At some point during the murk of the 2016 presidential campaign, somewhere after the Judge Gonzalo Curiel affair but before the Hunger Games–themed Republican National Convention, I sat down to write an essay about rereading The Plot Against America in the age of Trump.
Alas, a quick Google search told me that the territory had already been covered. I shouldn’t have been surprised. The plot of Plot, in which the fascist sympathizer Charles Lindbergh ascends to the presidency on tailwinds of celebrity and America First populism, speaks with vivid and distressing clarity to the present moment. Philip Roth is not a science-fiction writer, but his novel is part of a long and sturdy tradition within sci-fi: the “alternate history.” Take some crucial moment in history and undo it or do it differently. The South wins; the Allies lose; the Black Death wipes out Europe and European influence. In Nisi Shawl’s sweeping Everfair, the history of the Belgian Congo is rewritten by the early discovery of steam technology; in Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policeman’s Union the Jews are given not Palestine, but a slice of Alaska.
Whatever the particulars, the authors of these novels are interested in what the world would look like—what it would feel like—if X had happened instead of Y.
For many of us, X happened on Nov. 8 of last year. Somehow, while we were refreshing Nate Silver and wondering how Biden was going to do at the State Department, we fell through a trapdoor into an alternate dimension. Some fiction writer, cackling at her keyboard, invented the “Comey Letter” and unwound the real true history of the Clinton administration.
Even as it begins, the Trump presidency feels like an absurd and highly unlikely counterfactual. “Yes, this is really happening, I’m becoming president,” said Alec Baldwin as SNL’s sour-faced POTUS, while a Scottish newspaper listed the upcoming inauguration as the first episode in a reboot of the Twilight Zone. But as long ago as last March, the Boston Globe editorialists offered a mock-up front page from “Trump’s America.” A warning message from a bad future.
Well, the future is here. We are about to find out—we are already finding out—what the world would look and feel like if Donald Trump became the president.
Since the election we’ve all read 100 thinkpieces about what the next four years might hold, but fiction has a special power to clarify, galvanize, prophesy, and warn. I asked some of my favorite writers to offer visions from the alternate history we are now entering, and over the coming days Slate will publish the resulting pieces: ten short stories, all set at some point during the Trump administration, beginning with “The Daylight Underground” by Héctor Tobar.
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