The Raft of the Titanic by James Murrow
The problem with taking the obvious route when applying alternative history to HMS Titanic is that if you create a story where the Titanic doesn’t ship it becomes a case of “so what?” The interesting thing about the ship is the sinking, and if you ignore that we just have a pleasant tale of an oceangoing liner.
Murrow thankfully sinks the boat, but twists things by having most of the crew survive. A great raft is created in that short time before the Titanic goes down and the ship is largely evacuated. At first I thought this was going to be a slightly tedious tale of castaways, but Murrow has great fun pushing things right to their limit and as such creates a genuinely, interesting, amusing and surprising tale.
Sidewinders by Ken MacLeod
There are infinite universes sat side by side, where every possible future is being played out. Able to leap between these often vastly different universes are individuals named Sidewinders. These Sidewinders split into two different factions. There are Improvers who want to improve the various futures they encounter; and then there are Conservers, who want every single future to play out without interference. Our Improver protagonist finds himself chased by a Conserver and jumping through numerous universes to escape.
It’s a good idea for a story, but the result feels a bit glib and rushed.
The Wandering Christian by Eugene Byrne and Kim Newman
Recasting the myth of The Wandering Jew, the one who scorned Jesus and was cursed by The Son of God to wander the Earth until Judgement Day (I’m no biblical scholar, but are curses really something Jesus did?) into a universe where Christianity faltered at an early stage is a fantastic idea. It creates a world so massively different to ours, yet one that gives a lot to ponder on. I’m a pronounced atheist and I took a lot from this story with regards to the nature of chance and happenstance, but I’d bet if you are a practising Christian it would also offer rewards.
Hush My Mouth by Suzette Hayden Elgin
The opening of Suzette Hayden Elgin’s tale had me momentarily convinced that I was reading ‘The Mammoth Book of Best New Horror’ rather than ‘Mammoth Book of Alternative Histories’. Our narrator encounters a ‘Silent’, an individual who has taken a vow of silence for mysterious reasons. When our narrator grows up he himself becomes a Silent, never allowed to speak, and it’s after the spectacular suicide of one of his brothers in quiet chastity, we find out the reason for this incredible vow.
Here we have a world where black soldiers were not allowed to fight in the American Civil War and as a consequence the North lost and the whole history of the country played out in a much different way. It’s an affecting tale, which uses a wordless horror to bring big events down to a personal level.
Letter from the Pope by Harry Harrison and Tom Shippey
Harry Harrison and Tom Shippey here pick a particularly obscure moment in English history to run with. What would have happened if King Alfred had had real doubts about his Christianity during his battles with the Vikings? (Yes, it’s that King Alfred. Although here he pointedly doesn’t burn the cakes.) There’s no doubt a fascinating tale to be written here, where a man stands on the cusp of history and has no idea that his actions will reverberate through the next millennia. Yet this story fails to make the most of its promise. There are some subjects which are ill fitting within a short story, and this is one of them. It just never captures that full sweep of history it’s aiming for. But more damaging, it never seems to capture a sense of time and place, feeling altogether too modern in its dialogue and attitudes, with its characters too flimsy and incongruous in their setting to really carry this dilemma. Added to that a narrative contrivance to resolve it, and what was a promising idea falls flat into the Saxon mud.
Such a Deal by Esther Friesner
So here Esther Friesner takes the Columbus tale for a spin, and gradually builds to a surreal epoch where the old world orders are dramatically thrown away to make way for the new world. Undoubtedly this story is awash with ambition, but it never really comes together and works in the way it should. Part of that is that is lacks the pixyish charm of James Morrow’s‘The Raft of the Titanic’ (which we encountered earlier in this collection) and treats its situation with an earnestness that grates against the outré nature of the plot. More than that though, the structure of the tale seems inadequate for the actual story being told. For the most part it could be a one act play, with characters in a room just talking, but then it suddenly opens up onto the vast panorama of the outside world in a way which is so swift and jarring and rushed that it just fails to capture this world which is being ripped asunder.
