Roads Not Taken

In an alternate history, I would actually have a new essay for you — even if about old stuff.

In the world you inhabit, you just get this.

Raw Feed (2000): Roads Not Taken: Tales of Alternate History, eds. Gardner Dozois and Stanley Schmidt, 1998.roads-not-taken

What Is Alternate History”, Shelly Shapiro — Shapiro, an editor at Del Rey books (publishers on this anthology and several alternate history books) writes an informative, if short, introduction to the subgenre. I’d heard that the first alternate history dates to a French speculation, in 1836, about Napoleon. However, I had not heard of the first English-language alternate history, 1895’s Aristopia by Castello Holford nor had I heard of Nat Schachner’s “Ancestral Voices”, a pulp sf alternate history from Dec. 1933’s Astounding. It predates Murray Leinster’s “Sidewise in Time”. Both stories are predated by the scholarly alternate history anthology, If It Had Happened Otherwise ed. by John Squire.

Must and Shall”, Harry Turtledove — Turtledove uses devices characteristic of many of his short alternate histories to present an uncharacteristic alternate Civil War tale. The turning point here, presented in the opening page, is that Abraham Lincoln is killed on July 12, 1864 at the battle of Fort Stevens outside of Washington, D.C., a battle he really did attend in our timeline. He is succeeded by vice-president Hannibal Hamlin, a man far more vengeful towards the South than Andrew Johnson, who became Lincoln’s vice-president after the 1864 election. The main story takes place in the New Orleans of 1942. Two FBS agents investigate a seditious conspiracy amongst Southern whites, a conspiracy armed by Nazi agents. We see the vicious repression of the defeated whites, repression partially supported by the descendants of freed blacks. The counter-espionage story is typical of Turtledove’s short alternate histories. An FBS agent does consider the notion that the South should not have been so harshly punished, that a new armed rebellion is perhaps inevitable, but is determined to quell domestic dissent in order to “get on with the business of getting rid of tyrants around the world”, a comment he makes “without irony”. As a final dark commentary on this world, Turtledove presents a surprising definition of the acronym FBS. I thought it stood for something like Federal Bureau of Security, but, no, we find out, at story’s end, it stands for Federal Bureau of Suppression.

An Outpost of the Empire”, Robert Silverberg — This is part of Silverberg’s Roma Eterna alternate history series. It is based on the notion that the Exodus of the Israelites failed at the Red Sea. This is certainly not evident in this story. All I could tell was that the history of the eastern and western branches of the Roman Empire was certainly very different from our timeline and that there is no mention of Christianity. The revived Empire has spread to the New World. The story is a poignant, realistic look at human nature. A proud, young widow of Byzantium initially despises the new proconsul. Technically, the old Byzantium Empire has been reunited with Rome. De facto, she’s right in that her Venatia (Venice) has been conquered by Rome. Haughtily, she fends off the advances of the proconsul, sure he’s uncultured, ignorant, a brute. She finds he is intelligent, intimidatingly well-traveled and educated. She is so proud of having visited Constantinople when young – for him, it was just a stopover on a diplomatic mission to China. She is sure he will be arrogant, a dominant lout in bed, that he despises Greeks. He is kind, skilled in lovemaking, and, in sort of a version of “the white man’s burden”, thinks highly of the Greek arts but finds them incapable of governing themselves. It is the Romans’ burden to shoulder the boring duties of governance and administration for which they are highly suited. On his way up the cursus honorum, the proconsul must leave the widow who now realizes that Rome is the future, Byzantium pride unfounded, and that she must bow to the new rulers of the world. Silverberg well captures the attraction and hate we can simultaneously feel towards those with gifts we admire.

We Could Do Worse”, Gregory Benford — This is the second time I’ve read this story. I still find it’s vision of an alternate America creepy. I also still find it unconvincing. I just don’t think that a union between Joe McCarthy and Richard Nixon would lead to an America so repressive that U.S. senators can be beat up and, possibly, killed with impunity.

Over There”, Mike Resnick — This is the second time I’ve read this story, and I was again impressed by the utter plausibility of the story’s events and the depiction of Teddy Roosevelt’s character. Resnick specializes in alternate histories of Roosevelt. Roosevelt at once proclaims the egalitarian ideals of the U.S. and demands special treatment because he is an ex-president, is an egomaniac who genuinely believes in self-sacrifice, a man, because of his own life, who thinks any problem can be supplanted through sheer will and good motives.

Ink from the New Moon”, A.A. Attanasio — This is the second time I’ve read this story and, again, I found it merely ok. It’s a tale of Buddhist monks, refugees from China, settling America and an Oriental state waiting for Christopher Columbus.

Southpaw”, Bruce McAllister — An interesting alternate history involving Fidel Castro. In our timeline, he turns down an offer to play pro baseball with the New York Giants. In this story, he accepts though he is tempted to get involved in Cuban politics. However, Desi Arnaz talks him out of it. Castro also loves America, the Land of Dreams, and his blonde American girlfriend. McAllister uses a technique, in this story, which, I believe, he also used in his alternate history Dream Baby and associated stories: Castro gets dream visions of his alternate life from our timeline. I have no idea if the background details of Castro’s life are true. McAllister ends the story with a rather cheap rhetorical device not unknown amongst other alternate history writers. He ends the story with the word “red” which not only refers to his girlfriend’s desire for a dye job but, of course, communism. I say cheap because the difference between an alternate timeline and ours, between a character’s alternate life and his real biography, is always in the reader’s mind without blatantly underlining with a bit of symbolic irony.

