By Adam Selby-Martin
Martin T. Ingham (ed.)
Back in June 2018, I reviewed for the SLP blog the alternate history anthology Altered Europa, edited by Martin T. Ingham and published by Martinus Publishing, concluding that it was a “credible and highly enjoyable anthology of indie alternate history stories, a number of which shine in terms of the high quality of the writing and imagination on display…” After finishing the anthology, I realised that this was actually the second anthology released by Martinus, the first being titled Altered America; having enjoyed the second, I decided that I needed to see what the first contained, and recently found the time to purchase it and dive on in.
Whereas Altered Europa focused on counterfactual fiction set in Europe, as the title suggests Altered America is instead focused on alternate history depictions of the North American continent. I was curious to see what kind of subject matter the anthology would cover, even more so when the Table of Contents revealed that, as with Altered Europa, editor Martin T. Ingham had packed in a huge number of stories within the pages of Altered America - 21 in total.
That’s a huge amount of content - more than 250 pages worth - and especially good value when you consider that the anthology is priced cheaply (£2.39 at time this review is being written - February 2019) and also has some good-quality cover art to boot. The full-colour illustration depicts several Mayflower-era American colonists about to be ambushed by a band of Viking raiders lurking behind some trees; artist Yakir Ben Haim has done an excellent job in both attracting the reader’s eye, and setting the scene for the stories to be found within the anthology. Turning then to the stories themselves, reviewing all twenty-one tales would be an immense task that unfortunately I don’t have the time to undertake; as such, I stand by my usual policy of only highlighting those stories that I particularly enjoyed, and/or which I felt stood out for some reason.
The collection opens with Rio Grande from author Jackson Kuhl, and it’s certainly a strong opening, both in terms of the plot and the alternate history that forms the backdrop for that plot. I do have a fondness for crime stories that involve gambling and double-crossing, and you get generous servings of both from Mr Kuhl throughout Rio Grande. The plot follows Lorenzo, a man cheated of his money by a prosperous swindler and beaten to a near-pulp by the man's thugs. Thwarted at the last second of a suicidal attempt at revenge, Lorenzo is instead offered a chance to attain vengeance and keep his life intact, scamming the scammer onboard a riverboat casino. The catch? Well, it just so happens the riverboat is heading into the Republic of Rio Grande, a little slice of Libertarian Paradise on the US-Mexican Border, its attitudes encompassed in the motto 'Trust In The State A Little Less, And In Mankind A Little More'. Kuhl gives a fascinating and thought-provoking look at what this little city-state might have looked like in the 19th Century, and a rather plausible timeline for its creation. Add in some sharp dialogue, good characterisation and fast-paced action scenes, and it all adds up to a cracker of a counterfactual story.
Another story early on in the anthology that caught my eye was We The People by Dan Gainor. Now, the story that Mr Gainor provides may not strictly fall within the purview of alternate history, but despite that it's an enjoyable romp that blends together the transgressive nature of politics, an overweening reverence for the Founding Fathers, the Constitution and 'the good old days' and cutting-edge technology to create an intriguing political thriller that teasingly answers the question - 'what would Washington, Jefferson and Madison make of current-day America? How would their values clash with ours? Like many such stories, it ends before it can realy get into the more counterfactual elements of such a timeline; but it had me coming up with possible scenarios for quite some time after finishing it, which is surely the sign of a great tale.
Author Bruno Lombardi impressed me with his contributions to Alternate Europa, and continues that pattern with his two contributions to this anthology. His first story, A Single Decision, certainly grabs your attention from the get-go; starting a story - regardless of genre - with someone falling to their death is certainly an imaginative and brave authorial decision, even more so when it's in the context of the terrorist attacks on September 11th, 2001. So that definitely caught my attention, and Lombardi maintained that attention easily as the story progressed. Though I'm loathe to go into any real detail because it will spoil the key elements of the plot, suffice to say it's an engaging and thoughtful story despite the rather downbeat start. Indeed Mr Lombardi is to be commended for writing something of a rarity in the Alternate History genre - a story laced through with a message of positivity and hope, rather than the standard dystopian, depressing attitude taken by so many authors these days. Highly recommended.