Ink from the New Moon by A.A. Attanasio
So this is what happened: before Christopher Columbus ever set foot on the Santa Maria, the Chinese had sailed east and landed somewhere around California. From there they spread out and colonised the continent, until the only region remaining was the almost impenetrable Eastern Seaboard – ‘The Wild East’, as it were. Of course they gave this new country a name: the United Sandalwood Autocracies. This tale follows what happens when Columbus discovers these Chinese colonialists on his arrival.
‘Ink from the New Moon’ is a smart, witty story which truly understands the playfulness of alternative histories (certainly compared to the previous Columbus tale in this volume). Even after hampering itself with a depressed narrator, this tale manages to feel fresh, funny and invigorating in its inventiveness.
Dispatches from the Revolution by Pat Cadigan
The 1960s spiral out of control for America in a completely different way – Johnson standing for a second term inflames the young, but Robert Kennedy survives an assassination attempt to give some hope.
With its switching narrators and merry use of street slang, the author this is most reminiscent of is James Ellroy. (And if you think about it, Ellroy in his ‘American Trilogy’ books was also writing alternative history, just around fixed historical events.) Alternative history tends by nature to be tricksy, but here the tricksiness is masked by anger. This is a loud and angry tale about the preciousness of democracy and how America – and any democratic society – has to be constantly vigilant.
Catch That Zeppelin by Fritz Leiber
A tale which aims for Utopia. Thomas Edison marries Madame Curie, thus bringing their scientific geniuses together and – what’s more! – creating a genius son who revolutionises the world. Abraham Lincoln survived to do much more for race relations after the American Civil War. The 1914-1918 conflict ended differently and in a way which didn’t see the rise of extreme German nationalism. And what we end up with is a peaceful world, a racially harmonic New York, quiet and pollution free streets, and a Zeppelin station atop The Empire State Building.
An interesting idea, but unfortunately a lot of the prose and dialogue used to get these points across is ludicrously stilted and turgid.
A Very British History by Paul McAuley
Cleverly posing as a review of an extensive tome by a British historian (Sir William Coxton’s ‘A Brief History of the Colonization of Space’, if you’re interested); McAuley creates a world where the space race was hugely accelerated; where Clarke, Asimov and Heinlein were as much social historians as science fiction writers; and where – as the title suggests – Great Britain took the lead.
After being the first to reach the Nazi rocket scientists, us Brits were the first to The Moon and to Mars, and are now getting ready to launch galaxy spanning ships which will allow us to colonise Earth-like planets around other suns. However the Americans and the Russians are catch up fast.
If meant as a criticism of Empire it fails through never dealing with the human cost of colonisation, as here it comes across simply as a land grab. However it brilliantly captures the superiority of a certain type of Englishman, and that arrogance turning sour with the realisation that the hegemony is coming to an end. You see, the sun is setting on this Empire in the stars too.
This is a smart, funny and entertaining tale – but then I’m always going to be a sucker for anything which manages to name-check both Patrick Moore and Jack Kerouac.
The Imitation Game by Rudy Rucker
Alan Turing fakes his own death and escapes to lead a more idyllic life without persecution. The Turing case is one of those which still hangs shamefully over British society. As such it is nice to read a storywhere he finds peace and solace. However the story itself manages to be both too melodramatic and emotionally numb. So we have lots of overwrought prose, but a murder at the centre of the story happens - strangely - without a blink of worry.
Weinachtsabend by Keith Roberts
“Oh no! The Nazis actually won the war!”is one of the great ‘go-tos’ of alternative history fiction. Here we have ‘Fatherland’ meets ‘Conspiracy’ as a group of senior figures from the great German-British empire rendezvous in a country house to celebrate Christmas. Of course someone realises just how dreadful and morally wretched this empire is, but the story does take its ponderous sweet time getting there.
I did like the joke about William Shirer writing a volume simply entitled ‘The Rise of the Third Reich’ though.
The Lucky Strike by Kim Stanley Robinson
The Enola-Gay crashes on test-run and responsibility for dropping the first atomic bomb falls to the crew of The Lucky Strike. However the bombardier of The Lucky Strike can see with alarming and horrifying clarity just how devastating and appalling a nuclear strike on a city will be. Will he follow orders and find some way to assuage his conscience, or will he stop the destruction from taking place?
