What Might Have Been, Vol. 2

The Raw Feed series on this classic alternate history anthology series continues.

Raw Feed (1991): What Might Have Been, Volume 2: Alternate Heroes, eds. Gregory Benford and Martin H. Greenberg, 1990.Alternate Heroes

A Sleep and a Forgetting”, Robert Silverberg — Anothery story by the very prolific Silverberg using his historical knowledge. Here Genghis Khan was captured as a young man by Byzantine traders and Christianized. Our staid linguist protagonist Joe decides to have some fun and launches on an historical power trip. Using relay satellites within Mercury’s orbit which send messages back in time, he inspires Khan to become a Christian conqueror against the approaching Moslems. The consequences are left to the reader’s imagination making this a peculiarly underdeveloped alternate history. Still, it was interesting.

The Old Man and C”, Shelia Finch — An alternate history which presupposes Albert Einstein took up the violin instead of physics. (The title is a nice pun on the musical note (and the variable c in E=mc2.) Despite his success, he has the nagging impression (reinforced by the constant references to light in the story and Einstein’s fascination with it) that his life took a wrong turn, that he was destined for bigger things. At his life’s end, as atom bombs enter his world, as his physicist son tells him of the new theory of relativity, his mind wanders and he clearly grasps, intuitively, the new physics. A grim, depressing, poignant story that reminds us of the “dark waters of the soul” where sharks swim to steal our dreams and destiny.

The Last Article”, Harry Turtledove — An elegant, simple story that makes a profound political point. Nazis invade India; Gandhi tries his passive resistance routine on them; he and his followers are shot. As Field Marshal Walther Model tells Gandhi, before the latter is executed, passive resistance only works in a regime ruled by conscience, capable of shame. A certain type of morality must be present, a certain concern for the oppressed must exist before passive resistance can work. In short, only societies that are already somewhat good can be reformed this way. The truly bad aren’t impressed.

Mules in Horses’ Harness”, Michael Cassutt — This story did not impress me. The relationship between protagonist Gene and his sister Shelby was well-done as was the portrayal of women’s plight in this Confederacy. The notion that Lincoln’s assassination on July 4, 1863 causes a fearsome Union effort which occuppies the South for 40 years and leaves an established Confederacy is interesting but not particularly credible. Neither is the attempt to simulate history using the actions of genetically altered bacteria in the hundreds of millions (really uncredible for, amongst other reasons, the fact that humans aren’t bacteria and, one suspects reasons to do with chaos theory — you don’t know enough to simulate). This story takes the view that, at certain time in history, many people can be the needed Great Man and opts for a sort of social predestination.

Lenin in Odessa”, George Zebrowski — This was a rather strange story but interesting. Sidney Reilly (the famous Reilly, Ace of Spies) assassinates Lenin in 1918 and is in turned killed by Stalin who assumes control of Russia years earlier than he did in our world. This story, like Robert Silverberg’s “A Sleep and a Forgetting” cheats somewhat in that it’s more concerned in the moment history turns than the consequences of the turning. Perhaps that is one of the thematic points. I doubt a Russia that came under Stalin a few years earlier would be substantially different than ours. Perhaps this is what Zebrowski is hinting at when Stalin, his narrator, wonders why Reilly (who wants to take over the Russian revolution — he’s Russian born) thought he could stem the “course of Soviet inevitability” which now belongs to Stalin. It may be a mistake to consider this Zebrowski’s attitude but Reilly says Bolshevism contains “constructive ideas” of social justice which could be wed to practical government but for Stalin. This could be narrator Stalin’s slant or character Reilly’s (as Stalin says) naivete. Still, Lenin seems a bit too nice as he mourns to Reilly (before Reilly kills him) that the revolution now belongs to those like Stalin who will make the world as “barren for everyone as they’ve made it for themselves”. Lenin was more a theorist than Stalin but the brutality was much the same. Lenin conceived it and simply didn’t get as much a chance to carry it out as Stalin. Stalin is portrayed as a brutal, ambitious, conniving, ruthless schemer but seems, from his narrative, a bit too well-educated. Still, it was in interesting story for its subject, narrator, and style.

Abe Lincoln in McDonald’s”, James Morrow — A fantasy (no sf rationale exists) where Abe Lincoln travels to the future (and really likes McDonald’s which was the best part of the story) to see if he should sign the Seward Treaty. He finds a world of slaves and an AIDS like disease called Blue Nile. After witnessing the ‘mercy killing” of a slave, Lincoln decides not to sign the Seward Treaty. The world changes and the dead slave becomes a dead robot. Nothing special here.

