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Review - Alternate Peace; Steven H Silver & Joshua Palmatier (eds.), Zombies Need Brains

By Adam Selby-Martin

[Please note that the publisher kindly provided a review copy in return for an honest review of this title]

It wouldn’t be too controversial, I think, to say that the Alternate History genre is by and large dominated by military-focused fiction. Whether it be a rerun of the American Civil War that results in Southern Victory; the reimagining of the Second World War to either allow the Third Reich to triumph, or create different theatres of conflict; or the numerous banal takes on the Cold War turning Hot, conflict is at the heart of Alternate History. This is something that, sagely, the introductory chapter to Alternate Peace does not try to deny. And yet, the latest anthology from publisher Zombies Need Brains questions, does it always need to be so? Is it not, in fact, possible to create interesting and engaging counter-factual fiction without resorting to setting them in a conflict-based scenario? It’s certainly an intriguing question, and one that strikes at the heart of the current state of the genre; which, in turn, made this an anthology I felt was crucial to review on the Sea Lion Press blog.

[Note: As always with my reviews of anthologies and short story collections: to keep my reviews as brief as I can, I only focus on those stories that I particularly enjoyed, or which resonated with me in some special way. This is not necessarily a reflection on any authors whose tales I do not discuss, or the quality of their work; it is simply a way to ensure I don’t ramble on forever about a single book.] O-Rings by Elektra Hammond posits a world where the Challenger disaster never took place; the titular faulty O-Rings were fixed and the launch succeeded. Obviously that’s a good thing – none of the astronauts had to horrifically die, and the Shuttle programme continued without pause. As Hammond illustrates, a successful Challenger mission might have been just what NASA needed to ensure it didn't become the cash-starved entity it is in our timeline. And yet - what's good for the nation might not be so good for the individual, as we see the story of a slowly-deteriorating relationship evolve through a series of letters and newspaper clippings. A thoughtful tale, which packs a real emotional punch within the framework of a better world.

There are times when peacetime can a greater dystopia than wartime. That's the scenario Dale Cozort presents in A Dad Ought To Have Nightmares. American isolationism has led to a world dominated by a nuclear-armed Nazi Germany, nuclear-armed European powers opposing them, and an isolationist America lagging behind in technology - including atomic bombs. Peace in this world is fragile, and haunted by the spectre of nuclear destruction. One man in this 'peaceful' world - a former engineer and spy - is pulled back into the murky world of espionage in a desperate and bloody attempt to ensure his new-born son doesn't live in the shadow of Nazi atomic supremacy. It's a fascinating world that Cozort develops, especially with the world-building that he tempts us with in the last few pages, and I'd love to see more stories set in it.

Harry Turtledove always comes up with engaging stories, and Election Day is certainly no different. What starts out as something seemly set entirely in our reality slowly but surely starts to diverge into a world both horribly familiar yet subtly different. Turtledove readily gets into the headspace of a weary voter on election day, someone who wants to join in the democratic process but is weary of modern politics - the constant ads, the bickering, the fighting in person and on the TV and online. And while there's certainly an element of distaste for Donald Trump in Turtledove's story here, other reviewers seem to have missed the wider point being made - that Trump is just the product of a severely damaged political system, and a Democratic Party mirror-image candidate (albeit from a long-standing political family rather than a businessman) would be just as bad for the country. Grim, disheartening but essential reading, and one of the best stories in the anthology.

I've never read a sports-based alternate history story before, so Bonny Boy from Rick Wilber was certainly a first for me. Although baseball is the background to the story, the star here is really Moe Berg, former Baseball player and manager, OSS agent during the Second World War, and a man who can slip between timelines; he works as a fixer for the OSS, fighting Nazi's and solving problems. This time, the problem is in a baseball field - the stands, actually. This time - the problem is a kid, watching a match. If he lives, the peace and prosperity of this timeline is doomed. It's a classic dilemma in time-travel fiction - can you kill Baby Hitler when he hasn't done anything yet? - and Wilber does a superb job of keeping it fresh, aided by an enjoyable writing style, an obvious love for baseball that gives the story real depth and atmosphere, and a sympathetic and engaging protagonist.

