Visions of Paradise

Sunday, October 24, 2004

Worlds That Weren't

I purchased Worlds That Weren’t, a collection of 4 original alternate history novellas, because Cheryl Morgan at her Emerald City webzine called Mary Gentle’s novella “The Logistics of Carthage,” a must for Ash fans.

I am not an Ash fan, only because I have never read it. The only Mary Gentle book I have read was Golden Witchbreed twenty years ago. I liked that novel a lot, and have been intrigued by reviews and descriptions of later Gentle novels such as Rats and Gargoyles, the massive Ash: A Secret History, and the recent 1610. But her books have not been easily accessible here, so I have not bought any of them yet.

So Cheryl’s review, combined with my natural liking of alternate history, and the fact that Harry Turtledove and Walter Jon Williams are both excellent writers, made buying this book a no-brainer for me.

I read Gentle’s story first, and had slightly mixed feelings about it. I really liked the historical setting, and the “feel” of Gentle’s world. While I am no expert in that era–or any historical era, for that matter–it felt authentic and was certainly thought-provoking. The basic storyline was that several mercenary Christian soldiers demand a group of heretical Christian monks bury one of their fallen members, but the monks refuse because the dead soldier is a woman disguised as a man, which the monks consider blasphemous. There were several side plots involving a young swineherd protective of both his flock and the abbott. The swineherd is also a seer who not only has visions in his dreams, but shares the dreams with the person they are actually intended for, in this case Yolande, one of two viewpoint characters in the novella, who is a woman accompanying the soldiers as a member of the fighting troupe.

There are clever scenes involving the pigs, particularly one funny, if gross, scene involving “night soil”, if you know what that means. And the story’s ending also involves the pigs in a manner which is both hilarious and fitting.

So why are my feelings towards this novella mixed? Because of its attitude. Since all the main characters are soldiers in a violent era, the story is bloody, cruel, even gross at times, and the story’s “heroes” are arrogant, cold-blood killers who accept killing as normal. While that was probably an accurate view of that era, I don’t particularly enjoy reading violent stories, whether murder mysteries, war fiction, or crime stories.

Fortunately, the violent attitude tended to fade as the story progressed, so by the ending it was mostly forgotten, and I was left with the good parts of the story. Still I cannot help wondering how violent Ash is, and if I would enjoy reading it enough to tackle its 1,000+ pages. Does anybody have an answer to that question?

The other stories in Worlds That Weren’t were mostly good. Harry Turtledove’s “The Daimon” told of Socrates accompanying an Athenian general Alkibiades as he defeats Syracuse. Apparently, the historical Alkibiades was recalled to Athens by his enemies, but in this story he refused their recall, ultimately returning to become tyrant of Athens. While the reversal of history was interesting, knowing that fact seemed to have little, if any, effect on the story itself, nor did the presence of Socrates seem more than an interesting addition.

S.M. Stirling’s “Shikari in Galveston” almost lost me in its first brutal scene. But I plowed onward, and gradually the story became a more interesting tale of a 20th century world much less civilized than our historical world. It concerns a British empire centered on India after something called the “Fall” devastated western Europe in the late 19th century. For much of the story, I was confused as to what actually happened, until I sneaked a peak at Stirling’s afterward to find out.

Stirling’s story contains more weaknesses than either Gentle’s or Turtledove’s. One of the three main characters is a fighting woman named Sonjuh (with red hair and very reminiscent of Robert Howard’s Red Sonja, which hardly seems a coincidence) whose family was killed and eaten by the Swamp Devils who are the villains of the story. Determined to count coup on 10 Swamp Devil scalps in revenge, she joins a hunting expedition headed by a British noble and a backwoods fighting man.

So what happens? Sonjuh is assigned the womanly task of cooking for the expedition, and amazingly, although Stirling has given no indication that she has ever cooked before, she becomes practically a gourmet chef, and even has an affair with the British lord. That was so unconvincing I could not decide if Stirling is basically sexist or preoccupied with regency romance novels.

The story is also full of expository lumps in which Stirling gradually reveals the story’s alternate history. And the ending is a violent adventure which is both too easy and too gratuitously gory, at least as bloody as Gentle’s story without her story’s intelligence and thoughtfulness.

My favorite story in the book was Walter Jon Williams’ “The Last Ride of German Freddie,” which told what might have happened had health problems forced Friedrich Nietzsche to leave Europe and resettle in the Southwest United States, specifically Tombstone during the era of the Gunfight at the OK Corral. Not only was this a rousing adventure, but it successfully explored how Nietzsche’s philosophical views would have impacted his participation in the battle between the Earps and the Clantons.

Which raises a few thoughts about alternate history in general. Alt history is like sf in one important regard: sometimes the setting is an excuse to study the human condition in generality (which is a good thing); and sometimes it involves studying historical change, whether in specific situations or in general (which is even better).

And sometimes it is merely a Bat Durston. In case you are not familiar with the term, a Bat Durston refers derogatorily to a science fiction story which is little more than a traditional western using sf settings and icons. Taking the comparison to alternate history, the better stories in this genre should create the story’s world for some reason other than merely creating a nice setting for an adventure. In his afterward, Stirling admits that he created his world purely because post-World War I western world does not lend itself to the type of classic adventures which he enjoys. So he basically wiped away modern civilization and wrote his story. Did his historical change matter? Not really, which might explain why his story had nowhere near the intelligence of Gentle’s story.

Which is why I enjoyed Williams’ story the best, since, in my opinion, it was the only one in which the historical change drove the story directly and generated further speculation about both the characters and the historical events themselves.

Just as the best sf makes you think about future change, I believe the best alternate history makes you think about historical change as well.


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