Many alternate history stories struggle to concisely summarise the timeline changes in their particular reality, in a way that a reader can both understand and care about. But not so in the case of What If The Louisiana Purchase Never Happened? by Edmund Wells, which opens with a potent mixture of familiarity and unease via the sentence, May 2, 1964: San Francisco, New Spain. We are familiar with the famous city of San Francisco, but as part of the State of California and not whatever entity New Spain is, and that shock is enough to propel us as readers into the rest of the story. The frame of the narrative is the examination of a long series of newspaper headlines and article excerpts, which slowly but surely build up the picture of an incredibly different North and South America. Here is a reality where the United States of America does not stretch from coast to coast, but is instead the United States of New England, just one of a number of different territories that jostle for supremacy across the North American continent. Wells manages to achieve some excellent, in-depth world-building as the story progresses, deftly highlighting just how different these nations are - from the French-backed Republic of Louisianne, the fiercely independent nation of Nova Scotia, to the Swiss-controlled Mississippi Passage, which acts as a small strip of neutral territory between the Republic and the United States of New England. It's all fascinating stuff and obviously Mr Wells has taken a great deal of time and effort to construct this unique world. While the story itself is rather far-fetched and escalates in an unexpected and rather confusing manner, the world-building more than makes up for it, and I would love to see more stories about this universe.
Then we come to one of my personal favourites in the anthology - The Orthogonian from author Sam Kepfield.There are few people in American political history that loom larger than Richard M. Nixon, a man who could readily be described as larger-than-life given his political career, his triumphs and defeats in the White House, and the manner in which he has often acted as a symbol of corruption and paranoia in the political system. I find him to be an endlessly fascinating character that offers a huge amount of possibilities in terms of being depicted in fiction, regardless of genre; to take just one, recent, example we have Austin Grossman's superb Crooked, which casts Nixon in the role of a man waging war on Lovecraftian horrors while sitting in the Oval Office, his sanity slowly but surely disintegrating as a result.
I think Mr Kepfield's portrayal of Nixon is the first time I've seen him in an alternate history story, and I was intrigued to see where the story would take him. The twist here is that Nixon never quite found the courage to enter into politics, finding it an awkward fit for his sensibilities, instead joining the FBI in the late 1930s. By the early '70's he's the second highest-ranking official in the organisation, trusted with difficult missions, such as his current one to Moscow to secretly conduct prisoner exchanges. That's a career path pregnant with possibilities in terms of counterfactual fiction, and it's exploited well by Kepfield, who highlights a number of subtle differences in the timeline. Nixon's non-involvement in politics opens up the field for lesser-known personalities to come into the light - here we have a President Rockefeller by the early 1970s, to take just one example. Kepfield also uses Nixon's high-level position in the FBI to good use, unrolling a plot full of espionage, shadow-plotting and Cold War machinations that meshes well with the elements of Nixon's personality that would have emerged regardless of his career.
Moving through the anthology, The Loyalist Washington by Owen Morgan takes an interesting angle to the American Revolution and one of the Founding Fathers of the United States of America. I always find counterfactual scenarios about the American Revolution to be interesting because there are so many different directions that authors can take that particular scenario. Does it mean total defeat for the revolutionaries, or some form of compromise peace after a small amount of conflict has broken out? Or perhaps, like Turtledove and Dreyfuss' famous The Two Georges, there's no conflict at all, ushering in a British North America (albeit one with a small but active resistance movement). So many personalities, so many opportunities to examine - and in his story, Owen Morgan chooses to have George Washington become the benefactor of a permanent officer's commission in the British Army, and his Virginian Regiment given royal status as additional prestige. A few strokes of a pen, a relatively minor change in fortunes, and the course of history is fundamentally altered. A short but very well-written and concise piece of counterfactual fiction, with a wry and all-too rare sense of humour bookending it.
