Worlds That Weren't: A Definitive Anthology of Alternate History?

Reviewed by Cynthia Ward

Worlds That Weren't cover

In the form of science fiction known as alternate history, a crucial change creates a different world. The Nazis win the Battle of Britain and gain the world -- a world that never was. The new anthology Worlds That Weren't, edited by the uncredited Laura Anne Gilman, sports a title that defines alternate history, and is led off by Harry Turtledove, AH's most prominent practitioner -- facts that appear to promise an authoritative volume of the subgenre. It's a risky expectation to raise for a collection of original fiction, especially when a new AH book or several appears every month (indeed, one might argue that when we're getting stories about Mother Theresa, gang leader, we are suffering a glut of AH). Do Worlds That Weren't's four contributing authors -- Harry Turtledove, S. M. Stirling, Mary Gentle, and Walter Jon Williams -- fulfill the promise of the title?

The anthology opens with a novella written by Harry Turtledove, winner of the Hugo Award and the Sidewise Award, and AH's best-selling author. Turtledove has a Ph.D. in Byzantine history, but in "The Daimon" he turns to an earlier era of Mediterranean history -- specifically, to classical Athens. In our world, the middle-aged philosopher Sokrates remained in Athens when its soldiers invaded Sicily. Here, he follows a former student, General Alkibiades, to war. As a result of Sokrates's counsel, Alkibiades does not flee to Sparta (as he does in our history) when an Athenian delegation arrives to place him under arrest for blasphemy. Instead, Alkibiades conquers Sicily -- the first of a number of significant military victories. The transformation of Alkibiades from exile to conqueror will have grim significance for the West.

"The Daimon" is a thought-provoking novella, counterfactually illuminating the ironic historical truth that philosophies will always be misunderstood or misused, even sometimes while the philosopher is still alive. However, "The Daimon" fails to convince that its sharp-minded, fifty-something Sokrates would be surprised to find a political animal like Alkibiades manipulating his teachings.

Next up is S. M. Stirling's "Shikari in Galveston," which is set in the same world as his recent novel, The Peshawar Lancers. If this novella doesn't have the most original turning-point in the anthology, it's still got one of the more cosmic in alternate history: a nineteenth-century meteor shower, not quite as catastrophic as the one that destroyed the dinosaurs, shatters civilization world-wide. As a result, the sun never set on the British Empire . . . but the Empire is based in India and rules the Twenty-First Century with Victorian-era technology.

While The Peshawar Lancers was set in India, "Shikari in Galveston" takes place in Texas, on a degenerated frontier even more dangerous than the one known to Daniel Boone. Three disparate characters find themselves working together, mostly against their inclinations: the British cavalry officer Eric King, who is assembling a hunting party; the revenge-maddened young woman Sonjuh, who lost her family to the cannibals; and Robre, a young hunter of the Cross Plains tribe (yes, this novella pays tribute to the Texas king of heroic fiction, Robert E. Howard). Sonjuh's lust for vengeance and Robre's desire for a rare, expensive rifle lead them to work for King -- a pair of Crockett-esque native guides who don't like each other one little bit.

Each novella has an author's afterword. Stirling's makes it clear that he uses Alternate History to write guilt-free colonialist adventure fiction in the tradition of Edgar Rice Burroughs and H. Rider Haggard -- fiction that can no longer be set in our thoroughly-explored, post-colonial world. Stirling succeeds in delivering action-packed adventure and hair's-breadth escapes, but his novella ends in entirely too much of a rush. A developing romance abruptly replaces one partner with his rival, and, moreover, the last-minute escapes and rescues come so fast and furious, they could snap the most elastic of disbelief suspenders. "Shikari in Galveston" reads like the cut-down version of a forthcoming novel.

