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Literature / Random Quest

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"Random Quest" is an Alternate History Romance Novelette written by John Wyndham, first published in his 1961 collection Consider Her Ways and Others.

The story concerns a physicist named Colin Trafford who, as a result of a failed experiment, finds himself in an Alternate Universe in which World War II never happened. He has switched bodies with his counterpart, a successful author and a thoroughly disreputable man who is neglectful and emotional abusive towards his beautiful wife Ottilie Harshom, flaunting his frequent adultery. Colin falls in love with Ottilie almost immediately. He does not tell her the truth about himself but he is nevertheless able to create a bond of trust between them. After he returns to his own universe just as suddenly as he arrived, Colin endeavours to find Ottilie's counterpart, something which proves very difficult.


It has been adapted for the screen three times: as an episode of the BBC science fiction anthology series Out of the Unknown in 1969 (now a Missing Episode), the 1971 film Quest For Love, and a 2006 BBC television film.

This work provides examples of:

  • Alternate History: The parallel universe diverged from ours in late 1926 or early 1927. Colin is unable to identify the exact Point of Divergence but he does determine that it had the effect of either preventing the Wall Street Crash or significantly lessening its impact. As a result, Adolf Hitler never rose to power and World War II never happened. From reading The Times, Colin learns some of the consequences of this:
    • India is still a British colony in 1954. There are widespread demonstrations of civil disobedience in Delhi calling for the immediate release of Jawaharlal Nehru from prison.
    • Nuclear fission is nothing more than a theoretical possibility but the international scientific community considers the nuclear experiments being conducted in Germany to be reckless and wants the League of Nations (which was never dissolved in this universe) to intervene and assume control.
    • Rab Butler is the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom in 1954. Butler never achieved the position in reality but was strongly considered for it on two occasions: after the resignation of Anthony Eden in 1957 (Harold Macmillan was chosen instead) and after the resignation of Macmillan in 1963 (Alec Douglas-Home was chosen instead).
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    • With no World War II, Winston Churchill never became Prime Minister.
    • The differing political situation in the parallel universe meant that Clement Attlee never became Prime Minister either. As Leader of the Opposition, he still advocates the nationalisations which the Labour government under his leadership carried out from 1945 to 1951 in Colin's universe.
    • Colin speculates on the existence of other parallel universes in which Alexander the Great was defeated by the Persians, Scipio was defeated by Hannibal and Julius Caesar did not cross the Rubicon.
  • Alternate Self: As well as the mostly unpleasant discoveries that he makes about his own counterpart, he also meets the counterpart of his old Cambridge friend and classmate Martin Falls, whom he hasn't seen in two years. In the parallel universe, Colin and Martin have maintained a closer friendship and had last seen each other only three days earlier. Colin gets the shock of his life when he sees the alternate Martin has a full set of fingers on his left hand as the Martin of his universe lost both the little finger and the third finger while fighting near the Rhine in 1945.
  • Dead Alternate Counterpart:
    • Noël Coward died in August 1953 and The Lady Loves, the last of his many musical plays, is being staged in the Laughton Theatre in London in January 1954 in his memory. His daughter Amanda Coward plays the lead role. In Colin's universe, Coward, who was still alive when the story was written and lived until 1973, never had any children. Neither the play nor the theatre existed in Colin's universe either.
    • Inverted in several cases:
      • Colin's wife Della Stevens, who died after a year of "satisfactory marriage" in 1951 in his universe, is still alive in the parallel universe in 1954. She does not recognise him.
      • Ivor Novello directed the production of Noël Coward's final play The Lady Loves in the parallel universe 1954. In reality, Novello died in 1951.
      • Dr. Harshom's daughter was killed in an air raid in London in 1941. Since World War II never took place, this wouldn't have happened but this point is never expressly made in the story. Of course, without the war, millions of others would have either died at a later date or would still be alive in 1954 as well.
      • Dr. Harshom's son Malcolm - who turns out to be Ottilie's father - is dead in both universes by 1954 but lived longer in the parallel universe. He was killed in a racing accident in 1927 in Colin's universe but lived until 1938, when he was killed in a plane crash, in the parallel universe.
  • Different World, Different Movies: J. B. Priestley, C. S. Lewis, Bertrand Russell and T.S. Eliot all wrote different books, for the most part, as Colin comments that there was scarcely a title that he recognised.
  • Doppelgänger Replacement Love Interest: After returning to his own universe, Colin eventually tracks down Ottilie's counterpart. In his universe, Dr. Harshom's son Malcolm had a girlfriend who, unbeknownst to him, was pregnant when he was killed in 1927. She married a Canadian man named Reggie Gale who raised her daughter Belinda (Ottilie's counterpart) as his own. When Colin found Belinda, she was living in a flat in Ottawa with her mother. Reggie, a member of the Royal Canadian Air Force, was killed in a mission over Berlin during the war. Colin marries Belinda within several months and brings her back to England to meet her grandfather Dr. Harshom.
  • Equivalent Exchange: The failed experiment causes Colin to switch places with his counterpart in the parallel universe.
  • Framing Device: Colin visits Dr. Harshom trying to find out anything that he can about Ottilie and tells him the story of his visit to the parallel universe.
  • Good Hair, Evil Hair: The alternate Colin has a more elaborate version of the moustache that the Colin of our universe shaved off years earlier. Interestingly, this example of an alternate universe counterpart having facial hair predates the appearance of the Mirror Universe Spock's goatee in the Star Trek: The Original Series episode "Mirror, Mirror" by six years.
  • In Spite of a Nail: Throughout his search for Ottilie in his own universe, Colin is convinced that she will be essentially the same person as he met in the parallel universe in spite of the fact that he and his counterpart were very different people. After finding her counterpart Belinda (who had an entirely different upbringing and consequently life experience than Ottilie), he is adamant that the two of them are soul mates. He even intimates that Dr. Harshom that if Belinda had been married, he would have broken up her marriage to be with her.
  • Manipulative Bastard: The alternate Colin.
  • Other Me Annoys Me: Given that they have switched places, Colin never meets his counterpart but he soon comes to hate everything about him. First and foremost, there is his treatment of Ottilie. He also dislikes the propensity for brutality that his counterpart displays in his writing.
  • Your Universe or Mine?: Colin falls in love with Ottilie in the parallel universe.

