Female President, Astronauts, Britain Rejecting Brexit, the Inevitability of Pandemic: New Alt-History Novels, TV Shows

New alternative history novels and TV shows imagine life with Hillary Clinton as president, Britain rejecting Brexit, a female astronaut being the first human to set foot on the moon. These stories are “potent reminders of how different today might have been,” writes Caryn James on the BBC website. She concludes: “If we can imagine a different past, flawed though it may be, we are that much closer to creating a better future.”

I’ve previously asked “what if Hillary became president?” What If Hillary Clinton Won in 2016?; What If Hillary Won in 2008, and Obama Ran in 2016? and What If Hillary Rodham Chose A Different Path to National Politics?

I am frankly skeptical that political life, on the surface at least, would be more contented if Hillary became president. In this hyper-partisan environment, no matter the evidence, she would face impeachment, blame for COVID-19 deaths, no credit for acting far earlier than Donald Trump in making testing widely available, blame for the plunging economy and not providing enough financial support to suffering Americans. Bernie Sanders would probably have renewed his 2016 challenge in 2020 and garnered as much support or more than he did in the 2016 primaries. If a “Me Too Movement” emerged, Bill Clinton and by association, Hillary would be one of the targets for her complicity. With a deeply divided Democratic Party, a renewed Republican Party led by someone like former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley might well have defeated her. I maintain that in the long view of American political history, in 2020, Election Patterns Suggest US Is Ripe for One-Term Presidency.

Nevertheless, Curtis Sittenfeld’s novel, Rodham, imagines what might have happened if Hillary did not marry Bill Clinton. James in her BBC review calls it “audacious”; “daring”;  “a psychologically astute portrait that seems as authentic and revealing as any non-fiction biography.” The fictional Hillary “loses faith in Bill’s character, moves to Illinois and begins a stellar career of her own.”

NPR’s Annalisa Quinn, in contrast, calls Rodham “disturbing…upsetting…invasive…parasitic.. nauseating, moving, morally suggestive, (a) technically brilliant book.” But far more honest than many biographies of Clinton in which she is warped to fit their preconceived narrative and political agenda. As fiction, it admits that it is not claiming to portray the real Hillary. “Straightforward fiction is almost reassuring in its aims,” Quinn writes. “Only one of these mediums acknowledges its own artifice. It’s something like the difference between an oil portrait and a misleading photograph — professional politicians know to never glance down when being photographed, lest newspaper editors file the image for use under ‘defeat, resignation.’ ”

Rodham is not fan fiction, however. In it, Hillary does leave Bill and therefore achieves an absolution lacking in real life: ‘If I was no longer his girlfriend, and never his wife, I was not responsible for his behavior, not even by extension,’ she thinks.”

The book asks readers “to imagine a different world. She could have been different; we could have been different; everything could have been different. And from there, what a short — excruciating, hopeful — leap it is to: Everything could be different.”

Caryn James on the BBC site also examines

  • Sci-fi master William Gibson’s novel Agency “set partly in a world where Hillary is president and Brexit never happened.” It is “primarily about artificial intelligence, and a young woman named Verity who is testing a new AI app in 2017….Published in January, Agency was obviously written before a pandemic was part of our daily lives. Gibson’s fiction now offers a clear-sighted reminder that plenty of scientists could see a disaster coming.”
  • The Good Fight,” a “smart, politically-charged legal drama…on CBS All-Access…set during a Hillary Clinton presidency.
  • For All Mankind,” which explores the possibilities if the space race continued. The Russians put a woman astronaut on the moon before the Americans; in response, President Richard Nixon says Americans must do the same. “The series is an ambitious vision of space exploration, with dramatic moon landings. It is also an absorbing personal melodrama in which characters based on historical figures exist along with fictional astronauts. It feels as realistic as anything in purely fact-based films, like the Neil Armstrong biopic First Man,” James writes.
  • The Testament, by Margaret Atwood, a sequel to “The Handmaid’s Tale.”
  • The Netflix series Hollywood, which imagines what might have happened if the movie industry had overcome all its racist, homophobic, sexist biases back in the 1940s. James writes that it “could be a case study in how not to create an alternate history. The glamorous series is compulsively watchable, even with its howlingly bad dialogue and over-the-top acting.”

More stories like this from the BBC:

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