This is probably the best written story in this collection thus far, with Stanley Robinson taking big events and playing them out on a small stage. ‘The Lucky Strike’ is s passionate piece which wears its heart very much on its sleeve.
His Powder’d Wig, This Crown of Thrones by Mark Laidlaw
I liked that there is the shadow of Lovecraft in this tale of a different America, one where the British and mad King George won the war of attempted independence. For all the works of American culture which could have been used to drive this tale forward, I enjoyed that it was Lovecraft’s idea of an ancient and mystical power that clings to American land. True, we don’t have Cthulhu or the Necronomicon, but I thought old H.P. would appreciate the idea that Benedict Arnold is commemorated (in the city which now bears his name) with a giant pit bored right into the centre of the ground.
However the fist-pumping patriotism in the rest of the tale, although undoubtedly appealing to some people, left me cold. Given the actual history of the USA, portraying the country IF it had won the war of independence as a utopia for all men regardless of skin colour, just seemed like flag-waving gone to ludicrous lengths.
Alternative history is great, but it works best when real history isn’t completely ignored.
Roncesvalles by Judith Tarr
Intrigue at the Court of King Charles of the Franks, with Christianity and Islam placed in direct opposition. It’s always an achievement to cram a novel’s worth of events into a short story; however, as this tale demonstrates, it’s much less of an achievement to make a short story read as if it’s a long and tedious novel.
The English Mutiny by Ian R. MacLeod
This is what you can do with alternative history!
‘The English Mutiny’ is a fantastic and mad tale which sees the scales of history having been tipped the other direction, and India now the colonial power over Britain. Fed up of being oppressed by opulent rulers in a much distant land (as well as fighting the troublesome Scots), the British army rises up – led by a charismatic, but possibly insane, prophet – and turns London into a citadel of freedom. But this freedom may be too hard to win for more than but a fleeting moment.
Echoing (of course) The Indian Mutiny, it manages to take in the whole of colonialism, as well as Anglo-Scot relations and the centrality of London to these isles. An exciting and gripping tale; one of the best in this collection.
O One by Chris Roberson
A world so unlike ours: the Chinese have conquered the world and now The Emperor wants to launch into space and dominate the stars. How this all transpired is never explained, meaning this story is in the zone of flights of fancy. Saying that it’s a pleasant story damns it with faint praise, but pleasant it is. It’s not without interest, holds the attention, but is eminently forgettable.
Islands in the Sea by Harry Turtledove
We open with the world map already radically redrawn: the Arab-Byzantine wars of the 600s having gone decisively the way of the Arabs, and Constantinople being very much in their hands. Now a group of Arabs and a group of Christians make their case to the Khan of the Bulgars in order for him to give up his heathen ways and follow one of their religions. His ultimate decision will have vast consequences for the religious and political future of the western hemisphere. If you’re interested in religion and history then this is without a doubt an intriguing story; although since most of it is characters sat around debating, it can feel a bit like a regurgitated ten week course in theology.
Lenin in the Odessa by George Zewbrowski
An enjoyable tale which takes actual history and tweaks it just a little: British super-spy Sidney Reilly was indeed involved in a plot to overthrow Lenin and Bolshevism in 1918, and was implicated in an assassination attempt on Lenin’s life that year. Here we have Reilly being far more ambitious though, looking to take control of Russia himself and when the assassination attempt fails, flying to Lenin to finish the job himself. It’s an interesting story in this collection, as rather than changing the events of a moment and extrapolating a whole other future from it, history as we know seems to march on undaunted culminating in Stalin becoming leader of Russia. Although since our narrator is one Josef Stalin, the possibility exists that he’s more than a little unreliable.
The Einstein Gun by Pierre Gévart
The assassination attempt on Franz Ferdinand in 1914 failed, which of course meant there was no First World War. Unfortunately consequences that arose from that botched murder include a stock market crash in 1926 and one Adolf Hitler becoming leader of Austria-Hungary, rather than Germany. Independently to all this though, Alfred Einstein invents a time machine.