The 1971 film provides examples of:

  • Adaptation Name Change:
    • Colin's friend is named Tom Lewis. In the short story, his name is Martin Falls.
    • Ottilie's counterpart's name is Tracy Fletcher. In the short story, her name is Belinda Gale.
  • Adapted Out: Dr. Harshom is omitted from the film adaptation.
  • The Alcoholic: The alternate Colin.
  • Adaptation Expansion: In the story, Colin describes both Ottilie and her counterpart Belinda at some length but the former makes only a very minor appearance in the story while the latter does not appear at all. In the film, Ottilie is a major character who appears in the vast majority of the parallel universe scenes whereas her counterpart, whose name is Tracy Fletcher, makes a significant appearance towards the end of the film. The film's screenwriter Terence Feely also gave Ottilie a previously undiagnosed fatal heart condition which gave Colin's search for her counterpart in his own universe a greater sense of urgency and a greater moral dimension than existed in the short story. It also served to make her even more unattainable and eliminated the problem of her once again being the victim of her husband's emotional abuse once the two Colins switched back, something which undermined the short story's happy ending.
  • Alternate History: As in the short story, World War II never happened in the parallel universe. However, the two universes diverged in 1938 rather than 1926/7. The exact nature and cause of the divergence is not specified. Again as was the case with the short story, the League of Nations still exists and nuclear fission is still no more than a theoretical possibility. Other differences include:
    • The Vietnam War never happened either.
    • No one has managed to reach the summit of Mount Everest by 1971. A book entitled Everest: The Unconquered was published in that year.
    • The first human spaceflight has not yet taken place.
    • Heart transplants are unknown to medical science.
    • Televisions are more primitive.
    • Abortion is still illegal throughout the UK.
    • The News Chronicle (which merged with The Daily Mail in 1960) is being published in 1971.
    • The building of blocks of flats being banned in Pimlico (which did not suffer the same devastation during the Blitz in Colin's universe without World War II).
  • Alternate Self: In Colin's universe, his friend Tom Lewis is a BBC science correspondent (and former war correspondent) who lost his right arm while covering the Vietnam War. In the parallel universe, Tom is the film critic for The Times who still has both arms since the Vietnam War never took place.
  • Canon Foreigner: Sir Henry Larnstein does not appear in the short story.
  • Dead Alternate Counterpart: Inverted in two cases:
    • John F. Kennedy is still alive in 1971 and has recently been appointed Secretary-General of the League of Nations.
    • Leslie Howard, whose plane was shot down during World War II in 1943 in Colin's universe, is still alive and still acting in 1971.
  • Doppelgänger Replacement Love Interest: Unlike the short story, Ottilie dies in the film so there is no possibility of she and Colin being able to resume their relationship even if he managed to find a way to return to the parallel universe. As such, there is less of a sense that Colin is "settling" for Ottilie's counterpart in the film than there is in the short story. Tracy has a somewhat similar background to Belinda Gale in the short story as she was raised by adoptive parents after her biological parents were killed in an air raid shortly after she was born in 1945. Colin manages to get Tracy to the hospital for treatment before it is too late. Again unlike the short story, the film ends before Colin and Tracy are married but it is heavily implied that they will become a couple: in the final scene, he visits her in hospital with a bunch of flowers and introduces himself.
  • Setting Update: Set around the time of release, seventeen years after the setting of the original story.