A more serious problem is that the novella does not follow the lead of Burroughs, Haggard, and Howard, whose black characters were not all confined to roles as safari bearers, cannibals, or corpses. It's a surprising development in a work by the author who created such an interesting and sympathetic black woman lead for his Island in the Sea of Time trilogy. One hopes that if "Shikari in Galveston" becomes a novel, it won't repeat the novella's unfortunate white master/dark flunky pattern.

Like Stirling, Mary Gentle has created a tough warrior woman; however, her goal in "The Logistics of Carthage" is not to recreate Burroughsian adventure, but to explore the nature of history, which, in the words of the cover quote, "is something that never happened, written by a man who wasn't there." Gentle's novella considers the lies, mistakes, and omissions of history, among them the forgotten breadth and variety of women in "men's roles."

"The Logistics of Carthage" is a prequel to Gentle's breakout tetralogy, The Book of Ash. The novella is set in a North Africa conquered by Visigoths instead of Vandals, and now under invasion from pagan Turks. There may not be Muslims in this world, but there are still clashing Christian sects: the North Africans are Arian, while the European mercenaries at the Turkish vanguard belong to the Church of the Green Christ. When Visigothic priests refuse to bury a scandalously female European warrior, the mercenary captain kills one of the priests in cold blood, and threatens to kill them all if they don't bury the woman. Meanwhile, the pikeman Guillaume Arsinout is falling in love with another warrior woman, Yolande Vaudin. Yolande has disturbing visions of a strange future in which a woman "archaeologist" digs up a woman warrior's bones. Are the bones from the unburied woman's body -- or from Yolande's?

Fans of The Book of Ash will recognize a character or two. Readers unfamiliar with Gentle's tetralogy may have some difficulty getting into "The Logistics of Carthage." Also, some significant events occur in the scene-break between the novella's land and sea sections. Nonetheless, with its insightful, layered exploration of the inherently fictional nature of history, "The Logistics of Carthage" is the strongest and most ambitious work in Worlds That Weren't.

When readers reach Nebula Award winner Walter Jon Williams's closing contribution, they may be wondering if Worlds That Weren't was conceived on a theme of Chainmail Chicks and Two- Fisted Philosophers. In "The Last Ride of German Freddie," the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche relocates to the Wild West, where he falls in love with a tough (though chainmail-free) Jewish woman known as Josie and becomes entangled with lawmen and outlaws. Finding himself in the gunfight at the O.K. Corral, Nietzsche changes history by acting on his superman theories and firing six fatal shots.

However unlikely some characters may seem, everyone in "The Last Ride of German Freddie" was a real person, from Josie to the many Earp brothers. Williams's afterword describes the mysterious appeal of Wyatt Earp, a popular hero who was never the best lawman in the West, yet remains the best known. But instead of devising an explanation and using the other characters to describe a comprehensible Earp that Nietzsche just can't see, Williams transfers the mystery intact to his story; this leaves the reader as frustrated as German Freddie. However, this is an entertaining and intelligent novella, one which successfully demonstrates the destructive consequences of acting on Nietzsche's philosophy. Williams has avoided the simplistic error of assuming that the failure of Nietzsche's writings to pass into his anti-Semitic sister's meddling hands (as they did in our history) would have automatically derailed the deadly rise of Nazi Germany.

Worlds That Weren't does not achieve its apparent goal of being a definitive volume of alternate histories. Its novellas all have significant flaws that keep them from classic status. Further, one would expect more than four works in a definitive anthology, and a higher percentage of stories grappling as actively as Gentle's with the nature of history. However, despite some problems, the novellas are superior works, and employ historical turning-points ignored elsewhere. Worlds That Weren't is well worth the attention of science fiction and historical fiction readers.

 

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Cynthia Ward was born in Oklahoma and lived in Maine, Spain, Germany, and the San Francisco Bay Area before moving to Seattle. Her most recent fiction publication was in Bending the Landscape: Horror. In addition to fiction and reviews, she writes the monthly "Market Maven" market-news column for writing magazine Speculations. She is at work on a novel, The Killing Moon. For more about her, visit her Web site.