There was a group on Facebook–back in the heady days of the LOST fandom–devoted to celebrating that uniquely onomatopoeic sound transferring the viewers’ perspective from one reality to its alternate version made: “Whoosh!! It’s the Flash-Sideways!” I joined the group, as any self-respecting fan would, and accepted my sister Kate the Lostie’s congratulations: I had the gift of prophecy.
At the end of season 5, Kate and I tried (with little success) to tally up the events of the past five years (though we’d only been watching “live” for one at that point) and make some predictions. Oh, the ABC LOST forums could handle the complicated issues of metaphysics, or the correct moniker for Smokey/Smocke/Flocke/MiB, but we had something more important to consider: if seasons 1 through 3 had flashbacks, and seasons 4 and 5 flash-forwards, what would season 6 have? Where else in time could our castaways go?
For once, I got it right: sideways. But I couldn’t take all the credit–SF writer Murray Leinster (alias Will F. Jenkins) was taking the counterfactual to popular fiction in 1934. Of course, he preferred “sidewise” (oh, those crazy old grammarians). I read his short story “Sidewise in Time” in an anthology of SF’s golden oldies in 1998–I was eight, and it’s remained one of my favorites of all time. Meaning one and one-fifth decades. So very long.
In any case, here’s why:
Professor Minott taught mathematics at what was rather impolitely termed a “jerkwater” college by his haughtier colleagues. He was desperately in love (well, as much as a really creepy obsession can be called love) with Maida Haynes, daughter of a teacher of the romance languages (here’s to irony folks). He was a nobody, but he brought a gun to class at 8 am on June 5th, and because it was 8 am, after all, and his students were probably still half-asleep and falling even more deeply asleep at the thought of studying math, Minott brought that gun to bear on his helpless students before any of those chivalrous senior college boys (Blake, for instance, his rival for Maida’s affection) could squeak out a protest.
And when the world is ending and someone pulls a gun on you, you’re going to gather your books, saddle up some horses, and strike off into the mysterious primeval woods that popped up on the interstate overnight.
Something weird’s happening all over the world–some nauseating shift of time and space that’s leaving the earth pockmarked with pockets of alternate reality. Counterfactual history, if you will, drawn from the parallel realities in which the Confederate States of America (unhappy birthday today, by the way, CSA) won the war; or Romans conquered the Americas; or mammals reproduce by parthanogenesis. The daily press is boggled, the common people are just plain astonished, a farmer’s wife is even pleased when a prehistoric reptile swallows her boorish husband whole, and a stammering high school boy finally has the opportunity to use his Latin. But as we know from Fringe, when multiple universes collide, bad things happen.
Professor Minott of the jerkwater college seems to be the only person who knows what’s going on. He’s been plotting and planning for months–his talents wasted with undergrads, but quite indisposable when it comes to matters of (multiple) universal destruction. When he brings a pistol to class on June 5th, it’s because he’s already decided what he’s going to do: kidnap a select group of moderately intelligent students, search out a place where the flash sidewise has brought the Vikings to Virginia, and from there, take over the alternate world with his advanced knowledge of science and technology. And Curriculum Vitae aside, Minott probably has a good chance of doing exactly that.
His problem is Maida Haynes, who just doesn’t recognize what a visionary the crazy math teacher really is. Insert a power struggle with Blake, an attack by Roman slavers, a dying airplane pilot, and another girl named Lucy who really would like to be Professor Minott’s queen, and you come out with Murray Leinster’s “Sidewise in Time.”
There are used copies of the anthology, Before the Golden Age, as well as collections of Leinster’s SF shorts, on Amazon–I just wish it were out of copyright so someone could write an expanded novelisation, or a television pilot. A lot of the speculation of even relatively recent science fiction is laughable today, but this story from 1934 has held up pretty darn well. Alternate realities are in (see LOST, Fringe, FlashForward, etc.), and even the casual SF reader knows something about the Many Worlds Theory.
Throw in some quantum mechanics, and this rettro science fiction story could be a hit.
As a side note, Uchronia, the alternate history list, annually awards a prize for the best “allohistorical” fiction of the year (and has done so since 1995): The Sidewise Award for Alternate History (guess what it’s named for). The 2006 winner was Charles Stross’s The Family Trade (Merchant Princes Series), which I’m halfway through and loving. 2010 isn’t up yet, but the 2009 winnet was Robert Conroy’s 1942: A Novel.