So there was (well, I guess, is) this fictional setting by the name of Crimson Skies. Ever heard of it? Well, I always thought it was pretty cool. It started with the idea of its creators of transplanting a “Pirates of the Caribbean” feel to the early years of aviation, of “air pirates” in a more modern era. Not quite our modern era, though, they settled into an alternate version of the 1930s and got it all gloriously tangled up in the pulp fiction of that decade, the kind that inspired similar works like The Rocketeer.
Now you might say that having a world of crazy awesome airplanes and war zeppelins and pulp adventures and dogfighting duels doesn’t need any justification beyond the “Rule of Cool” I mentioned last week, but Crimson Skies does have a backstory to it. In much the same way as Deadlands takes a hard turn from history as we knew it circa 1863, Crimson Skies visualizes a post World War I America that begins to fall apart for various reasons starting with the 1918 influenza epidemic and culminating in the stock market crash of 1929, both of which are real historical events but end up being the falling dominoes that lead to a breakup of the United States into several different competing, and at times completely hostile nations. And being hostile, the roads that linked such nations fell into disrepair, assuming they weren’t sabotaged outright.
And that’s why planes and zeppelins are the primary mode of commerce and travel instead of cars and trucks.
Far-fetched? Well, that’s what I was hinting at last week when I mentioned that alternate histories can get a pass on anachronisms, but still have to ride a fine line of how far they can stretch suspension of disbelief. I bring up Crimson Skies in particular because it engages in a similar mode of “blah-blah-blah therefore airplanes” that I’ve done, except for my Weird New West it’s “blah-blah-blah therefore helicopters” — or I guess if we extend further, “blah-blah-blah therefore zombie ranches”.
As another example, there’s the setting of Car Wars, which required a post-apocalyptic, divided United States where cars and trucks were still a big deal but banditry abounds. Therefore despite the breakups and hostilities, the roads still somehow get maintained even if they happen to be rather unpatrolled. There are planes and helicopters but they’re not the focus, so the end result goes in a different direction.
That’s the beauty of speculative fiction. You can’t be wrong.
Okay, that’s not precisely true. When you’re dealing with speculative histories or futures, the less you have to stretch the bounds of logic and possibility to get your setting to where you want it to be, the better. This is where it helps to do your research. Even if you’re speculating on the future, you should be looking to the past. Humanity moves in cycles and, cliché as it may sound, history does repeat itself. Crimson Skies wasn’t off base in starting from the example of the Golden Age of Piracy. Competing nations, shifting alliances, sudden wars and even more sudden peaces leaving sailors and soldiers abandoned who know no real trade except how to fight? It’s a time-honored recipe for instability and chaos, the proverbial “Interesting Times“. And the romanticized, fantastical version of any period of interesting times is synonymous with an “Age of Adventure”, no matter if it has airplanes and air pirates or dragons and wizards. Start with the basics of human nature and human history and extrapolate from there, and it’ll give you a grounded base to fling your setting far afield while keeping it at least somewhat within the realm of your audience being able to say “Yeah, it seems crazy, but somehow it makes sense.”
That’s my theory at least. Hopefully it’s working out.