What Might Have Been, Vol. 1

As a tie-in to a future posting, I will be doing a Raw Feed series on this classic alternate history anthology series.

Raw Feed (1989): What Might Have Been?, Volume 1: Alternate Empires, eds. Gregory Benford and Martin H. Greenberg, 1989.Alternate Empires

In the House of Sorrows“, Poul Anderson — The best part of this story is the central image of the besieged library which gives the story its name. The end scene, revealing the pivotal divergent point for this reality — the destruction of Jerusalem (surprisingly revealed to be the story’s setting) and Judaism before its descendent Christianity and its many effects can be realized, was rather poignant. However, Anderson’s attempt to create an alien world and remind us of its strangeness (and that the narrator is not a twentieth century American) via strange diction, syntax, and vocabulary gives the story a difficult, dense, sometimes jerky feel. I think Anderson could have perhaps realized those ends by another tool than rather archaic style.

Remaking History“, Kim Stanley Robinson — A delightful story though, for me, its intellectual edge was blunted by having read What Is History? by Edward Hallett Carr since that book deals with many of the same issues in regard to the study of history: where, in a chain of cause and effect, does one say the crucial link is and (the ever popular post-Marx history question) is history made by great men or social movements? Robinson doesn’t really pose an answer except maybe to say art plays its role since a fictionalized representation of a real figure leads to real heroics at the story’s end. Robinson briefly addresses the issue of artistically dealing with history and these questions are quite similar to an historian’s concerns. Setting up an alternate history where the Tehran hostage rescue mission succeeds was original and brilliant. And though rather shallowly drawn, I liked the cadre of part-time, low budget, lunar filmmakers and their friendship.

Counting Potsherds“, Harry Turtledove — Another Turtledove alternate history. Here the turning point is Xerxes successful invasion of Greece. Unlike most of his alternate histories where a technology is discovered in an alternate world or a scientific concept formulated or a political decision, that occurred in our time, is faced. Here Turtledove deals with an absence of one of our institutions: democracy. Mithredath rediscovers democracy all right. But he isn’t delighted, just bewildered and aghast at a political system so alien to his monarchial empire. However, he discovers to his chagrin that tying one’s personal fortune to a king can be quite dangerous. I thought the character of Mithradeth the Persian eunuch was well done: petty, intelligent, vain, yet occasionally pragmatic and generous.

Leapfrog“, James P. Hogan — I didn’t like this story and don’t think it was an alternate history. Where’s the turning point from our timeline? This is more a mystery story. I think the basic premise — that the Soviet Union has, is, and will develop it’s space program and economy by secret private enterprise, a secret guarded by the KGB — is absurd, and I can’t suspend my disbelief. I also wasn’t shocked, delighted, or overwhelmed by the observation that Apollo’s success did harm to the U.S.’s space efforts. I think Hogan’s remarks on economics were simplistic. I’m suspicious of any authoritative remarks on the economy. Economics is a pseudo-science. Maybe a different or longer treatment of these ideas would have been better. I don’t know. However, I did like Hogan’s ironical observation that the space program’s success falsely convinced Americans that social ills needed governmental, centralized spending and that we are socializing our economy at the precise moment the Soviets are recognizing that path as barren and disastrous and turning to capitalism.

Everything But Honor“, George Alec Effinger — Alternate histories often feature characters who attempt to change history for some political gain, right a wrong, or revenge a slight. Some even deal with the god-like feel of manipulating time and view the denizens of timelines other than their own as zombies, ghosts, creatures little better than fictional constructs with no life or soul of their own. Effinger gives us a black physicist of an alternate world who wishes to correct the oppression of his race in Germany. Originally enough, he decides that having the South win the Civil War is the way to do this. He trys one of the standard methods of effecting historical change: assassination; although, Effinger again exhibits his originality by selecting an obscure Civil War figure as his target. On his second try at changing events, the physicist reasonably convinces Robert E. Lee to serve the Confederacy instead of the North as he ultimately did in the alternate time line he comes from. As time goes by, Placide the physicist becomes enamored of his god-like machinations. He sees himself as a god, the people of the time-line he created as his fictions, his creatures. In the rather powerful end, Placide finds he has improved the lot of his fellow blacks by helping to create the Nazi death camps. He babbles in the hands of the Nazis, rather insanely about how he will be rescued by an alternate self, a grandiose fantasy of self-deliverance and omnipotence and vengeance. He has been morally tainted by his travel across realities. He has delivered only marginally his fellow blacks and damned others totally. A rather original, emotional, stark play on the themes of alternate history.

