Saturday 4 July 2015

The Best Alternate History Stories of the 20th Century, edited by Greenberg and Turtledove (Part 1)

This book was published in 2001 and I have to confess that it has been sitting at the bottom of one of my reading piles for a long time (well it's a large-format book, therefore its natural position is at the bottom for obvious stability reasons!). Following one of my sporadic attempts to tidy-up my room it came to my attention again so I thought it was about time I read it.

Its 400+ pages contain fourteen stories, plus an interesting introduction by Harry Turtledove which summarises the history of alternate fiction, going back to Livy some two thousand years ago. The stories are a very mixed bunch, as follows:

The Lucky Strike by Kim Stanley Robinson. I have to admit that I am not a KSR fan, but this powerful story is brilliant. It assumes that the first nuclear bombing raid on Hiroshima was carried out by a different crew, and focuses on the moral dilemma of the bomb-aimer.

The Winterberry by Nicholas A. DiChario. This was rather mysterious on first reading, written from the viewpoint of a man who has the mind of a child with learning difficulties, who for some unexplained reason is permanently kept inside a huge mansion. It wasn't until after I had finished the story that light dawned as to who the man was, but Americans may get there faster than a Brit.

Islands in the Sea by Harry Turtledove. Set in an eighth century in which Muslim forces were even more successful, conquering Constantinople and ending the Byzantine Empire. Now the Muslims and Christians are competing to convert the pagan Bulgars, and delegations from each faith argue their cases before the khan of the Bulgars, with the main viewpoint being the Muslim representative. Interesting and amusing, as the practically-minded khan tries to balance the pros and cons of having to give up alcohol and pork in return for being allowed more wives plus a hedonistic afterlife.

Suppose They Gave a Peace by Susan Shwartz. Another one where it's initially difficult to work out what's going on. A war veteran reflects on the past and the uncomfortable present in the early 1970s, when McGovern rather than Nixon wins the Presidential election and the accelerated withdrawal from Vietnam has personal consequences.

All The Myriad Ways by Larry Niven. A brief but fascinating exploration of the possible psychological consequences of knowing that there are indeed countless parallel worlds containing slightly different versions of yourself.

Through Road No Whither by Greg Bear. Two Germans, a courier and an SS officer, get lost when travelling through occupied France and ask the way from a strange old woman who claims to have maps of time.

To be continued


dlw said...

None of those stories sound particularly attractive in your review. And the Niven one is in at least three of the collections on my shelf, all of which I've read more than once, and I remember nothing whatsoever about it.

Alternate-universe SF is probably the smallest subset of the SF genre. I read Andre Norton's "Crossroads of Time" and Keith Laumer's "Worlds of the Imperium" when I was very young and loved them, but similar pickings were few and far between after that. Sure, there are more now... more a factor of 40+ years of more being written, not that's there's a higher proportion of it. Unless you lump "urban fantasy" in there...

Anthony G Williams said...

I agree that alternate-universe SF is a minority interest, although it did to some extent take over from conventional time-travel stories since it neatly avoids all of the "kill your grandfather" paradoxes.

Alternative-universe fantasy is much more popular, even if it might not always be labelled as such. Zelazny's "Princes of Amber" series, for example.

dlw said...

I picked "The Guns of Avalon" off the library shelf when I was 13 or 14. There was no indication on the cover that it was part of a series, and it worked well enough standalone that I wasn't that put off by the abrupt beginning and end. It was some time later before I found the other books, and then I had to wait for the last one to come out. In retrospect it probably wasn't twenty thousand years, but when you're a teenager time tends to drag...

Nowadays Amber would be all inside one thick cover. I've seen two-volume sets of reprints from some time ago.

Tolkein was a game-changer for fantasy, but I bet more writers have riffed off Zelazny than Tolkein. And many of them had probably never even read any of the original stories.

It's hard to make people understand how *different* Amber was from earlier fantasy stuff; the memes are set so solid people just look at it and go, "So? What's new and original about this, or that, or the other?"

Alas, Zelazny followed it with the "second cycle", or however it's described on reprint covers. There was plenty of room in the Amber universe for "missing stories", but absolutely no need to extend it into a second, different series. The Merlin books don't even make coherent sense. And, as such things happen, far more people seem to be familiar with the Merlin books than the Corwin ones.

There were some really good bits in the Merlin stories... but not enough to overcome the lack of plotting and the indifferent characterization. And it just drags on and on, with bits of the real series showing up here and there and vanishing for no particular reason. Heck, now that I think about it, the Merlin books have most of the "tells" of ghost-written books, though I'm pretty sure Zelazny wrote them himself. On the other hand, about that time his name was slathered on a bunch of crap as "co-author" pr "created by" ('Alien Speedway', anyone?) so who knows...

Anthony G Williams said...

Having read and fondly remembered a few of the original Amber stories long ago, I bought all ten of the stories in one (rather large) volume much later. I agree entirely: the first five are brilliant, the second five are space-fillers.

Robert Eggleton said...

Hi Anthony,

Do you consider book review requests?

Anthony G Williams said...

I don't, Robert - I have over 100 new books and several times as many old ones waiting for me to read them. These days, I only read new books if they are by authors I know and like, or ones which particularly interest me and have been getting rave reviews.

Robert Eggleton said...

Thanks for the reply.