the end of the play.) As I recall, her answer came in two unsatisfying parts. The first was psychological:  “After the death of his father, Hamlet, moody to begin with don’t you know, was feeling depressed and edgy, ready to explode, and naturally murderous. Got it?” Her  second answer was literary: “When all was said and done, Polonius really was an insufferable bore who got what was coming to him for dolling out such empty advice like  ‘Neither a borrower or a lender be.’” His capital crimes? Tedium and Meddling with Intent. But by that measure, I thought, weren’t nearly all those characters in Elizabethan drama that we were obliged to read deserving of the dagger?

O’Donnell began with the germ of an idea and wondered “what if” Shakespeare himself knew the secret of a real Scandinavian spy story, the intrigue among impostors, and deep-cover agents that played against a background of contentious religion and politics. I won’t spoil the tale, and I won’t detail how revenge explains historical and literary mysteries that persist to this day. But I will say that in asking “what if?” this brainy alternative history—like the best examples of that imaginative genre—accounts for mysterious events, including why Polonius and so many others had to die.