All the best stories ever written have begun in the author’s mind with a simple question that starts with the phrase, “What if…?” This is particularly true about speculative fiction, that catch-all genre that includes the varied realms of science fiction, fantasy and horror.
It is a simple phrase and it would seem to be the impetus for only simple stories. Add other elements to the story – or even additional what-ifs – and a simple tale expands in complexity and interest for the reader with near exponential vitality while retaining the simplicity of the question that gave the story its original purpose.
What if ancient aliens left immense guideposts for humans to find in order to aid them in their quest for knowledge as they move into the space age? Such is the question posited by Arthur C. Clarke in his short story, The Sentinel which was later the inspiration for the motion picture, 2001: A Space Odyssey and the subsequent novel of the same title.
What if, on a planet that is caught in a continuous winter, there were a race of humans who could change their sex from male to female and back to male in response to the sexual opportunity of the moment? This question is answered in Ursula K. LeGuin’s novel, The Left Hand of Darkness.
What if robots could think and feel much as human beings do? Such is the simple query put by Isaac Asimov in such novels as Caves of Steel, The Naked Sun and Robots of Dawn as well as in the stories collected in I, Robot.
Ask yourself this; what if a being from another planet came to Earth with the power to intuit the meaning of nearly every aspect of humanity. Here you have the basis for Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land.
What if a dinosaur were to be transported to the modern era and become a private detective? Eric Garcia’s series of novels begun in 2001 with Anonymous Rex attempts to answer this very whimsical question.
What if…? It is a simple phrase that can engender stories as varied and expansive as the collective imagination of the entire human race. Such stories can be poignant, frightening, awe inspiring, humorous or sad. They all are speculative in nature and speculation always begins with that one simple phrase.