Shoulda, coulda, woulda

“For All Mankind” (Apple TV)

It’s tempting to imagine alternate realities. We hear talk of the “multiverse,” a philosophical theory suggesting that infinite parallel universes exist, one for every imaginable outcome. The animated show “Rick and Morty” explores the multiverse with hilarious nihilism.

But that’s not the only place we dabble in the multiverse. You don’t have to be well versed in the implications of alternate realities to engage in “could have,” “would have” and “should have” thinking. It comes naturally.

We imagine a world where we said something clever at the right time, or did not say something cruel at the wrong time. Somewhere in the multiverse, a version of ourself nailed it. (And another version somehow bungled things even worse, or got hit by a bus).

“What ifs” are rarely helpful, but we just can’t seem to help ourselves.

In one popular ethical debate, we imagine a time machine and wonder if we would go back in time to kill Baby Hitler.

Most ethicists agree that killing Baby Hitler is not ethical. He’s a baby and didn’t do anything wrong yet. But I’ve got a bigger question. Why aren’t we afraid of Baby Hitler coming to the future to kill us?

I kid, of course. It doesn’t really work like that. But the concept does remind me of a show that aired on Amazon Prime a few years ago called “The Man in the High Castle.” This dystopian sci-fi show imagined a world where the Axis powers won World War II and occupied the United States. The story was based on a popular 1962 novel by Philip K. Dick. Nevertheless, seeing the goose-stepping Nazis march through an authoritarian “what if” made for a modern shock to the system.

More disturbing was the central plot, which concerned the possibility of traveling between the reality where the Nazis won and our own timeline. The Third Reich sought to conquer and destroy other timelines, including the one where I was just sitting there watching this weird show. Fortunately, spoiler alert, the Nazis lost again.

Alternate history also inspires the Apple TV series “For All Mankind.” In this show, we enter a world in which the Soviet Union beat the United States to the moon by a few weeks back in 1969. What transpires is an elaborate set of events that alter our familiar timeline of late 20th Century American history in ways both subtle and obvious. For instance, NASA becomes a national priority while Michael Jordan somehow becomes drafted by the Portland Trailblazers.

The new space race becomes more aggressive and advances technology even faster than the original space race. When Soviets send women to the moon, the U.S. responds in kind. The unexpected outcome is a world where women’s rights advance more quickly than they did in the 1970s. Case in point, in the show our first woman president was elected in the 1990s. Of course, this varies from our current timeline in which she was elected … well, we’ll figure that out eventually.

The fourth season of “For All Mankind” will air later this year, so I don’t know how it ends, but I’m sure that it will be different than how our story ends in 2025 when the war comes. (Again, kidding. I think).

Alternate histories make for interesting thought exercises, but they’re just fantasies. The younger version of myself is still back there in the past, bumbling around his cringe-worthy universe. Maybe that’s for the best.

Science fiction’s greatest strength is its ability to express the stark realities of our present day in a narrative liberated from conventional thinking. “Star Trek” was about a 1960s concept of world peace. “Alien” was about the realization that the future might not be as bright as we thought. “The Road” rather belabored the point.

Under all this fantasy is a reality: Us. We’re still here in this one big time machine, moving forward a day at a time.

Aaron J. Brown

Aaron J. Brown is an author and college instructor from northern Minnesota’s Iron Range. He writes the blog and co-hosts the podcast “Power in the Wilderness” on Northern Community Radio. This piece first appeared in the Sunday, Feb. 4, 2023 edition of the Mesabi Tribune.


  1. Joe musich says

    Excellent ! You constructed a piece without and ending. Haha. Somewhere in my collection of memory matter I have a photo of Joel de la Fuente and myself. It was taken before the final season of the Man in the High Castle series. Meeting him in person only accentuated his acting skills. The theories of Muliti verses are great but counter factual exercises but can run wild like a bad comic book movie. Engaging in what ifs is really at the basis of what we also know as “game theory,” which gets us to all sorts conundrums. But hey bring back the Dodo. But also clean up mile seven.

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