"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

14 October 2010

Stories from The Mammoth Book of Alternate Histories #5

Back again for another installment of stories from The Mammoth Book of Alternate Histories. Only one more after this (3 more stories), then I'll be passing on my thoughts on the book as a whole. But until then:

"Islands in the Sea" by Harry Turtledove, pp. 374-401.

The blurb of The Mammoth Book picks out this story by Turtledove as one of it's highlights, briefly synopsising it as "only pockets of Christianity remain in an Islamic Europe". This, I feel, is slightly misleading. True, Constantinople has fallen to the Arabs (in the 700s), but the story points out that Christianity survives in Italy, modern day France, Britain and Ireland, and likely a few other places as well. This is a rather large pocket, and making up a reasonable amount of Europe. But that's nitpicking with the description on the cover, not with the story the plot of which revolves around Islamic and Christian envoys travelling to Bulgaria and vying to convert the Khan to their religion. The consequences are spelt out as being the fate of Europe - if the Khan goes Christian there's hope of one day retaking Constantinople and securing Europe for Christianity, whilst if he converts to Islam then it would create a bottleneck, hemming Christianity into the North and West of Europe and dooming it to eventual extinction. By presenting the two alternatives as equally possible, Turtledove offers the reader two alternatives within his alternate history. History could possibly be put back on the rails we recognise in a deus ex machina manner (as in Roth's The Plot Against America), or it could get even more alternate (closer to the description in the blurb!). The scenario also allows Turtledove to explore Christian and Muslim philosophies, playing them off against each other - exposing the similarities and ludicrousness of each faith as viewed by the other. In this way reminding us of the connection the two religions share and the pointlessness of conflicts between them. The Khan's final remarks serve to remind us of the knife edge of history as he suggests what might have been (In our timeline, the Danubian Bulgars converted to Christianity in 865).

"Lenin in Odessa" by George Zebrowski, p. 402-421.
The first twist in this tale comes on page 404, at the beginning of part 2, where our narrator is referred to by Lenin as "Comrade Stalin". This is another of those stories which lives in the moment, it relates the change in the timeline without dwelling on the consequences, indeed there are even less hints than normal about what new world this story has created. Lenin is assassinated in 1918 in Odessa by a man called Sidney Riley, allowing Stalin to take control four years earlier than he would have. If you're history was uncertain it would be very easy to read this as a piece of historical fiction, rather than a-historical; Lenin did suffer attempts on his life in 1918, and Zebrowski does a good job of giving a voice to the unknowable Stalin (I say unknowable remembering a quote from the author Robert Harris: 'Between these two events... there lies - what? Who? We do not know. And why? Because Stalin made it his business to murder almost everyone who might have been in a position to tell us what he was like ...' Archangel, p. 70.). I could wish for more of the after effects, but then I've always wondered what happens after Dr. Strangelove ends...

"The Einstein Gun" by Pierre Gévart, pp. 422-436.

A brilliant story first translated into English from the original French especially for this collection by Sissy Pantelis and Ian Watson. It's conceit puts me in mind of Ward Moore's Bring the Jubilee - we start the story in an alternate world and the protagonist through the manipulation of time creates our reality, making us the alternate. It's a neat inversion which though now familiar is well implemented here. Where Bring the Jubilee begins in a world where the Confederates won the American Civil War, The Einstein Gun commences in a reality where Gavrilo Princip's assassination attempt on the Archduke Franz Ferdinand fails and World War I never happens. Despite avoiding the First World War, this reality seems destined for major turmoil. Hitler still comes to power, this time as Chancellor of the Austro-Hungarian Empire under Emperor Franz Ferdinand, and he pursues the same racist and radical paths which he follows in our own time, targeting Slavs and Jews. Our narrator Otto, with the held of Albert Einstein who ultimately, in an ironic twist, is forced to shelter from Hitler's fascism in Germany, send a gun back in time to replace Princip's (the failure of the gun being revealed as the reason why the assassination failed). The story is of particular interest to me as it suggests a certain inevitability to many of the events of the twentieth century leading the reader to draw the conclusion that either Hitler is innately evil and pollutes the entire century regardless of the events around him, or that the problems of the Second World War are deeper rooted than we might expect, stretching beyond the First World War and to the broken and unfair systems of Imperialism and Nationalism and to the deep seated racism of Europe at that time.

"Tales from the Venia Woods" by Robert Silverberg, pp. 437-456.

Theres a fairy tale feel to this story of a cabin the woods. It's a 'Rome didn't fall' altnerate history which suggests a Rome which rules for a thousand years longer than it did in our time, before beginning a Second Republic and killing the Emperor and all of his kin (in a manner which reminded me of the Romanovs in the Russian Revolution, possibly a deliberate move by Silverberg given the Tsarist family's surname). Two Teutonic children discover a hunting lodge in the forest and an old man who lives there who turns out to be the last surviving Caesar, a brother of the last Emperor. The story sits as part of Silverbergs' Roma Eterna, and maybe it's because I knew this that I didn't find the story went anywhere in particular by itself. We are already in an alternate world, with no indication of how it became the way it did (that comes in an earlier Roma Eterna story) and thus cannot really relate to the implications of Second Republic versus Imperial that seem to be presented here - even relating them to their earlier equivalents in the Roman Empire we know now is of little use given the thousand year discrepancy. I've yet to read the other stories in the Roma Eterna series (though they are on my to-do-list), but I'm sure this could not have been the most suitable for this collection.

"Manassas, Again" by Gregory Benford, pp. 457-471.

Another 'Rome didn't fall' story, but this one couldn't be much more different. This is military sf in every sense, a futuristic feeling tale of a world where the Romans developed a steam driven machine gun, courtesy of Sygnius of Albion, and went on to dominate the world with their advanced technology. By the time of this story the humans who live in now independent American colonies are fighting against robotic rebels in "the first battle of the first war in over a century". Manassas, Virginia, was the the site of the first major land battle of the American Civil War in our continuity and so it's choice in this story is heavily loaded to American readerships. As it is, the use of Manassas creates a sense of echoing - certain events happening ,in different ways, but happening nonetheless throughout realities. Part of it could be down to fate, or simply a sense of inevitability, but many alternate histories do it - even within these that I've looked at in this post, and it's an interesting phenomenon. Despite change, history repeats.

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