I had a nagging feeling as I read this that time travel might a gimmick too far for the story, yet actually it is used to bring a neat kind of circularity which left this reader nodding contentedly at this tale’s intelligence and audacity.
Tales from the Venia Woods by Robert Silverberg
Hansel and Gretel walk into the dark woods, but instead of a wicked witch they find an ancient Roman emperor.
This story pulls the neat trick of being an alternative history set in the future. It’s the middle of the twenty-first century and the Roman Empire is still flourishing thousands of years after its inception. The Caesars though have been overthrown and in their place a glorious Republic has been formed. Meanwhile in the Roman region of Germany, two children venture into a nearby woods in search of a haunted cottage that allegedly belonged to the emperors in olden times. They are seeking ghosts, they are seeking treasure, but what they find is the younger brother of the last Caesar. Now a very old man, he is still the last heir to a long line of Roman Kings.
I like that this story manages to cram so much in: there’s the Grimm Brothers German fairy-tale mysticism, there’s a real sense of horror as the children are alone in the woods and there’s the growing friendships between these naive innocents and the sweet and disappointed old man. In the background buzzes politics, revolution, patriotism and the threat of nationalism, to give a poo-pourri of ideas which does incredibly manage to hang together. It’s a far different world from the one we have today, but Silverberg – in a short space of pages – manages to make it seem a real world.
Manassas Again by Gregory Benford
This is another tale where the Roman Empire just kept going and going. (Seriously guys, no tales about the British Empire still going? Or the mighty Macedonian Empire still being ruled by Alexander the 65th?) However, the alternative history here is merely detail, with the foreground being the terribleness of war.
The notion of a human v robots war story did appeal to the little boy inside me, but the tale itself never finds the way to be as gripping as it should.
The Sleeping Serpent by Pamela Sargent
This is more like it!
There I am bitching about ‘the Roman Empire never ended’ story after ‘the Roman Empire never ended’ story, and here we get the Mongol Empire instead. It makes a refreshing change. In ‘The Sleeping Serpent’ the Mongols achieve their aim of an Empire stretching from Asia to Europe, and now a descendant of the great Khan joins together with the Native Americans to drive the Inglistani (or the English, to you and I) from the New World.
Whereas the last tale gave us war at its most tedious, this is riveting – understanding that to make battle scenes work you need decent characters with proper motivations that the reader can give a damn about.
Waiting for the Olympians by Frederick Pohl
Hmmm. I’m going to have to backtrack a little here.
After complaining about a preponderance of ‘the Roman Empire never ended’ stories (and one has to wonder what’s going on in an editor’s mind if he places three such tales in a run of four), we get to one I really like. But rather than tackling the idea with a distant sorrow, or just keeping it as a background detail, Pohl attacks it full on with a playful relish. Actually ‘playful’ makes it sound like it’s not a serious tale, or is at best a romp, but this is one of the most original and ambitious stories in this volume.
‘Waiting for the Olympians’ is not only a ‘the Roman Empire never ended’ story, but a tale of visiting aliens, a love story, a literary satire and an examination of Christianity. Some writers use alternative history as ideas, Pohl clearly has a bag-full of ideas and alternative history is just one of them.
A brilliant and witty tale, particularly the delicious detail of the not so bright narrator having the concept of ‘alternative history’ explained to him numerous times and him taking most of the story to work out what it means or what the point of it might be.
Darwin Anathema by Stephen Baxter
The Catholic Church doesn’t persecute Galileo, which counter-intuitively in this counter-history leads to the Church becoming much more powerful and dominant. Hundreds of years later they try to make amends for their mistake by excommunicating the dead body of radical preacher, Charles Darwin. But some proponents of evolution want exactly that.
I loved the scope of this story, the way it crams in so much: there’s no French revolution, a different result in the wars for General Napoleon; and even Hitler gets a mention in his dotage. I’m not sure I’d necessarily agree with its conclusions, but then it’s not really aiming for conclusions, just being delightfully playful.
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