What Might Have Been, Vol. 3

The Raw Feeds continue on this anthology series.

Raw Feed (1991): What Might Have Been, Volume 3: Alternate Wars, eds. Gregory Benford and Martin H. Greenberg, 1991.Alternate Wars

And Wild for to Hold”, Nancy Kress — This is not a kind story to Anne Boleyn, its focus. Usually Anne Bolyn is portrayed as a sympathetic woman who is interested in not only maintaining her station and virtue but ambitious, willing to rift Henry VIII away from the Catholic Church and, in the future, cause another secular/temporal rift between the Church of the Holy Hostage and the Time Research Institute. Kress does a nice job setting up another historical analog with Mary Lambert’s infatuation with Michael Culhane and Culhane’s infatuation with Boleyn mirroring Henry’s love of Boleyn. She is determined to live her life and have the drama of her averted death and she callously does not care who gets hurt in either of her time streams. Her supporters in England may be appreciated, but she is willing for them to die like her for the sake of drama and stubbornness. As the constable in the Tower of London says, “This lady hath much joy in death.” This story does something not done too often in the time travel and alternate history sub-genres. It gives us the vision of a person contemplating her own alternate history and being made responsible for deeds she did not — but was definitely going to — commit in another time stream. The weird sensation of seeing the actions and consequences of a life you did not live is well portrayed.

Tundra Moss”, F. M. Busby — In his introduction to this anthology, Benford talks about how the fate of an entire society can depend on a single line of infantry. This is a story built around that theme. I didn’t find it that compelling. Its historical turning point has Franklin Roosevelt getting a heart attack and not making, immediately, his “Day of Infamy” speech. Public sentiment demands immediate vengeance on Japan, and Roosevelt is politically unable to first direct his efforts to defeating Germany. The story centers on a small group of men on the Aleutian island of Amchitka trying to counter Japanese sabotage of the Alaskan Communication System. The ACS is needed to get a secret message from Russia to MacArthur’s forces. They have been waiting for Russian permission to use Russian landing fields for bomber flights to Japan. By this communication and an accident the Japanese are defeated. Then Busby throws in some cheap irony and reveals that Germany has detonated an atomic bomb. I don’t really see how tackling Germany second would have gotten them the A-bomb any sooner. I also found the tech talk about ACS incomprehensible. I did like the image of Dwight D. Eisenhower rearing to go in the second most important theater of the war.

When Free Men Shall Stand”, Poul Anderson — A very good, depressing story. This is a detailed, knowledgeable alternate history that postulates that Napoleon wages his campaigns slightly different from our time, and France and America become implacable enemies. Anderson gives a nice feeling of history with his descriptions of fighting and race relations in this world. (Both Indians and blacks serve in the American army to the chagrin of Midwesterners and Southerners respectively.) His story is an extended working of three themes: the eternal question as to why individual people can be friends and their nations enemies, the good fortune that France was America’s friend for so long, and the process of war making enemies more alike with America finding it must institute universal military service and conscription to counter the Empire of France.

Arms and the Woman”, James Morrow — I didn’t mind this story. It’s a humorous alternate history of the semi-mythical Trojan war with some cute anachronisms (like Trojan condoms) and aping of Homeric prose. I didn’t even mind the anti-war satire as the fierce Ajax can’t figure out why they just can’t go home after Helen surrenders to the Greeks. I actually laughed.

Ready for the Fatherland”, Harry Turtledove — I really liked this elegant working of the ever-popular alternate World War II. The turning point here is German Field Marshal Erich von Manstein assassinating, in a fit of anger over an insult, Hitler while he is making a visit to the Western Front. Germany and Russia make a separate peace in 1943. After the war, the world divides into four nuclear armed camps: Germany, the Soviet Union, the U.S., and Britain and eastern Europe becomes a field where German troops get some real combat brutally suppressing revolts like the Serb uprising in the Independent State of Croatia. The story’s title comes from the English translation of the Croatian fascists’ motto: Za Dam Spremni. The unpleasant plot involves two British intelligence agents selling out a Serb national to Croatia’s secret police, the brutal Ustashi, so Britain can keep her access to Croatia’s protector, Germany’s, oil fields in the North Sea. In this nasty bit of Cold War espionage, the British agents are, unenthusiastically, “ready for the Fatherland” like their Croatian opposites.

The Tomb”, Jack McDevitt — This story is long on mood and short on history. Indeed, that is one of the points of this story. Not only does Constantine’s defeat at the hands of Maxentius doom Christianity to an obscure death (the story’s protagonist puzzles over the symbol of the cross on Constantine’s tomb.) but also the Greco-Roman intellectual tradition it preserved. That tradition includes the writing of history.

