"We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars" - O.W.

Current Study

Current Projects:
Science Fiction exhibition at The Science Museum in London.

Book Out Now:
Sideways in Time: Alternate History and Counterfactual Narratives (Liverpool University Press, 2019). Co-edited Collection.

Book Forthcoming:

Current Sub-Studies

Areas of Interest:
> literature, trauma, and ethics
> science fiction and alternate history
> 20th and 21st century literature
> history and literature of science
> comics and graphic novels
> science communication

9 October 2010

Stories from The Mammoth Book of Alternate Histories #4

It's been a manic week. Those familiar with my musical tastes will understand that there's a pun behind that statement, but also a serious point: things have been crazy busy. Nonetheless I've got through a few more of the stories and so here, as before, are my quick thoughts on their plots:
"The Lucky Strike" by Kim Stanley Robinson, pp. 253-291.

Like Fritz Leiber's "Catch That Zeppelin!", this is another alternate history short which is oft referenced, quoted, referred to, and read. Essentially, a classic of the genre in it's short-form. Even before now reading the story for the first time, the knowledge that Kim Stanley Robinson had written "The Lucky Strike" and so was familiar with the process of alternate history, was motivation enough for me to buy the recent Galileo's Dream (which I've yet to get around to reading). Red Mars, thus far the only book in the legendary Mars Trilogy that I've read, was a superb read and I'm looking forward to more novel-length Robinson. But back to "The Lucky Strike". The premise is well known - the Enola Gay (the plane which drops the atomic bomb on Hiroshima) crashes and another team, in another plane (the eponymous Lucky Strike), are assigned the task. The consequences of this change are significant as Robinson imbues the bombardier, Captain Frank January, with a greater sense of moral obligation and awareness of the consequences of atomic warfare than the crew of the Enola Gay seemingly possessed. January, on witnessing the demonstration video of the bomb, is traumatised by the idea of inflicting such devastation on the largely civilian population of Hiroshima, repeatedly suggesting that 'FDR would have ended it differently' (p. 269) suggesting an alternate within the alternate in a manner reminiscent of The Grasshopper Lies Heavy in Dick's The Man in the High Castle. Whether this portrayal of January and the lengths he goes to to protect the Japanese civilians, whilst still winning the war for the Allies, is unfair to the crew of the Anola Gay - particularly to Paul Tibbets who is cast is a less than flattering light - I'm not qualified to say. My knowledge of the events concerned is minimal and my insight into the historical persons even less so. That said, the concept of "just following orders" being a valid excuse for anything went out with the Nuremberg Trials, and its this lens which Robinson fixes on the events of August 1945.

"His Powder'd Wig, His Crown of Thornes" by Marc Laidlaw, pp. 292-307.

Hagiography is littered with gruesome tales (I'm thinking in particular of saints such as Bartholomew, whose 1562 statue by Marco D'Agrate is a grisly depiction of the saint wearing his own flayed skin which I was fortunate enough to see in the Duomo di Milano last year). This tale of an America which failed in its revolution because of Benedict Arnold's successful betrayal of West Point, is also an example of an alternate-hagiography, as the Native American tribes sanctify George Washington out of feelings of guilt after they aid the British in torturing him. Made an example of to end the war, Washington has gone on to become a spiritual martyr in a New England still controlled by a King in England. Directly paralleled with Christ (Washington occupies the position of Jesus in an adaptation of The Last Supper, whilst Arnold is Judas), Laidlaw goes to a stomach churning level in describing the treatment and representations.

"Roncesvalles" by Judith Tarr, pp. 308-334.

Another story which hinges on Charlemagne (the first in the collection being "The Wandering Christian"). This story is of note because whilst like many it is not obviously alternate in nature until near its finale, "Roncesvalles" suggests two alternate options (before settling for one in particular). Throughout the story, the suggestion is that Charlemagne has two possible options: to marry the Empress of Byzantium and join Western with Eastern Europe, or to ally himself with the Islamic faith and champion their cause; neither of which he did in our own chronology. The story itself is a retelling of the epic poem "The Song of Roland" ("La Chanson de Rolan"), telling the story of the battle of the Roncesvalles pass in which, betrayed by advisor Ganelon, Charlemagne's baggage train is ambushed and looted killing all the knights (including Roland) that were guarding it. Tarr suggests motivations for Ganelon's betrayal other than the standard jealousy argument made in the legends, it's this suggestion which creates the dual possible outcomes, although there's never any real doubt that the King of the Franks will choose Islam. There's little extrapolation beyond the fears by the Byzantine diplomat of what could be, more a sense of mood.

"The English Mutiny" by Ian R. Macleod, pp. 335-357.

The simplest alternate that an alternate history can present is a simply turning of the tables: "What if B won the battle instead of A?" What this story does, however, is no simple turn. An inversion of the Indian Mutiny of 1857, rather than simply have India gain Independence in that war instead of continuing under British rule, Macleod inverts the entire relationship, suggesting a Mughal Empire which grows to dominate the world rather than a British one. As such, we have the English Mutiny, an uprising of British soldiers (sepoys, just as the Indian soldiers were called) fighting for British home rule. My knowledge of the real "mutiny" is sketchy at best so I can't really assess how far the parallels go but certainly the initial successes (and the ultimate fate) of the rebellion are clear parallels. Macleod does a lot with a limited amount of space, creating a viable and tangible image of a Europe, and world, with a map coloured red by an Asian Empire. He evokes the colours and flavours of India in the wet and slightly dreary setting of 19th Century London.

"O One" by Chris Roberson, pp. 358-373.

This is a lovely very short story. Lovely is perhaps not the most academically accurate description I could give, and indeed my reasons for finding it lovely are not necessarily plot related (it has very dark suggestions to its finale), but rather I enjoyed the imagery employed by Roberson in depicting a Chinese Empire which dominates the world and is developing a space programme. The chronology is slightly confusing as the story features John Napier who, in our history, lived from 1550 until 1617 and it is within this time that I assumed the story was set (the advances in technology being due to the dominance of the Chinese Empire and the massive resources open to such a scientifically minded and pragmatic society); however my source at Uchronia.net suggests that it's set in 1924. Whichever is the correct date, the contrast between tradition and technology, between pastoral and mechanical, are what makes this story so enjoyable and I may well seek out other tales in the Celestial Empire series to see if Roberson continues in a similar vein.

1 comment:

  1. Roberson's own blog indicates that "O One" is set in 1924.

    Possibly that's a typo of some sortand Uchronia simply repeated it.