Another Goddamned Showboat”, Barry N. Malzberg — I suppose the point of this story, which has Ernest Hemmingway trying to break into sf publishing while in pre-World War II Paris, is that the bad, insular, pulpy world of sf doesn’t appreciate true genius. It fits with Malzberg’s bitter comments on sf.

Loose Cannon“, Susan Schwartz — I don’t know if I wasn’t in the right mood for this or what. I can’t attest to the accuracy of the portrayal of Lawrence of Arabia here, but it was one of a strange, grating man. He seems to have been a reluctant soldier yet attracted to the glories of battle and war and, therefore, seems to feel guilty about this and his masochism/homosexuality (it never really specified which one) and feels penance is in order. The British government kept his survival, after an assassination attempt by German agents which resulted in the motorcycle accident of our history, a secret. The plot involves using Lawrence as a sort of King Arthur figure returned from the dead in the time of Britain’s greatest need to try to turn Rommel to the Allied side. I thought it was kind of stupid but barely plausible. It was also kind of boring. I found the most interesting part of the story was Lawrence’s relationship with Israeli nationalists.

A Letter From the Pope“, Harry Harrison and Tom Shippey — This story’s turning point is so obscure it requires an historical foreword. It involves Alfred the Great receiving a letter from the Pope rebuking him for extorting money from the English Church to repel Viking invaders — at a time when Alfred already has no real support from Church or his subjects in his losing war. In our history, Alfred never got the letter. In this story, he does and, after reading it and being forced to choose between loyalty to the Church and possible victory over the Vikings, he makes another of the bold moves which earned him the ephitet of “the Great”. After his vitory over the Vikings, he adopts a policy allowing pagan Viking beliefs and Christianity to co-exist. But, as the story ends, its clear that the populace, after the depridations of the Church, will choose paganism. The consequences of a Viking England carrying paganism into Europe are left to the reader and are intriguing. I liked this story for working with a subject ignored (as far as I know) by alternate histories up to this point. Still, it suffers from the problem that many stories have in this anthology: most of the story recapitulates history in a character study of the hero concerned while the end deals with the alteration of history with the long-range consequences not worked out. I suppose that’s to be partly expected in an alternate-history anthology that deals with historical figures. Expected but not necessarily to be tolerated or a good development of the alternate-history sub-genre.

Roncesvalles“, Judith Tarr — Another story short on alternate history development and long on history retelling via character study. Here the history is more questionable. This is a fairly faithful retelling of the mediaeval Song of Roland. The biggest new development is the strongly hinted at homosexual relationship between Roland and Oliver and, of course, the end where Roland’s death causes Charlemagne to embrace Islam not Christianity. The consequences of that act will obviously be quite profound.

His Powder’d Wig, His Crown of Thorns“, Marc Laidlaw — A throughly original, bizarre, and enjoyable story. This story lives up to the potential of this theme anthology. No mere retelling of history via character study here with a tacked-on alteration. This story takes George Washington, here betrayed by Benedict Arnold and the revolution crushed by England, and turns him into a figure of religious adoration among the AmerIndian slums of the brutal British Empire. Laidlaw creates a fascinating religion which combines Christian legends, symbols, and beliefs with figures and symbols from the unsuccessful American Revolution into a Messianic belief which preaches all man’s future freedom, the keeping alive of the ideal of “life, liberty, and happiness” which died with the Revolution. The still extant Six Nations feels guilty about torturing Washington to death. This story takes place during in an indefinite year, but there are motor vehicles. The religion seems entirely plausible given the Ghost Dance and Cargo Cults. There is a sad element of irony though. The Indians (primarily Washington worshippers) believe the Revolution would have helped white and Indian live peaceably together and preserved the Indians’ agrarian lifestyle.

Departures“, Harry Turtledove — A pleasant but minor story (part of Turtledove’s Basil Agroyos series) about Mohammed’s life after he became a Christian monk and how he came to Constantinople where he will (as mentioned in the series) become a Christian saint of changes.

Instability“, Rudy Rucker and Paul Di Filippo — A stupid story whose only redeeming feature is some occasional crude humor. This story ends on the incredibly naive note that the world will be saved because beat writers stop the world’s first H-Bomb test. This ignores Russian H-Bomb tests and imperial intentions. On the other hand, the authors may just be giving us a beat-style satire. After all, our world hardly had John von Neumann with a self-driving car guided by MANIAC (a computer in the trunk) and an unbeatable roulette system or an all-powerful Trilateral Commission. Still, the point was lost on me.

No Spot of Ground“, Walter Jon Williams — Classic story where Edgar Allan Poe escapes his mysterious death in Baltimore to become a Confederate general bitterly reflecting on his life and the decadence of the North as symbolized by the poetry of Walt Whitman.


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

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