The reading continues to outpace the writing, so you get another retro review. This one’s from June 21, 2008 …
I suppose I should apologize for more Nazis. But I’m not going to.
The weakest stories in this anthology think they can just evoke that modern totem of evil, the twisted cross of the swastika, mix it with some vengeance and moral retribution insufficiently provided by our universe, and have an affecting story. Sometimes, in an ostensible collection of alternate histories, the actual historical speculation is pretty sparse..
The worst of the lot is from the normally reliable Greg Bear. His “Through No Road Whither” has SS officers from an alternate 1985 Germany get their just deserts after crossing the path of a Gypsy woman. There is almost no explanation for this alternate timeline, no exploration of its details. The ghosts of fetuses experimented on by a death camp doctor come back to wreck justice in Howard Goldsmith’s “Do Ye Hear the Children Weeping?”, but it’s not as moving as it wants to be and we learn little about this world except that Nazi genocide proceeded apace and, somehow, America fell under Nazi rule. Editor Gregory Benford at least provides something of an interesting alternative in “Valhalla” which has the Third Reich only surviving till 1947 — but that’s long enough to complete its plans of racial extermination. But the inhabitants of another timeline asserting their jurisdiction over Hitler and his pending judgement are little more than empty wish fulfillment.
Long before the Nazi-occult was established in pop culture — if less firmly in history — Hilary Bailey’s 1964 story, “The Fall of Frenchy Steiner”, featured sort of a prophecying Nazi Vestal Virgin. That, of course, puts a different spin on the title. Shelia Finch’s “Reichs-Peace” provides a somewhat detailed alternate history and some realistic technological jargon before veering off on a plot involving Romany pre-disposition to telepathy. The story also suffers from an implausibly influential Eva Braun and that peculiar 1980s fear that America was headed towards theocracy. (Here America is ruled by an isolationist Protestant government that forbids science fiction!)
The flavor of fantasy is strongest in David Brin’s peculiar “Thor Meets Captain America”. This melange of military adventure, the Norse gods, high tech, alternate history, magic, comic books, and slapstick really shouldn’t work. But it does and quite well. It’s definitely one of the high points of the book.
Several of the stories postulate sort of an alternate Cold War with the Nazis filling in for the USSR. (Of course, all the stories in the book were written during the Cold War.) That flavor is strongest in the oldest story here, Algis Budrys’ “Never Meet Again” from 1957. Budrys is the only author here to have actually seen, as a small Lithuanian boy, Hitler in person. The USSR, which occuppied Budrys’ homeland, also chills the soul of his protagonist who flees a prosperous Germany — and a regime which indirectly killed his wife when she was in a concentration camp — for a better world. Unfortunately, what he gets is a Russian occuppied East Berlin.
The nuclear apocalypse so much in the public mind during the Cold War features in C. M. Kornbluth’s 1958 story “Two Dooms”. The dooms in question aren’t the Japan and Germany that have occuppied an alternate America but the hero’s choice — a world of nuclear weapons or a world of fascist tyranny. It was also interesting to see a characteristic Kornbluth theme, overpopulation, show up here too.
Another sort of Cold War also features in Tom Shippey’s “Enemy Transmissions” which even reflects, in its discussions of space weapons built by the Germans and Americans as each vies, client states in tow, for world supremacy, similar discussions in our version of 1985. Shippey’s basic plot centers around the science of prophetic dreams, the discipline which lead Hitler to make wiser decisions about technological development than he did in our world. But literary critic Shippey, in his first piece of fiction, does what the best stories in this anthology do: not give us easy stories of Nazis being punished but, rather, show us the culture and mindset and politics of worlds where Nazis thrive.
Besides Brin’s and Shippey’s tales, the strongest stories here are Brad Linaweaver’s “Moon of Ice”, an early run of his excellent novel of the same name, and Keith Roberts’ “Weihnachtsabend”. Told through Joseph Goebbels’ diaries, “Moon of Ice” gives us a Hitler reflective on his deathbed, Nazi cinema and pseudo-science, intrigue, a Dr. Mabuse-like figure, and SS men so fanatical they regard Goebbels as a traitor. It’s also a family drama with two of his children choosing very different paths from him. Roberts give us a characteristically English story of a Nazi England returning to its thinly veiled pagan roots. Among the wonderful description of land and storm, Roberts gives us one of his tales of futile, despondent rebellion. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the anthology’s best stories, with the exception of Brin, feature protagonists who are, themselves, part of the Nazi machine.
The allure of that machine and, especially, its symbols and fantasies, is explored in Norman Spinrad’s introduction. Hack sword-and-sorcery author Adolf Hitler intuitively grasps these concepts in Spinrad’s alternate history <em>The Iron Dream</em>.
Benford’s preface gives a good overview of the “Hitler Wins” sub-genre of alternate history — at least in the English language.
There are some weak stories here, but there are enough good stories, and four really good stories, to make this anthology worth the time.