We Could Do Worse“, Gregory Benford — A grim, entertaining story of American under the boot of Joe McCarthy. I don’t know the turning point Benford alludes to — Nixon delivering votes to a Taft instead of Dwight D. Eisenhower — but it’s interesting if true. However, I don’t think McCarthy would have created a totalitarian American. He seemed to embrace anti-Communism for popularity and votes, not out of sincere conscience, nor do I think he would have been any more totalitarian than any other president once in the White House. Benford’s casual narrator is a scary, casual, government thug and was the most affecting part of this story.

To the Promised Land“, Robert Silverberg — Silverberg likes to convert classic works of literature into sf. Here he seems to have chosen Exodus. Oddly enough, Silverberg takes a rather mythical event — the Exodus of the Bible, specifically the parting of the Red Sea — as his divergent event. I’m sure, given Silverberg’s erudition, he knows there’s virtually no proof the Exodus took place. Silverberg creates analogs to the biblical characters. Moshe stands in for Moses, his brother Eleazar for Aaron, the narrator, Ben-Simeon is the chronicler. Silverberg creates a memorable setting with his (as always) lushly described decadent Second Roman Republic. Silverberg perceptively points out the problem of a world state that accepts all religious values as equal: eventually all faith is lost, religion becomes a sham, and no value is considered true, no goal pursued. Yet, Rome’s calculated political acceptance of various cultures and religions, while creating spiritual malaise, only dampens, not quells, the destructive fires of nationalism. Silverberg points out the spiritual and emotional value of the moralistic, crusading Judeo-Christian culture. He shows the fire born in the Jews’ zeal for the stars, and Silverberg cunningly combines space travel with evangelism and the birth of a new messianic myth and spiritual renewal. I liked this story a lot and more the longer I think about it.

Bible Stories for Adults, No. 31: The Covenant“, James Morrow — A vitriolic, vicious, awful story that fails as alternate history and as a satire. It fails as alternate history in that Morrow asks us to believe that God not making a covenant with Israel because they built the Golden Calf and Moses smashing the never-to-be-delivered Ten Commandants results in Indians not being displaced from their place in North America; black, female bishop;, and no friction between Christian and Jew. Yet, Western and Japanese political history seems to be relatively unchanged. However, we have no war or slavery. This is utterly ludicrous as serious historical speculation, a total barrier to willing suspension of disbelief. Morrow’s satire is no better. I have no objection to attacks on Christianity if the attacks are well done. This isn’t. Morrow’s point is not that the Ten Commandants are out-dated, too simplistic for our industrial times. That could have been a valid point. Nor is he arguing against the literal reading of the commandants. I wouldn’t agree with that, but it would have been acceptable. No, Morrow blames the Ten Commandants for all those who rationalized evil with them, who twisted their words, indeed for all the evil in the world, seemingly. Yet, the story makes reference to the Constitution, a document influenced by the Christian (including the Ten Commandments) and classical traditions, and seems to approve of its freedoms and laws. Morrow seems to think only Christians reared on the Ten Commandants commit evil. This is such an idiotic, simplistic, stupid viewpoint that his satire is rendered impotent. Morrow seems to be one of those fools who thinks all the evil of the world can be traced to the Western, Christian tradition.

