REVIEW SUMMARY: An enjoyable blend of alternate history stories that offer a wide range of topics and styles.

MY RATING:

BRIEF SYNOPSIS: An anthology of 11 alternate history stories.

MY REVIEW:

PROS: Lucius Shepard’s excellent story, occupying 30% of the book, was the anthology’s centerpiece; Robert Charles Wilson’s story was also excellent; six other worthwhile stories.

CONS: Three stories were mediocre or worse – two of which were more literary experiment than fiction.

BOTTOM LINE: An enjoyable assortment of alternate history stories.

Alternate history is a sub-genre that continues to intrigue and surprise me. Long-feared because of the natural association with history – and the painful reminder of boring, force-fed history classes – it wasn’t until I started reading alternate history short fiction that I came to realize this need not be the case. What I found was that, in some cases, the fictional accounts of real-life events actually prompted research on a topic – quite the opposite reaction I had in school.

Other Earths edited by Nick Gevers and Jay Lake is an anthology of short fiction that presents 11 diverse alternate history stories. The diversity is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, the reader is exposed to various authors and styles that broaden reading horizons; on the other there are likely to be some stories that are your cup of tea.

That is a truism for most anthologies, and so it is here. Of the three stories that worked the least, one was hindered by writing style and the other two felt like literary experiments. That said, two other stories were quite excellent: Robert Charles Wilson’s “This Peaceable Land, or, The Unbearable Vision of Harriet Beacher Stowe” and “Dog-Earred Paperback of My Life” by Lucius Shepard. The latter of these is a novella occupying thirty percent of the entire anthology. This weighed heavily of the overall enjoyment of the anthology, which offered 6 other worthwhile stories.

Individual story reviews follow…


Robert Charles Wilson’s “This Peaceable Land, or, The Unbearable Vision of Harriet Beacher Stowe” presents an alternate history where the American Civil War was never fought because slavery died out due to economic reasons. The story takes place in 1895 and follows an educated black man and his hired hand (a white photographer) as they attempt to document the poor living conditions of slaves who, despite the popular misconception, were (and still aren’t) regarded as equals. Wilson’s slow unfolding of the story is initially misleading; it disguises an otherwise moving and powerful story and poses some thought-provoking questions.

“The Goat Variations” by Jeff VanderMeer posits an alternate world (and ultimately several) in which an already-weary new President of North America and Britain contemplates the usefulness of a project involving “adepts” – people whose dreams are believed to be glimpses into the future. The story presents a compelling mystery about the nature of the alternate world we are seeing and the nature of the adepts’ powers and the machine they conceive. The ending, while not quite holding the impact I was hoping for, was nevertheless relevant (and *this* close to being political diatribe).

Stephen Baxter does some wonderful alternate world building in “The Unblinking Eye” where Columbus never discovered America and, by the 1960’s, the Incas have risen to be a world power in possession of technology that is considered to be extremely advanced – particularly from the point of view of Europeans. The story itself concerns a cultural exchange voyage between the Incas and British – but little else. The focus is so heavy on the world building (as good as it is) that the final “reveal” in the story lacked any purpose.

“Csilla’s Story” by Theodora Goss imagines a world where magic is real. The format uses a story-within a story approach. Actually, it’s three stories within one, each one telling about the past history of the Fairy folk, contributing to the larger picture. This meant that there were four story lead-ins. Sadly, I found each of them to be hard to initially grasp. It forced multiple re-reads before it made any sense, making the story seem like a chore. Also, despite this being an alternate history story, it ultimately reads like fairy fantasy which is sadly not my cup of tea.

“Winterborn” by Liz Williams, on the other hand, is a Fairy story that did not trigger my fairy fantasy aversion reflex. It takes place in a 17th century England ruled by a half-Fairy queen. A river mage is called upon to investigate the water ghosts seen in London and surmises that the Queen’s rival, the fairy of the under-hill, is mounting an attack. This story was intriguing because the magic, while not incidental, was treated like another arsenal in the queen’s and mage’s bag of tricks. It reads as part mystery, part wartime encounter and was ultimately enjoyable.

America was never involved in World War II, according to Gene Wolfe’s “Donovan Sent Us”. Instead, England was conquered by Germany and America became home to more than a million Jewish refugees. Political pressure led to a secret mission, the focus of this story, in which an American poses as a German officer in German-occupied England. The story delivers a palpable tension through the mission and the final political-world-building act is capped off with a nice ending.

In Greg van Eekhout’s “The Holy City and Em’s Reptile Farm,” the city in question is Las Vegas. Young Em’s family owns a reptile farm that’s struggling financially because of the newly built road that circumvents it. Upon learning that one of the major churches/casinos is raffling off a piece of the Holy Cross, she conceives a plan to save the farm. It’s probably no surprise that Em eventually (and ironically) finds salvation in Sin City, but her adventure is fun and filled with interesting characters nonetheless.

In “The Receivers” by Alastair Reynolds, English composers Ralph Vaughan Williams and George Butterworth never met their musical calling, instead becoming soldiers in a war on an alternate Earth. Knowing they are real-life composers is crucial to enjoying this story, but even if you don’t, the characterizations are such that the poignant ending still works.

A French-occupied southern United States is the setting for “A Family History” by Paul Park. The narrative takes the form of a letter; two actually, as the narrator talks about his life if it had taken different paths. The prolific use of “might haves” and “would haves” seemed to take away from the story, though…as if drawing attention to the fact that neither of these histories actually happened.

In “Dog-Earred Paperback of My Life” by Lucius Shepard, an author named Thomas Cradle discovers a semi-autobiographical book written by an author with the same name and with a similar biography. Upon reading the book, he comes to realize that it was written by an alternate version of himself. He thus sets out to retrace the steps of the character which, geographically, consists of a river trip in Vietnam. But it’s also a trip of self-discovery and a fascinating descent into depravity and evil. Complementing this story is Shepard’s prose, which is both wonderfully stylistic and self-aware. For example, he notes Cradle’s tendency to write long sentences and then proceeds to write a sentence that runs for a page-and-a-half. Yet in no way does reading Shepard’s writing ever come across as a chore throughout the length of this lengthy novella. Rather, the writing strikes at the heart of the inner-mind of the main character and is amazingly engaging. The meta-fictional content just adds a layer of introspection to the character and a layer of enjoyment for the reader. Though the ending left me somewhat baffled – perhaps it’s more accurate to say not up to the extremely high standards that came before it – this was still a great story.

“Nine Alternate Alternate Histories” by Benjamin Rosenbaum outlines nine different takes on the alternate history sub-genre. The key word there is “outlines” as this seems more like a set of writer’s notes than anything else. Some of the ideas are good — I particularly like the idea that alternate worlds converge to the same inevitable event — but they just serve as a reminder of all the cool stories this could have been.

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