The 2006 BBC television film provides examples of:

  • Adaptation Name Change:
    • Ottilie's counterpart's name is Kate Gale as opposed to Belinda Gale.
    • Dr. Harshom's son was named Matthew. In the short story, his name was Malcolm.
  • Alternate History:
    • In this version, the Point of Divergence between the two universes comes much later as the Berlin Wall did not fall on November 9, 1989 because there was no glasnost and perestroika, which implies that Mikhail Gorbachev never became the leader of the Soviet Union. As a result, the Cold War continued to intensify until the United States and the Soviet Union's power dwindled and both were eclipsed by the People's Republic of China.
    • In 2005, Japan discovered significant oil deposits in the South Pacific and its threatening behaviour towards the Philippines and Indonesia over the course of the last 18 months has placed it on the verge of war with the US.
    • The UK is suffering a severe drought with reservoirs throughout Southeast England and Wales being dry for months. This leads to the declaration of a state of emergency.
    • The Western world is experiencing a severe fertility crisis which is expected to worsen over the course of the next ten years. Consequently, the United Nations Security Council has lifted its ban on human cloning and the first viable human clone has already been born to a couple in San Francisco.
    • In contrast to the 1971 film, the space programme in the parallel universe is more advanced than in Colin's universe. There has already been a manned mission to Mars. In 2005, in a joint operation between NASA and the Chinese National Space Administration called the Juno mission, an unmanned Jupiter polar explorer was launched from Cape Canaveral. It took fifteen months to reach Jupiter.
  • Doppelgänger Replacement Love Interest: This trope is applied in much the same way as in the short story. After much searching, Colin discovers Ottilie's counterpart, whose name is Kate Ottilie Gale. In Colin's universe, Matthew Harshom, Dr. Harshom's son and Ottilie's father, was killed in Belfast in 1974, something which didn't happen in the parallel universe. Again, Dr. Harshom never discovered that his late son's girlfriend was pregnant.
  • Framing Device: Unlike the 1971 version, the 2006 version included the short story's framework involving Dr. Harshom. Unlike the short story, however, Colin met Dr. Harshom's counterpart in the parallel universe.
  • Richard Nixon, the Used Car Salesman:
    • Condoleezza Rice is the US President in 2006. Stock Footage of Rice, who was then the Secretary of State, was used to represent President Rice speaking to the UN.
    • John Smith is the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom in 2006. In Colin's universe, Smith served as Leader of the Labour Party and Leader of the Opposition from 1992 until his death in 1994. Prior to his death, it was widely expected that he would become the next Prime Minister.
    • Tony Blair is a relatively low level Cabinet minister, having recently been appointed Drought Secretary. In Colin's universe, Blair succeeded Smith as Labour leader in 1994.
  • Setting Update: Set around the time of broadcast, with even the Point of Divergence moved too long after the original story.