Review by Adam Selby-Martin
Divided Worlds: An Alternate Space Race, by Mark Ciccone
One of the main reasons why I like Mark Ciccone as an author of alternate history is the level of imagination that he demonstrates in his works, and the intriguing scenarios that he comes up with as a result.
Already in the titles that I’ve encountered so far, Mr Ciccone has transposed the Vietnam War into a war-weary, bitterly divided Confederate States of America (CSA) that has lasted to the middle of the 20th Century; and set a tense cat-and-mouse espionage thriller in the midst of a Cold War-era Charleston, a port still firmly in the grip of the CSA. To me, these marked Mr Ciccone out as an up and coming star in the indie alternate history genre, and as such I was very pleased to see him release another title. As soon as it was available, I snapped up Divided Worlds: An Alternate Space Race and got to reading.
As with previous titles released by Mr Ciccone, the first thing that catches the eye is the well-crafted and distinctive cover art; once again designed by Donna Canavan, who also did the cover for the author’s first full-length novel, Red Delta. It’s an engaging and striking piece that takes one of the standard tropes of the Space Race period in the Cold War – an astronaut’s visor reflecting the image of second astronaut planting a flag in the moon’s dust – and flips it by having the second person actually be a cosmonaut, the flag actually a Soviet one. The accompanying text is once again well-positioned and in a suitable font, and although the author’s name at the bottom is perhaps a little hard to read when transposed against the astronaut’s space suit, this doesn’t detract from the overall quality of the piece.
The cover blurb is as interesting as the cover art, presenting a universe in which a Trotsykite USSR is locked into a Cold War-esque struggle with a USA-dominated League of Democratic Nations, both power blocs the result of a very different Second World War that saw all of Europe come under Soviet control. The existence of a joint US-Soviet moon base, and tensions on Earth that threaten to destroy the fragile balance achieved in the lunar base, merely sweetens the deal for the reader. The map of the world, circa 1999, is a nice bonus and helped me as a reader to envision the wider setting for the story before it started; frankly, it’s something that should be mandatory for all alternate history tales to improve reader immersion and aid the imagination.
As the title suggests, the majority of the novella is focused on the USSR and the League of Democratic Nations, but we do get several short chapters that lay out the timeline that led to the present-day, and some of the PoDs (Points of Divergence) that led to the alternate chronology being depicted.
The opening chapter, which highlights the fate of Joseph Stalin, is intriguing because we see so few timelines where anyone other than the Man of Steel rules the USSR; much of the alternate history genre seems to be stuck in a rut when it comes to major personalities like this – similarly, Adolf Hitler is almost always ruler of Nazi Germany, no matter what changes might happen otherwise in a story. In fact it’s these opening chapters, the first involving Stalin and the second featuring a conversation between President Roosevelt and Vice-President Truman in the aftermath of this timeline’s Second World War, that are the most interesting and thought-provoking. In just a few short pages we get a glimpse of a timeline that just cries out for expansion – a Trotskyite USSR that leads on a doctrine of Permanent Revolution; the complete Soviet domination of mainland Europe, including a tragic fate for the historical July 20th plotters in Nazi Germany; and the formation of the ‘democratic’ League of Democratic Nations, which must surely at times have been just as bloody and totalitarian as Trotsky’s own revolutionary process and conflicts.
Passing through these chapters, we then come to the bulk of the novella – the creation of Terra Unum, a moon base being constructed jointly between the LDN and the Soviet Union at the dawn of the new millennium, in the stated hopes of pursuing some form of mild détente between the two power blocs.
As with all of his works, Mr Ciccone has developed an imaginative, detailed and above-all believable alternate timeline; the characters inhabiting Terra Unum are well-rounded and fleshed out, particularly impressive for the relatively short word count, and the world they inhabit is full of little details that how the author has clearly done his research. An excellent example is how the astronauts and their cosmonaut counterparts are actually able to travel around the facility: rather than some kind of ‘gravity generator’ as you often see in sci-fi tales, instead we see the idea of magnetite dust, which impregnates everything in the base – uniforms, chairs, equipment and even pens, and which, when exposed to a low-level magnet ranged throughout the facility, allows things to remain anchored and mobile.
The protagonist for the present-day scenario is Commander Andrew Bradley, the leader of the LDN faction on Terra Unum, who finds himself having to deal with both a facility that is only just about sufficiently funded and stocked (at least on the LDN side) and the need to negotiate and cooperate with his counterparts in the Soviet section of the moon base.
There’s just enough background to how the two sides work and cooperate to when the appetite of the reader, and then it’s straight into the meat of the story, as rapidly-escalating tensions on the planet below threaten to undo all of the hard work on Terra Unum, and perhaps even strand the two sides there permanently. The plot picks up the pace quickly enough to take the reader along with it, and it engaged me sufficiently to make me rather sad that it had ended so soon. The writing is generally of the same standard seen in Mr Ciccone’s previous titles, and the same with the copy-editing, which is another positive in a genre where editing often seems to be a optional requirement rather than a prerequisite for publishing. For me, the only real negative was that the early chapters, particularly the Roosevelt-Truman conversations, suffered a little from being too much of an ‘infodump’, too many facts and rationales being packed into a back-and-forth exchange that became a little overwhelming at times. Unfortunately I suspect this is simply a consequence of the length of the title; but to my mind, the content of Divided Worlds more than warrants an expansion into a fully-fledged novel, which would remove those issues of brevity.
Ultimately this is another top-class story from the pen of Mr Ciccone, and I can eagerly and vehemently recommend it to any reader of the Alternate History genre, as well as anyone interested in high-quality speculative fiction. I can only hope that we see more tales from this particular timeline of the author’s, particularly the 1920s – 1950s period that is so ripe for expansion.
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