Review by Adam Selby-Martin
As I’ve been digging through the listings for the indie Alternate History genre on the Kindle, I’ve come to realise that there are nowhere near as many anthologies as there are in every other genre I’ve been reading in the past few years. Science-fiction, fantasy, horror, even speculative fiction – even a cursory glance through their listings will show you reams of collections and anthologies; but move into alternate history and there’s barely any, a mere handful at best.
Why is that? Honestly, at this point I’m not entirely certain, though I have a few thoughts. It’s a definite skill, being able to produce a short story, and not one that is easy to master; having to produce a story with a start, middle and end within a sharply-defined word-count, and usually based on a certain theme or trope to boot. Perhaps there’s also something to be said for the fragmented nature of the genre (and the much broader and potentially controversial discussion of whether alternate history actually is a genre, or is instead some kind of Ur-Genre that works more as a background or starting point for stories across all types of genres) that means that while there are many indie alternate history authors, very few of them coalesce together to produce an anthology. It’s certainly something that I want to ruminate on, and perhaps invite some authors and editors in the genre to discuss at a later date, but for now let’s highlight one of those rare anthologies, which I came across in my digging.
As always, going through the listings, it’s the cover art that attracts me to a title, and the illustration for Tales From an Alternate Earth: Eight Broadcasts from Parallel Dimensions is one of the best I’ve seen in the genre. Artist (and author) Ricardo Victoria Uribe has delivered a sumptuous and evocative full-colour piece of cover art of multiple alternate Earths floating in space, which readily puts across the theme of stories from parallel dimensions. In addition, I must admit that additional lustre was added to the anthology by the cover blurb highlighting that two of the stories in the collection were nominated for the prestigious Sidewise Award for alternate history, one of which also won the Short Form Sidewise Award. Added all together, it seemed to indicate a generally high level of quality – and of course, the fact that the title is currently available on Kindle Unlimited is an advantage for the reviewer on a strict budget. And finally, as with all of my anthology reviews, I should mention that I only highlight those stories that I particularly enjoyed, or which affected me in some significant way.
The initial story in the collection, September 26th, 1983 by Jessica Holmes, is an excellent example of the quality tales to be found in Tales from an Alternate Earth. When I started reading the story, within a few pages I mentally had it pegged as a standard, post-apocalyptic pot-boiler, with a Point of Divergence (PoD) during the later years of the Cold War. The protagonist, Magda, lives in a small, isolated village in the ruins of a country devastated by a nuclear war. To put it lightly, it isn’t a nice community to live in; ruled by a fanatical elite who control information coming in and out of the community, the inhabitants have many aspects of their lives controlled, food supplies are generally low, and religious-style propaganda is constantly disseminated, based on a certain infamous Cold War personality. So far, so typical – but about half-way through the story, Holmes introduces a series of twists that completely changes the frame of reference for the story, and cleverly inverts many of the standard post-apocalyptic and Cold War tropes. Even better, the story ends on a distinctly upbeat and hopeful note, which is something of a rarity in so many genres these days. Very well-written and highly imaginative, September 26th, 1983 is an enjoyable tale, and a promising start to the anthology.
We then move onto One More Dawn by author Terri Pray, which moves the time period back to ancient times, and delivers a slow-paced, character-focused and distinctly emotionally-charged piece of counterfactual fiction. In narrative terms, it’s a simple plot: an old man lies in bed, dying, tended by his loving wife and a small handful of servants, all hoping that the man’s extended family can arrive before he breathes his last. It’s a masterful exercise in atmosphere and emotions, as in a short word-count, Pray really effectively develops the relationship between an elderly married couple, both of whom have, at the height of the career trajectories, been the most powerful people in their respective countries.
The clues as to the alternate history of the setting are teased out in little dribs and drabs, the author providing a series of cunning clues to whet the reader’s appetite. I guessed the twist, and the identities of the husband and wife, quite early on in the story, but to be fair the point of the story isn’t to hide their names, but instead to deliver an engaging and skilfully-written piece looking at the last moments between two people who sacrificed so much, and so many people, to be together and forge a new destiny. Two powerful people who had been together through happiness and adversity, often very much the latter rather than the former, and I have to admit that I was genuinely touched by some of the subtle, emotionally-laced moments as the narrative progressed. Tied up with a powerful ending, this is both a hugely enjoyable story, and also an excellent indication of the direction that alternate history can take if not obsessively focused solely on military history and politics.
We then come to Twilight of the Mesozoic Moon, by Brent A. Harris and Ricardo Victoria. The first of two Sidewise Award nominees, I was curious as to what direction the story had taken to be nominated for that award, a curiosity amplified by the unusual title. The first few paragraphs definitely indicated the direction the story would take, and it was surprising – it’s always nice to see some non-human alternate history, especially as this is usually the realm of fantasy novels, and provides narrative possibilities you don’t get with purely human counterfactual scenarios. The plot rapidly unfolds, with Harris and Victoria creating an underlying sense of tension and panic that increases with every page, as the fictional lizard race that inhabits the Earth – having killed off the dinosaurs and presumably suppressing the rise of mammals – witnesses the Moon begin to break apart.
