GAMBIER — “What if” scenarios involving how a change in the outcome of one world event from the past would affect those of us living in the 21st century served as the kickoff topic for The Kenyon Review Literary Festival 2019.
Misha Rai, a Kenyon Review fellow, asked 25 students to put their creative thinking caps on for a science fiction writers workshop called “Alternate Histories: Writing the Surreal in Science Fiction and Fantasy,” held in a packed Cheever room at Finn House. She gave them a series of writing prompts, starting with the major cue — picking out one historical event from the far distant or more recent past, which they would enjoy “switching up” through the creation of alternative history. Many of the students attending the activity were English majors, some with a concentration in creative writing.
One of the most widely popular alternative reality timelines involves what would have happened had Nazi Germany triumphed as the victor of World War II. But not all students were into historical-related fiction; some came from the vantage point of writing from the fantasy genre and the “surreal” science fiction writing — what Rai described as bringing a subconscious dream to life on paper with descriptive verve.
“I just came to inspire my own creative energy a little bit,” one student said, as Rai asked attendees to go around the room one at a time and say something about themselves.
Rai asked students to write down three things that would have changed had their alternative timeline happened, as well as three things that would have stayed the same in today’s society. She asked them to introduce their major character and even a minor character — defined as one who would not have a major bearing on the alternative reality outcome. She even asked students to write down their interpretations of a rather hideous, surreal Salvador Dali painting of a skull with faces and images of people inside its bone structure, and introduce its presence into their developing stories.
Grant Holt, a sophomore from Pasadena majoring in history, chose the alternative reality of what would have happened if French scientist Marie Curie, who discovered radium in 1898 with her husband, Pierre, had fallen victim to the German Army of that era stealing her discovery. Radium produces radon gas, which is used to fight illnesses such as different forms of cancer. Radium is highly valuable as it is produced in tiny amounts, and was considered one of the great landmark moments in chemistry and physics. Its discovery showed how radioactive elements decay through a formulaic, predictable half-life.
Holt said Rae’s workshop was helpful to him as he further hones in on a story he is writing about Madame Curie for a Kenyon student publication called Lyceum. She held France’s entire concentration of radium in her possession at one time, he offered. When she died, it was discovered that her body, clothing, her books, and all physical possessions she had touched — had been exposed to its radioactivity. Taking the workshop also helped him satisfy a course requirement in his creative non-fiction class, asking him to attend and participate in two non-class events focused on writing.
Another writer focused on something far more recent — what would have happened had the Florida recount been allowed to continue in late 2000, with Al Gore being declared the winner of the presidency over George W. Bush. He wrote one thing would have been the U.S. not declaring war on Iraq, and thus, groups such as ISIS did not form later because a tightly hemmed-in Saddam Hussein was still in power.
And, given Gore’s focus on environmental sustainability and global warming, the writer surmised that Gore and the US would have led the world in rolling back carbon emissions including vehicle emissions to pre-1990 levels; that decision helped stave off what climatologists called the “tipping point” of irreversible change damaging the planet, including melting polar ice, out-of-control wildfires and eventual coastal inundation by rising sea levels.
The literary festival continues through this week. For more information, visit www.kenyonreview.org/litfest
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