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Worlds That Weren't

Harry Turtledove, S. M. Stirling, Mary Gentle, Water Jon Williams

Roc / Penguin Putnam

US Trade Hardcover

ISBN 0-451-45886-9

Publication Date: July 2002

295 Pages; $21.95

Date Reviewed: 06-20-02

Reviewed by Rick Kleffel © 2002



Fantasy, Science Fiction

06-28-02, 12-13-02

In a sense, all fiction is alternate history. Otherwise it would be "history", and we'd call it non-fiction. This sub-genre threatens to overrun both SF and historical fiction. There are some good reasons. It has a wide appeal to those who like the facts and the accuracy of historical fiction combined with the imaginative speculation of science fiction. In a pre-emptive strike, Roc has issued 'Worlds That Weren't', a collection of four novella-length stories by noted science fiction and alternate history writers. That line has got to include the superstar of this category, Harry Turtledove, and he's represented here with 'The Daimon', a story of Sokrates. S. M. Stirling turns in 'Shikari in Galveston', a novella set in the same alternate history as his recent novel 'The Peshawar Lancers'. Mary Gentle returns to the vicinity of her recent epic 'Ash: A Secret History' with 'The Logistics of Carthage', and Walter Jon Williams contribution, 'The Last Ride of German Freddie' drops Friedrich Nietzsche into the gunfight at the O.K. Corral. As with any collection, it turns out to be a bag of mixed blessings, with more blessings than mix. 'Worlds That Weren't' is certainly a great introduction to four authors you might not have read. In any timeline, it would do a fine job shining a spotlight on something you can plan seeing a lot more of in any branching future.

The book has a rather nice cover and interior design; the print is readably large, and this helps the stories slip by. Oddly enough, there's no 'editor' credited, which is too bad. If this is going to be the spokesman for Alternate History, it would be nice to have someone actually say something in general. Of course, you can't evaluate what's not there, only comment on its absence. Each story is followed by an author's lengthy comment on the story. In the case of the first three stories (Turtledove, Stirling and Gentle), the reader will greatly benefit by reading the author's bit before reading the story, unless you're very well versed in the history being covered or the author's work. Perhaps they were placed after the stories because Williams' piece is specifically labeled an 'Afterword'. To my mind, even that would be better placed up front. As a reader, if a piece depends on the variation from history, I actually prefer a brush up beforehand. This may not be the case for everyone, but I was an English major, not a History major, and to some degree I'm the poster-person for 'Doomed to Repeat It'.

Turtledove's 'The Daimon' read to me like the best story you're going to get out of someone who has lectured too many times on the Socratic Dialogues and the Peloponnesian War. As it begins it is very dry, and, unless you've read too many Socratic Dialogues and seen too much of the Peloponnesian War, you'll want to tread the author's afterword first to get a grip on the significance of the changes that Turtle dove makes to actual history. Once you get a ways into the work, the realism strikes home and it gets more comfortable, and the dialogues are delightful. But they are too few and far between. 'The Daimon' however, speaks to one of the most interesting aspects of alternate history. Turtledove has obviously done his research, and his creation of Ancient Greece rings so true that, combined with the readers ignorance about what actually happened, the alternate history reads more like historical fiction. Even when the reader does know precisely what happened in the past and why -- and you can find this out by reading that darn afterword -- the stark reality of Turtledove's creation overwhelms the speculative aspect. For some readers, this will be fine. It actually helps the written piece of fiction, as it draws the reader in. And Turtledove's stark style does lend itself to the abstract thoughts it engenders, the reader's speculations on what effects the changes wrought by the author might have as they rippled down through the ages. In that sense, Turtledove succeeds. But many might find the story slow going.

Slow going is hardly the problem in S. M. Stirling's 'Shikari in Galveston'. Again, reading the afterword helps, as Stirling explains the very clever setup of his world and has some interesting things to say about why HE writes alternate history. In the first few paragraphs, the reader is immersed in a cheesy, violent jungle action picture complete with slavering cannibals, virgin sacrifice and a bellowing priest. Readers are also immersed in Stirling's created language. Set in a 21st century where the scientific level is barely post-Victorian, due to a cometary strike in the late 1800's. 'Shikari in Galveston' is a bit hard to suss at first due to this language, but it is definitely worth sticking with. Stirling is immensely clever, and he creates really likable characters. He also describes a scene of action like nobody's business, creating the reader's equivalent of a wild thrill sequence from great popcorn movie. It's a nice piece of writing, and his attention to characters really pays off. His alternate history is fascinating and thought-provoking. He brings out the best in this the sub-genre. I've never encountered Stirling before but this novella was good enough to make me go out and buy 'The Peshawar Lancers' before I'd even finished reading the rest of the stories in the book. It's a prime example of why collections of novellas should become more common. Then length gives the reader a very good feel for what a novel might be like. In this case, it sounds really, really good.

I'd already encountered Mary Gentle, and had greatly enjoyed 'Ash: A Secret History'. Her afterword I read twice before reading her story. It was quite fascinating, funny, and gave some small hint of the complexity of what she was doing in 'Ash' and in 'The Logistics of Carthage'. This novella benefits from much of what made 'Ash' good. Gentle's details feel precisely right, and they're not quite as dry as Turtledove's. Like Turtledove, it sometimes seems as if it might matter little whether you're reading alternate history or historical fiction. In fact, just looking at the two phrases together helps one understand how fine the line between them might be. Now, there are very small spoilers in Gentle's afterword, so sensitive readers might want to wait. As long as you have an M.A. in Seventeenth Century Studies and war, you'll be in great shape. Like Stirling, Gentle's work benefits from characters the reader can really connect with. It's an odd bit of writing, at times remarkably sweet, other times remarkably horrific. But it seems very much of a closely stitched piece, a dense fabric of history, imagination and storytelling that easily suggests there's much more here than immediately meets the eye. Some things will seem incomprehensible to those who have not read 'Ash', but the overall effect is good enough so that upon finishing this, you'll know if you want to. If you do, spring for the UK trade paperback version, where the whole narrative is in one volume. Pushing it across four MMPB's as has happened in the states is sure to annihilate a large part of your enjoyment of the book. Reading this novella will help. If you've already read 'Ash', I think you'll certainly want to read 'The Logistics of Carthage'.

Walter Jon Williams is one of those writers whose work has thus far escaped me, and so I looked forward to 'The Last Ride of German Freddie'. Though the Afterword is called an Afterword, I would still recommend that the reader unfamiliar with this history of the O.K. Corral or Friedrich Nietzsche read it to enhance their enjoyment of what Williams does, which is really quite clever. To my mind, however, the prose never really takes off unless Williams is writing as Nietzsche in his notebooks. Those passages shine as much as his 'high concept'. The other portions of the narrative seem disconnected in comparison. However, Williams does draw it all up nicely at the end, which is really quite affecting. On the other hand, I didn't go out and buy one of his other novels upon finishing the story. I hope one comes my way, and if it does, I'll likely read it. But it's not sliding up the queue, as is Stirling's work.

Overall, 'Worlds That Weren't' is a good introduction to the genre that may likely overtake SF in the bookshelves and potentially on the big screen in the next few years. It's nicely priced, and all the stories are eminently readable; some are truly exceptional. For this reader, Stirling's and Gentle's entries alone would clinch it. The rest is just the icing on the cake. Which in reality, was something else entirely.