All Assassins“, Barry N. Malzberg — I’ve never read a Malzberg story I’ve liked — except this one. The ending was no real surprise — I’ve read of Malzberg’s obsession with John F. Kennedy’s assassination. Besides, it seemed too obvious an irony to pass up: Oswald killing JFK again. I partly liked this story because of its unflattering portrait of treacherous, frivolous JFK who seems to view politics as little more than “drinking and fucking”. I, in large part, agree with this vision of JFK. (I’m curious if Malzberg used to be or is an admirer of JFK or if he’s just interested in the assassination.). The dense, convoluted, at times passionate and feverish, prose of Oswald was effective in portraying a drifter in need of a figure, a cause, to attach himself to and believe in, and his need to be in the presence of power.

Game Night At the Fox and Goose“, Karen Joy Fowler — A quite original alternate history that makes use of a truly unique turning point for the sub-genre: the lecture career (or lack thereof in our world) of a female killer named Laura D. Fair. In our world, Fair was stopped from her lecture tour (which was to propagate the idea that women should kill men who seduce and betray them) by a mob of men. In the alternate world, she succeeds and unleashes a potent brand of feminism. I don’t like most feminism sf. It’s simplistic and strident. I find Fowler’s depiction of life as a struggle between the masculine and feminine forces silly and simplistic. Yet, I liked this story. I found the juxtaposition of the male bar conversation (while watching a football game — evidently in the alternate world football is regarded as a dangerous expression of dangerous masculinity) with the conversation of the protagonist and/or the traveler from the alternate world both funny and poignant. The tone was more pleasing than most anti-male stories, the criticisms more valid. I found the ending sinister, but not entirely sure I understood it (Is the protagonist raped?). I liked the extrapolations of the alternate world: very sexually differentiated clothing, and the disappearance of many authors (and their books) and presidents (a stinging indictment of adultery in our society but why just harshly judge men — it takes two to commit the act?) and the prohibition on transvestism.

Waiting for the Olympians“, Frederik Pohl — A delightful story combining Pohl’s wit, knowledge of Roman history, knowledge of sf, and seemingly some autobiographical bits. I liked Pohl using Drusus surviving to be Imperator as the turning point in this alternate history. Tiberius becomes proconsul of Judea and frees Christ instead of crucifying him; Drusus revives the Republic. The result is a world Roman state lacking Christianity and where science and tech seems to have advanced faster (the story seems — I think if I remember Roman dating correctly — in our 1700s) (they do seem to lack typewriters and xerox machines). The witty plot is Pohl’s version of the one Philip K. Dick used in The Man in the High Castle: a sf writer in an alternate world writes an alternate history describing our world. However, the narrator has real trouble with the alternate history concept his astronomer/writer friend proposes. Pohl adds additional humor with passing allusions to the stinking Tiber and towering Roman apartments (both problems in Caesar’s days), Galileo and Tycho Brahe’s alternate astronomical accomplishments, and the business of writing. Regular sf uses known physical laws to speculate. Alternate history tries to discover historical “laws” via speculation. Pohl pays homage to the first Alternate history, Murray Leinster’s “Sideways in Time” by having his protagonist’s book called Sidewise to a Christian World. I suspect the protagonist’s writing methods and love of scientific conferences for the sheer love of scientists’ dialogue are autobiographical. I liked the ending. This universe, like Rome of old, takes slavery for granted (here a humane institution not so unlike the punishment for criminals in Pohl’s Years of the City) and can’t imagine doing without or that it would offend the Olympians. If I’m right about the equivalent time of this story, our world, free of slavery, would have, ironically, lacked the tech level to talk with the Olympians.

The Return of William Proxmire“, Larry Niven — I liked this strange homage to Robert Heinlein (while he was still alive). Niven gleefully casts Senator William Proxmire as the story’s villain (as he says in his afterword it seems like he had a lot of fun with this story. I liked the notion of giving Robert Heinlein antibiotics out of maliciousness, and Heinlein still making good as an Admiral. I also liked the touch of sf fading out and being revived by the literary crowd in the sixties and attaining great respectability. (I liked his allusions to the alternate careers of some sf writers including the Ringworld novels of John D. MacDonald.) All in all, a fun story with alternate history as wish fulfillment.


More reviews of fantastic fiction are indexed by title and author/editor.

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