The West Is Red”, Greg Costikyan — I’m not sure what to make of this alternate history. Given Costikyan’s affiliation with the libertarian magazine Reason, I expected, once I quickly discovered this was a timeline where the USSR and China won the Cold war, a nightmarish portrayal of the world under the Marxist boot. Costikyan gives us a nightmare, alright, but not one that I expected. America, the last holdout against communism, is slowly being socialized an industry at a time with all civil liberties and private property to eventually vanish. Costikyan has something different in mind other than just portraying a communist U.S. dystopia. The book is full of more irony than is usual in an alternate history, a genre where things often work at the surface level and as an ironic counterpoint to our history. First, in a reversal of what you would expect, China and the USSR are richer and more technologically advanced. Curiously – and I think it’s a big flaw – Costikyan never gives us a precise point of divergence where this timeline springs from ours. Reference is made to Germany unifying when West Germany drops out of NATO. In a discussion with her lover, Frank Mangiara, there seems to be an implication that the economics of computing power work differently in this world. (When Frank ponders an alternate world, much like our own, in which distributed computing power like we use is present, she accuses him of postulating a variance in natural law.) With the development of huge mainframes, centralized planning, control, administration, and dictatorial regimes are aided in the USSR and China and, soon, the U.S. I’m not sure Costikyan was really all that interested in writing an alternate history. I think he wanted to make a couple of points and chose alternate history to do it. First, he wanted to implicitly, and by ironic contrast, show how distributed computing aided capitalism and how mainframes, as main computers, are as inefficient as central planning. Second, I think Costikyan’s main point is that the bad idea of central planning and communism sounds good and logical and rational. Until you run the experiment. We did so, in our Cold War, and communism’s claim of increased efficiency proved false.

The Forest of Time”, Michael F. Flynn — I liked this story a lot. First, it’s point of divergence was obscure: the death of George Washington during the very real Pennamite Wars (at least one of them – our timeline had three). Lacking Washington’s influence, the thirteen American colonies do not become unified beyond the Revolution. An American nation is replaced by warring states. The trade, economic, and language barriers of the different states slow economic growth and the rapid spread of scientific and technological notions. The development of these things is greatly retarded. Into this world, comes a jumper between timelines, belatedly realizing the very act of jumping alters the “polyverse” coordinate of his departure. He is doomed never to return to his own timeline since it is a “twig in the forests of time.” Like Murray Leinster’s “Sidewise in Time”, this story presents, briefly, other alternate timelines including one where the Indians of North America did not wipe out horses and camels in the New World. Aided by beasts of burden, they are able to meet the Europeans on a more equal footing, and technology advances at a faster rate. The jumper just wants to return home to his beloved Rosa but falls in the hands of the Pennsylvania (here a nation state) military where three individuals exploit his plight in unethical but varying words. Festunkommandant Vonderberge, forced by a father into a military career instead of the scientific pursuits he cared about, sees jumper Kelly’s tales of more advanced worlds as a place to escape to. Hexmajor (a sort of psychiatrist) Ochsenfuss thinks, initially, that Kelly is delusional. Later, however, he comes to believe Kelly’s tale but attempts, via hypnosis, to implant false memories in him so he will accept this reality because he’s never going to be able to return to his own. Oschenfuss thinks Vonderberge is mentally ill. Other realities may exis,t but, to Ochsenfuss, that doesn’t excuse flight from Vonderberge’s reality. Kelly becomes gradually more unstable and laconic as Vonderberge interrogates him about other worlds on the assumption they are real while Ochsenfuss tries to convince him that this world is the only one he’s ever known. General Schneider is willing to risk this destruction of Kelly’s personality in the hope that the advanced technical knowledge of Kelly can help in the struggle with Pennsylvania’s neighboring enemies. His gamble, at story’s end, may payoff.

Aristotle and the Gun”, L. Sprague de Camp — L. Sprague de Camp’s “Lest Darkness Fall” is acknowledged as one of the classics (and early examples) of genre alternate histories. (This anthology is dedicated to him.) This is sort of a variation on the ideas of that classic story. Whereas the protagonist of “Lest Darkness Fall” accidentally is transferred back in time and alters history by introducing anachronistic innovations. The misanthropic time traveler of this story goes back in time deliberately, prepared to alter history to produce a more technologically advanced world, and with a definite plan: to make the very influential Aristotle pay more attention to empirical observation and experimentation. He does, indeed, influence history and alter history but exactly the opposite of what he hoped. Passing himself off as a philosopher from India, he convinces Aristotle of three things: 1) The number of facts needed for a good theory is so great as to be a futile task of mastery; 2) The experimental apparatus necessary for science is best left to “slavish Asiatics” and to Greek gentlemen; 3) Barbarians are so far ahead of Greeks in science that why bother competing against an inborn superiority. It was a delicious irony to end an entertaining story on.

How I Lost the Second World War and Helped Turn Back the German Invasion”, Gene Wolfe — I liked this witty story, but it’s not much of an alternate history. We are never given the reasons or the date where Fuhrer Adolf Hitler turns away from the idea of killing Jews and conquering Europe militarily (or why or when, for that matter, Japan developed transistors so much earlier than our world) to conquering Europe militarily with the “People’s Car”. The wit comes in the story set around this unsatisfactorily explained background. The narrator tells of the “Second World War” (this timeline only saw the Great War), a wargame played between the narrator (revealed, at story’s end, to be Dwight Eisenhower) and a friend. (A couple of Japanese cities get burned by cigarette ash, and the two players start a new game along the lines of our Cold War.) The narrator also meets Herman Goering (where he gets the idea of blitzkrieg for his game) at a trade show where Hitler is extolling the virtues of his car before invading Britain with them. Eisenhower proposes a contest to see whether the British Centurion or the Peoples Car is better in urban driving. Winston Churchill cleverly insures a contest in which the English victory is insured by rigging the game along the line of electron behavior in a transistor.


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