Turpentine”, Barry N. Malzberg — This story is, at times, a tedious exercise in sparsely, confusingly punctuated Black Panther style rantings. (Is the justification for the stylistic devices that our narrator, Ronald X, is a poorly educated black? What’s he doing in college then — this is before lots of affirmative action? Or is this a way of capturing what is, in essence, internal dialogue and recollection, a sort of stream of conscious account in the present tense before our narrator and his buddies get nuked? Who cares? It distracts from an already dismal story.) I’m not sure what Malzberg’s political point in all this is, this account of black radicals threatening nuclear blackmail at the University of Chicago and getting nuked by Lyndon Johnson. Is it a satire of black radicalism? A pretentious statement on those violent years where, since LBJ pulls out of Vietnam, he decides to nuke a campus. Though no friend of LBJ, this seems to me a dopey liberal view of the political motives of LBJ for Vietnam.

Goddard’s People”, Allen Steele — There are two predominant ways of writing alternate history: as drama and as a speculative historical essay. This story takes a little used (I’ve never seen it before.) third ploy: it purports to be a magazine article from an alternate history detailing how Robert Goddard and his men, in a Manhatten Project-style operation, develop ICBMs to counter Nazi researches towards those ends. (More precisely Goddard designs a manned interceptor for the manned, Nazi intercontinental missile bomber.) The story is very detailed (and, in checking the info out, I found the Nazis did plan a missile like this — sort of, my information from The Heavens and the Earth was sketchy) and surprisingly warm given the style. Steele brings his characters a lot of charm given the restrictions of style and length. The story is also surprisingly optimistic given a history where ICBMs show up before nukes. Arms control treaties against nukesats are reached and space exploration is much more advanced than in our time. Curiously, other parts of history proceed much like ours. Reagan still gets to be president, for instance.

Manassas, Again”, Gregory Benford — This story, surprisingly the weakest one in the anthology, brings up an interesting point about story titles. This story really gives us a very minimalist alternate history. We’re uncertain as to the date, we are not given (as Winston Churchill put it) “a sharp agate point, on which the ponderous balance of destiny turns.” The only thing like this mentioned is a passing reference to the Roman army using “steam-driven machine guns” in an African campaign. The story gets its metaphorical weight and historical significance almost solely from the title and Benford’s comments in the volume’s introduction. We’re to see the struggle between the robots and the inhabitants of this “Peace Empire” as analogous to the struggle for abolition in the Civil War. (Benford, in his introduction, also says he regards technological innovation and science the most important factors in history.) Here, like slavery, the question is how human are (and what rights are owed to) the slaves, the machines. It’s not a very compelling story. Benford poses the dilemma several ways — not the least the story’s ending where a human, mental defective is in care of superior machines yet the warring humans only feel sorry for the human’s death, but it doesn’t inspire. Perhaps it is the context. An alternate history is expected, and one doesn’t feel it was really delivered in spirit. I found the best part of the story to be the notion (not new) that the inhabitants of this “Peace Empire” take to combat well and realize man maybe ideally suited to war — unlike those smart, but inflexible, machines who never really get the hang of it.

The Number of the Sand”, George Zebrowski — This is a strange, philosophical story where Zebrowski uses the extreme variation of quantum mechanics: every quantum event creates an alternate history, there are an infinity of them. And there in lies the story’s strangeness, emotion, and philosophy. There isn’t much of an overt plot here, just an unnamed watcher watching a multitude of variations of Hannibal’s life. He seeks some meaning in human action in a infinite collection of time streams where all actions are taken, all decisions made, all possibilities realized. Like Nancy Kress’ “And Wild to Hold”, the watcher wonders how the unrealized lives of one history are affected by the alternate lives of other timestreams. The watcher wants some ultimate objectivity on the cosmos but realizes his actions are scattered across infinity too. Where, he wonder,s is meaning in life. He suspects history has meaning only for people who made it. A strange story I liked.

If Lee Had Not Won the Battle of Gettysburg”, The Right Honourable Winston S. Churchill — A classic of alternate history that shows Churchill clearly understood the attraction and possibilities of the alternate history story.

Over There”, Mike Resnick — This is a perfect example of the distortions of art, here an “historical” event that never took place, getting at part of the truth of a real man, here Theodore Roosevelt. The story is based on a real request by Roosevelt to take a company of men to fight in World War I. The story’s central theme is a simple one: Theodore Roosevelt, remnant of 19th century heroism, individualism, honor, and courage confronts modern, collective war where the individual doesn’t matter, and in the final, poignant scene, talks himself into making a futile charge on a German hill in a tragic reworking of his famous charge on San Juan Hill. A good story that seems very plausible.


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

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