Just Finished Reading: The Mammoth Book of Alternate Histories edited by Ian Watson and Ian Whates (FP: 2010)
Containing 25 short stories from some of the best SF and Fantasy authors in the world on the theme of alternate history this hefty volume (just shy of 600 pages) provided me with a week’s high entertainment. Ranging from tales of Titanic survivors to attempts to ‘correct’ history to prevent a devastating war by enabling the failed assassin to kill Archduke Ferdinand this covered quite a few bases along the way. Surprisingly, at least to me, a significant number – 5 or 6 at least – concentrated on turning points in religious history and proposed world views where Christianity failed to grow beyond its humble beginnings or where Judaism or Islam triumphed in its place. Probably my favourite story was Sidewinders by Ken MacLeod which had two ideologically opposed sides (one dedicated to preserving alternate realities for study and the other wanting to improve things by importing the best ideas from other realities into ones that need a ‘helping hand’) pop across world timelines as an act of will. The fascinating idea at the core of it was that many people do this without thinking each and every day. Find your car keys on your desk when you’re convinced you put them in your pocket before having a shave? You’ve just side-slipped to a world where you did put them on the desk ready to be picked up on the way out to work. It’s a thought that I’ve often had myself so it was good to see I’m not alone thinking that!
There’s a weird tale of the aftermath of the American Civil War called Hush My Mouth by Suzette Haden Elgin where ex-slaves refuse to speak until the disparate black communities decide on a common language, an odd little one called A Letter from the Pope by Harry Harrison and Tom Shippey where Alfred of Wessex turns against Christianity and forms a deeply Pagan Britain, an intriguing tale called Ink From the New Moon by A A Attanasio which creates a world where Christopher Columbus discovers America only to be greeted by sophisticated Native Americans and their Chinese partners called, a rather odd double-take of a story called Catch That Zeppelin! By Fritz Leiber which showed a very different and peacefully advanced world where Thomas Edison married Marie Currie (that was in our world) and together created a battery that powered the world far beyond the industrial revolution, another odd tale of the Pacific war called The Lucky Strike by Kim Stanley Robinson in which the first person to drop the atomic bomb on Japan deliberately misses his assigned target becoming both a traitor and a hero to future generations and much else besides.
Oddly I found that most of the stories in this collection revolved around worlds that where in some way or other worse than this one rather than just different or even better. It seemed to be the view that this is the best (or at least one of the best) of all possible worlds. Is that really the case? Obviously that’s difficult to decide since we have no evidence either way, but I can think of turnings we might have made that would, at least potentially, resulted in a better world. But the one thing we can take from each and every story here is that nothing is inevitable. There is no fate, except that which we make ourselves, and things could have been (and can be) different. All we need is the balls and the insight to make it so – and don’t let anyone tell you differently.