Guns of the Green Mountains by Ryan McCall is another story set in North America, and with another failed American Revolution; though, intriguingly, this one fails after the British defeat, degenerating into a military-backed dictatorship not long after the last redcoats had surrendered. Further internal conflicts splinter the fragile revolutionary colonies into several bitterly-opposed factions, some rejoining the British Crown, others remaining fiercely independent. Once again this anthology demonstrates just how many different outcomes the American Revolution could have had, and here the author portrays a particularly dispiriting yet entirely realistic image of a revolutionary dream sundered. Focusing on the small Vermont Republic, we follow their small militia as they attempt to retain the colony's independence against all comers - including their own people. Again, another excellent piece of alternate history, one with a distinctly ambiguous ending that I'd like to see explored in greater detail by the author.
An interesting and deeply controversial scenario is the basis for
Lauren A. Forry’s Divided States of America: the Second Amendment is adopted in 1791, but with a crucial difference in the text. In this timeline, the amendment gives men the right to bear arms - but only during times of national conflict of crisis. But what happens when one of these periods of crisis ends - say, the American Civil War - and men on both sides of the conflict refuse to give up their weapons? It's a hell of a question to ask, and one which has almost unlimited repercussions that I was eager to see explored; and fortunately the author doesn't disappoint, providing one of the most engaging, thought-provoking and well-written stories in the anthology. Libby Strunk is a tough as nails protagonist trying to survive in a shattered, splintered country formed of dozens of factions, and I enjoyed the plot of the story as she escorted a BBC reporter across the Divided States. That journey allows Forry to dig into the checkered history of the factions: the constant fighting, the massacres and war crimes, not to mention the underlying tension of cultural misogyny that the two women face as they travel. There are even some interesting cultural touches in the world-building, like bullets acting as a form of universal currency due to the unreliable nature of fiat currencies.
Finally, we come back to Bruno Lombardi, who closes out the anthology with another deeply imaginative and deftly-written counterfactual story. Titled The Road Was Lit With Moon And Star. For his second contribution, Lombardi takes the Space Race as his inspiration; and just as with the American Revolutionary War, there are so many alternate scenarios that can be explored. There's a certain amount of Whiggish history to the Space Race, a sense of historical inevitability: the Soviets were the first into space, but then the USA achieved the other, more spectacular successes such as landing on the moon. But as Lombardi deftly highlights in this story, such lofty goals were very far from automatic successes they're assumed to be. Once again, we have a highly personal and intensely-focused story from the author, here following the story of David Patton, former USAF pilot, member of the US Astronaut programme - and in 1970, scheduled to be the first man to land on the moon, as part of Apollo 12. For Apollo 11 failed at the very last minute, crashing into the lunar surface mere moments before a successful landing. Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin are now American martyrs - and it falls onto the uncertain shoulders of David to both successfully land on the moon, and honour their legacy. It's a wonderful piece of fiction, and strikes the perfect balance in terms of the Alternate History element: big enough to be noticeable (no Armstrong and Aldrin) but also not so disruptive as to create an entirely different timeline. It’s a perfect end to the anthology, and well worth the purchase price all on its own.
In conclusion Altered America is, if anything, even better than Altered Europa, and definitely one of the best alternate history anthologies that I’ve come across. Unlike Altered Europa the quality of the stories is consistently strong, and I would struggle to highlight any stories that I felt were weak or unimaginative. Even those tales that I didn’t decide to highlight were still enjoyable, and there are a number of fantasy counterfactual stories to liven up the content of the anthology as the reader works their way through it. Well-edited and containing consistently high-quality content, and available at a very reasonable price (as well as available on Kindle Unlimited), Altered America is a must-have for the discerning Alternate History fan, or indeed anyone interested in how the history of North America could have been different.
Adam Selby-Martin also reviews other genres at his blog: The Scifi and Fantasy Reviewer Book Review Blog - Sci-Fi, Cosmic Horror and Alternate History Reviews