By Alexander Wallace
Greg Egan is not an author I associate with alternate history; he strikes me as a more modern version of Arthur C. Clarke or Isaac Asimov, with blunt prose, workmanlike characters, and diamond-hard scientific accuracy. I learned of him through /r/printSF, who loves him and his ilk (Peter Watts and Tom Sweterlitsch being others); I read his collection Axiomatic, which floored me. After reading five of his books, I figured that I had found his main tack.
But the September/October 2021 issue of Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine made me question if that impression was misleading. I refer to his story Sleep and the Soul in that issue, which is an alternate history fantasy about sleep, or perhaps a lack of it.
Sleep and the Soul is one of those fantasy alternate history stories where the world resembles our own, but with some innate law of reality having been changed by the author, and from the perspective this change has been the case for time immemorial.
One example of this type of alternate history is Ted Chiang’s short story Omphalos in his collection Exhalation, a world where medieval formulations of cosmology and natural science coexist with a world that looks not too different from the contemporary twenty-first century.
That change is one in human biology: in this world of Egan’s, human beings rarely sleep. This change is examined within the context of a real place and time: Vermont in the 1850s, just after the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act by the United States Congress in the first decade of that year (an event that is mentioned by name). The protagonist is Jesse, a white laborer who is thought to have been killed at work in an accident. To his surprise, he finds himself waking up in his coffin and digging his way out. He makes his way to his parents’ home, and they are infuriated; they believe that a demon has possessed the corpse of their son.
What ensues is a story that feels very authentic to the time period. This includes a brief role for a famed entertainer of the period, but more broadly encompasses a social upheaval about the role of sleep in a society where it is rare that nevertheless feels like antebellum America. There is the expected moral panics, and a robust lecture circuit that is used in Jesse’s favor. The story becomes the most interesting when Jesse’s plight intersects with the contemporary abolitionist movement, which strikes me as to why Egan (an Australian) chose to set it in this time and place specifically.
Sleep and the Soul is more focused on character than much of Egan’s work (but he has some, which rank as his best work, like The Cutie or Oceanic). Jesse is a believable man for 1850s Vermont, salt-of-the-earth and proud of his work, thrown into national prominence by dent of coincidence. He is likeable, fairly liberal for his day, and responds to his unwanted fame as most people would. His development is the story’s greatest strength.
Sleep and the Soul is not your typical alternate history story, but it is one worth reading. It shows, once again, that magazines still provide fertile ground for good alternate history to grow and to flourish. We would do well to follow Egan’s example here.