The reason for that breakage is the key of the entire story, and is a genius idea; the asteroid that killed the dinosaurs in our reality instead impacted on the lunar surface instead, created a partially-shattered Moon, which in turn allowed this lizard-race to emerge as the dominant species. There are some deeply intriguing social and cultural elements that the two authors dole out as the plot progresses and it’s clear why it was nominated for a Sidewise Award – a huge amount of thought, and careful planning, obviously went into the creation of Twilight of the Mesozoic Moon. I thought I’d guessed the twist to the story, but this was another story in the anthology where the authors ‘flipped the script’ and provided an entirely new dimension to the story and altered the narrative. I won’t spoil the ending, which is brilliant, but suffice to that it’s intricately-plotted and has a surprisingly emotional punch to it. Brilliantly-written, hugely imaginative, and with a great deal of thought put into it, this is one of the best stories in the anthology.
I wasn’t expecting to label any of the stories in Tales From An Alternate Earth as controversial, but I think that’s legitimately the only way that I can introduce One World by Cathbad Maponus. The heart of that controversy is to be found in the way in which President John F. Kennedy is depicted in the story, and the way that this portrayal is distinctly at odds with the way in which JFK is often portrayed in public – both in fiction and in the public consciousness. I don’t think it would be unfair, or an exaggeration, to say that there continues to be a heavy layer of mythology around Kennedy and his ‘Camelot Presidency’, particularly the notion that a ‘better’ future was missed due to his assassination in Texas in1963. This mythologizing has tended to obscure many of the less reputable things that took place during his time in the White House, both personal and political, and perhaps a story like One World is a result of that. Following the viewpoint of one of the few Secret Service agents to survive the Cold War going hot, Maponus depicts a world in which that relatively rare alternate history scenario plays out – the limited, survivable nuclear exchange. Dozens of cities are destroyed by nuclear weapons, and tens of millions die in the brief conflict between the US and the USSR.
From the cramped, claustrophobic confines of a secure bunker, we see how Kennedy and his cabal of advisors, including an increasingly-excluded Robert Kennedy, deal with the aftermath of the Cold War turning hot. Many of the decisions that JFK make are controversial, to say the least, and often dip into outright conspiracy theory territory, as the surviving nations are forged into a One World Government. It’s generally well-written, and there are some interesting angles on what a post-nuclear exchange United States might look like, but I suspect that your enjoyment of the story will very much depend on your assessment of JFK and view of the Camelot Myth in general. As someone who’s only been vaguely interested in JFK, I found it to be an interesting but controversial story that certainly challenges many preconceptions and beliefs; and acts as (a necessary?) foil to optimistic alternate history tales such as Resurrection Day by Brendan DuBois, which depicts Kennedy as a someone who died trying to prevent a nuclear conflict breaking out.
I think that Stargazing on Oxford Street by Rob Edwards is one of the more intriguing alternate history stories I’ve ever come across; while it’s set in the dominant period of the 20th Century, as with so many AH tales, it has an eerie, captivating atmosphere and a genuine sense of mystery. Edwards expertly depicts a woman and her guide crossing a shattered, ruined landscape, trying to find a particular location in the wreckage of a major city, and there’s a real emotional impact when it’s eventually revealed that this is actually what’s left of London. It’s one of the most original starts to a counterfactual story I’ve seen, and the descriptions of various famous London landmarks lying in ruin is chilling, as is the revelation that there was so little time for the population to evacuate before the tremendous impact that changed the course of history. I won’t spoil the cause of the city’s destruction, because although it’s been done before by several authors, Edwards has depicted it so skilfully that it deserves to be read without any preconceptions. The finale of the story has some emotional heft behind it, laced with bitterness, and there’s also some subtle world-building in the notion of an Imperial German-led United Nations uniting the world to try and prevent another ‘London Event’.
Finally we come to Treasure Fleet by Daniel Benson, the second of two Sidewise Award-nominated stories, and also the one that eventually won the award. That’s a deeply impressive accomplishment, and I can absolutely see why it won – I think this might be one of the most ambitious, and clear-sighted, pieces of alternate history fiction I’ve encountered in several decades of reading through the genre. Nowhere is this better illustrated than the very start of the story, where Benson deftly lays out the background of his world with a single sentence: “Prayer beads clicked between the fingers of Song Muhanmode ben Mahdi, Emperor of China and Imam of All Islam”. That’s a hell of an opening, and an irresistible bait to the reader to entice them into reading the rest of the story; I certainly appreciated that the author began with such a major disruption to historical reality, and also admired the consistency in not explaining how that disruption actually occurred. The focus is entirely on how this Chinese-Islamic behemoth expands outwards, and how an attempt to conduct history’s longest outflanking manoeuvre actually leads to the discovery of the New World, and all of the implications that brings with it. It’s a great story, expertly written and with some real skill and verve in confidently setting out this radically different reality; the use of merged Chinese and Islamic titles for the Emperor and his advisors really drives home the simultaneously recognizable yet alien nature of the world of Treasure Fleet. Somehow Benson manages to make the ending of the short story even more shocking than the start, particularly in regards to the long-term implications of certain discoveries and actions, and I’d love to see more written by Benson in this universe because it has so much potential.
To bring things to a close, Tales From An Alternate Earth is one of the most accomplished, impressive and enjoyable alternate history anthologies that I’ve ever encountered in the genre, and is a huge success for Inklings Press and all of the authors involved. I can absolutely see why several of the stories it contains were nominated for Sidewise Awards, and why Treasure Fleet won an award – the entire anthology is formed of distinctive and imaginative stories that manage to shy away from the usual counterfactual tropes, or twists them into such different shapes that they’re impossible to recognise. A must-buy for anyone interested in alternate history, and I cannot wait to read the sequel.
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