Musings on Fiction, Alternate History, and Fantasy

Yes, this is going to be on topic…

When I write, my stories my goal as the writer – and since I write my stories mostly with myself as the only audience, the reader – is to put a protagonist, almost always a first person protagonist, into a situation where they are facing execution. Given the reality of this world, it is difficult for me to set these stories in a real-world setting.

This forces me to use some sort of an alternate world setting. But, I also need to maintain a level of realism for the story to maintain its impact.

For many years, I’ve struggled with the idea that this means that I should at least somewhat honor the traditions of alternate history fiction. The big one being that there should be one, fairly identifiable, point of departure where the fictional world’s history started changing from ours. But, I’ve never found one that I was fully comfortable with.

Recently, however, I’ve realized that I can instead treat my stories as being a form of fantasy. They are stories that take place in a world in many ways like ours, but one where the ideas of law and order are at least somewhat different.

Let me step back a bit…

When I try to find ways to create an identifiable protagonist who is facing execution, I have the deal with one of my big weaknesses as a writer, empathy. This makes it harder than I’d like to get myself into the mindset of someone who’s life experiences are vastly different than my own.

So, even if I’ve changed the law and order culture of the setting, it is still difficult for me to make my protagonist someone who is actually guilty of a crime that I have no qualms about the death penalty for.

I also have a hard time putting myself in the mindset of someone who is likely to be persecuted. I have more than my share of privilege, so again while I can appreciate it, I cannot empathize with a black who was executed for rape for having consensual sex. (As an asexual, I have further problems with that specific scenario as well.)

I’m also somewhat reluctant to use too many of the stories about totalitarian regimes, again in large part because I have some difficulty really putting myself in the mindset of someone who runs afoul of such states.

Finally, I tend to prefer the idea where the protagonist is at least factually guilty. That is, at least according to a fairly strict reading of the law, the protagonist has in fact committed a crime that carries a sentence of death, even of it is due to a badly, or just broadly, written law.

So, when it comes to the crime, I take my inspiration from Singapore. In Singapore, and several other countries in that part of the world, drug trafficking is a capital offense – something I’ve written about often. The key thing for my stories, however, is that in their law one is presumed guilty of trafficking simply by possessing enough of a drug, and possession is broadly designed.

So, it becomes fairly easy to imagine a world where the U.S., and quite possibly much of the West, maintains a more retentionist attitude about capital punishment throughout the twentieth century. If I’m no longer worried about finding a point of departure to make that happen, and am just assuming that to be the case, I can easily go from there.

During the 1970s and 1980s as the so-called War on Drugs was launched, state and federal laws would be put on the books similar to those in Singapore, and they’d have no more overall impact on the demand for drugs than any of the laws we now have.

But, they’d increase risk – and I could even see drug dealers starting to do things to trick or force innocent individuals into transporting their large quantities to ensure that they never had enough to risk serious charges.

This creates a number of ways that my protagonist could find himself in a situation where he is arrested on charges of drug trafficking. He could have has no, or almost no, knowledge of the fact that the drugs were in his legal possession, yet he is also aware, or can be made aware, that legally that they were. Similarly, he can have or gain the awareness of the fact that in any trial, the jury’s instructions will include the information that knowledge is not required under the law to meet the definition of possession, and that lack of knowledge is not sufficient grounds to find that a defendant was not in possession.

In other words, the protagonist is guilty under the letter of the law, and unlikely to be acquitted by a sympathetic jury. He might be given an option to plea to a lesser offense for life in prison, but for many reasons won’t take it. Instead, either after a jury trial or a plea, he finds himself facing a mandatory death sentence and no realistic chance of appeal, clemency, or pardon.

This is another place that having a bit more flexibility of fantasy helps. Without quite as much need for a single point of departure, I can play a bit more with methods of execution, procedures, etc. I’ll admit I’ve not toyed with these as much, but this realization does open me up a bit.