To start off this promising New Year of 2016, I submit for your consideration what we will call a shining vision of a better future.
Fritz Leiber’s “Catch that Zeppelin!” is not in fact a shining vision of the future – but rather a shining vision of a better past.
Written as the endearingly self-depricating memoirs of an aging man who admits that he may be getting just a bit senile, our narrator’s description of “a vivid waking dream” he had turns into a vivid description of a timeline in which just a few historical events went just a bit differently from our own.
I won’t spoil all of the differences, but I will say that our narrator, a middle-aged fellow living in New York City in the year 1939 inhabits, for a few glorious hours, a world in which cars are powered by a cleaner form of energy than gasoline; in which the civil rights movement went just a bit differently from the Civil War on; a war in which World War I went very differently, and as a result the Nazis never rose to power in Germany.
As a result, our hero dwells for a few bright hours in a New York City where the air is clean and the streets are quiet; the people are courteous, and black and white folks alike stride with quiet confidence and are treated with deference in the most luxurious accommodations – including the exclusive German restaurant at the mooring point for Germany’s great fleet of safe, non-polluting passenger zeppelins at the top of the Empire State Building.
In this recollection of a past that never was, we see a reflection of what may yet be. Although we now stand forty years distant from this story’s 1975 publication, and eighty years distant from the era which its narrator describes, perhaps we can still learn a thing or two from the choices that were made – and why they were made differently in this alternate history.
I will post a trigger warning for what initially appears to be some rather vicious anti-Semitism on Leiber’s part; one character described as “the Jew” seems to follow our narrator between realities, illustrating the hate that never was when he is in utopia – and providing an illustration of the narrator’s own unfortunate hostilities when he returns to our timeline formed by very different influences.
The Scrolls of Lankhmar has been kind enough to gather a list of publications in which this fascinating short story can be found. I’ll add to their list my own source for the text – “The 1976 Annual World’s Best SF.”