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. Continue reading

Sleeps With Angels

Yes, it’s a new review.

I must have been more dismissive than usual when I turned down the chance to get a review copy of Dave Hutchinson’s Europe in Autumn. It seemed like some sort of metaphorical support for the failure of the EU and endorsement of Europe’s current civilizational suicide.

And who is this Hutchinson guy anyway?  Never heard of him. No doubt some literary author poaching the genre’s treasure, smugly thinking he has a patent on some new idea without checking on the prior art.

Well, the reviews of Europe in Autumn at Battered, Tattered, Yellowed, & Creased and From Couch to Moon disabused me of the first notion. And a check on his entry in the would have disabused me of the second.

Still, when the folks at NewCon Press were handing out review copies of Hutchinson’s collection Sleeps With Angels, I did take it (in, ahem, May 28, 2015 – the review process can be sclerotic at Marzaat). I’m a lot more willing to try an author in short form, even if I don’t think I’ll like them, than a novel even if I find collections and anthologies a lot more time consuming to review.

And I liked the previous NewCon Press collection I reviewed, Dark Currents.

Review: Sleeps With Angels, ed. Dave Hutchinson, 2015.Sleeps With Angels

The first thing I noticed about this six story collection is how many stories feature protagonists who have somehow reaped the benefits of social or physical apocalypse.

The heroine of “Sugar Engines” can work seeming miracles in a severely depopulated world. But this is a self-consciously “cosy catastrophe” where the weeds are under control, the sewer and water lines still work, and there’s electricity (if no internet). The miracles of Rae may have something to do with her dead husband’s research into nanotechnology, and the last surviving member of His Majesty’s Secret Service would like to know what really happened – because he has some hints that things are most definitely not what they seem.

The apocalypse of “Dali’s Clocks” is social (if very mellow in result). Most everyone in the world feels the compulsion to create something. And they all want the narrator, who is one of the rare ones who doesn’t suffer this compulsion, to critique their work.

The narrator of “The Incredible Exploding Man” is one of the few who can navigate the dimensions sanely after a lab accident at a superconducting supercollider throws a group of humans out of our normal space. But he, and the rest of the world, about what will happen when the others figure out how to do the same. They are particularly concerned about what will happen when the world’s greatest physicist, and not very nice person, figures out how to control his destructive powers.

It’s an elven apocalypse in “All the News, All the Time, From Everywhere”. In the middle of what seems some sort of European civil war, the elves of England reassert their power, ban almost all technology, kill a bunch of people, and reintroduce the efficacy of prophecy via animal sacrifice. The latter is how newspapers (about the only communication form still permitted) like the one the narrator works for get some of their news. This protagonist is privileged by having a contact in the elvish version of MI-5 working at crushing rebellion. He may have done – and forgotten – some favor he did for the elves in the past.

The supernatural also shows up in “The Fortunate Isles”, a murder mystery, with a nice detailed opening, in Ireland’s West Country in a rundown, poorer future of retirees, like the detective protagonist’s detective father, existing on the scraps of broken pensions. (It’s one of two stories in the collection in which we get a nod to the last surviving member of U-2. Ah, the future is not all bleak.)

The second thing is that Hutchinson uses a variety of English and European settings which are refreshing. We’ve come away from the days when Peter F. Hamilton’s publishers chided him for including too much local detail for the Rutland, UK setting of his Greg Mandel series. The one exception to this rule is the “Sioux Crossing” mentioned in “The Incredible Exploding Man”. For some reason, Hutchinson put his supercollider in Iowa (it was once planned for Texas). I think he just wanted to have a Midwest tornado.

The third thing I noticed is that a couple of these could have been longer which Hutchinson acknowledges for “All the News, All the Time, From Everywhere”.

My favorite story, just because I favor mixtures of history, mystery, and science fiction (not to mention Roman history) was, “Sic Transit Gloria Mundi”. Its narrator, an archaeology student turned journalist, is dragged into helping an old professor examine the excavated villa of one Lucius Claudius Setibogius, a provincial of Roman Britain who did very well for himself by supplying some strange creatures for the Coliseum’s gladiatorial games. The story is original to this collection, and it rather put me in mind of Michael J. Flynn’s Eifelheim.

I can’t guarantee I’ll read any more Hutchinson. But I won’t dismiss him.


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