I absolutely loved The Echoes of a Shot by Juliet E. McKenna, primarily because of the distinctive angle taken by McKenna to one of the key elements of modern human technological development. What if dirigibles were the dominant means of flight by men and women, and fixed-wing craft were a minor curiosity operated only by daredevils and those unlikely to be noticed, such as aviatrix Amelia Earhart? That's the situation in this world, one in which isolationism won in America and it never became entangled in Europe, which appears to have resulted in a far greater prevalence of social democracy in Europe. Airplanes offer the potential for true freedom to again spread in the United States, as Earhart explains to a friendly British journalist, but there are monied and vested interests who wish to see them fail to take off. Intriguing world building, excellent writing and an upbeat ending ensures McKenna has written a classic story that matches perfectly with the anthology's theme.

Field of Cloth and Gold And Blood, Sweat and Tears by Kat Otis - I must confess that I know relatively little about the periods when England warred with France and repeatedly invaded it, so when I saw that this tale was set in 1520 I cringed inwardly. The history of it is complex enough without adding a counter-factual element, and I feared not realising when history had actually changed. Fortunately the author is more than up to the challenge of dispelling any confusion, and despite the courtly and political elements involved, as senior members of the French court are struck down by a mysterious disease and English members ambushed, I easily kept track of who was doing what, and even why. The treachery and political machination was enjoyable, as Princess Elizabeth attempts to guide King Henri II towards resolving the crisis, and each of the major characters was distinct in their own way. Not only was it a great murder-mystery, but dynastic changes and the result of the plot lead to a very different future for the one who should have been Elizabeth I.

Politicians, Lost Causers and Abigail Lockwood starts with the arson of a plantation in the post-Civil War American South. But as the story unfolds, we find a crucial difference – the victims aren’t white – the suspects are. For this is a timeline where Reconstruction was fully implemented, and the traitorous planter classes punished, their property divided up for former slaves. Other groups benefited as well, and by 1912 both women and black men are running for the Presidency. It falls to one such candidate to investigate arson and murder, navigating the complex politics of the region. Slow to get going, once the world-building is in place this story races along, aided by complex, well-developed characters and the unique atmosphere of a radically altered American South.

A much closer and more intimate story now, with Easter Rising by Stephen Leigh, as an aged Irish widow is interviewed by Edward R. Murrow about her late husband, as part of a TV documentary. Telling it through the first-person necessarily gives it a personal touch; done poorly this can easily alienate the reader, but Leigh pulls it off by writing a quietly captivating protagonist who experienced many of the key events of the Easter Rebellion. Leigh does a fantastic job of sketching out the tense, febrile atmosphere of Ireland prior to the First World War, and the religious and political divisions that cut through society, even cutting apart families. That idea is slowly expanded upon as the Easter Rising approaches, only for a radical change to take place as Leigh considers how a small band of determined women might have been able to change the course of the Easter Rising and then course of world history as a result. An underutilised idea that’s executed smartly shows women can be just as instrumental to alternate history, leading to a another tale that is truly one of an Alternate Peace.

Finally, we come to New Moon, Dark Skies from Mike Barretta, which I found to be the most thoughtful and intense tale in the whole anthology. It’s the incredible story of the first black astronaut, and the adversity that he and his family demonstrate as he stubbornly refuses to give into the immense social and political pressures placed on him to quit the space programme before he is able to land on the Moon. Aided by a credible alt-Space Race that sees the Russian space programme become far more effective, Barretta weaves a spell-binding tale that left me thinking long after the last paragraph.

Alternate Peace is another successful anthology from Zombies Need Brains, full of high-quality, imaginative and thought-provoking stories. But more importantly, it strikes at the heart of the Alternate History genre by fundamentally proving that not all counter-factual fiction needs to be based around military history, or conflict in more general terms. A worthy title that deserves to be read in-depth by any fan of the genre, I can only hope we see a sequel from the publisher in the not-too distant future.



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