By Adam Selby-Martin
I first encountered the reality-hopping baseball player and spy Moe Berg in the short story Bonny Boy by Rick Wilber in the Alternate Peace anthology published by Zombies Need Brains! in 2019, and which I reviewed for the SLP blog last year. Wilder's story was one of the best in the anthology, extremely well-written and with a fresh and engaging take on the 'Baby Hitler' trope in the Time Travel and Alternate History genres. To whit: if one travels to the past (or another timeline) and encounters someone unredeemably bad (like the aforementioned infant dictator) before they can assume the course that leads to their evil acts, would it be right to kill them when they are still innocent of their future actions? Not only did Wilber provide a unique answer to the question that I hadn't considered, he also wrote an engaging and thought-provoking story that stayed with me long after finishing the anthology. I had always wanted to review the other stories featuring Moe Berg, and while so haven't been able to afford the entire collected stories collection, a month of free Kindle Unlimited has given me the opportunity to review Something Real, the first Moe Berg story and also winner of the Sidewise Award for Best Alternate History - Short Form in 2012.
Before we get into the story itself, it's necessary to delve into the protagonist of the story, and the series as a whole, Moe Berg himself. If Wilbur had created Berg from thin air, as a fictional character, he would surely have been accused of creating an impossible person, an unrealistic protagonist who can seemingly do anything to which he puts his mind. Yet he was entirely real, and his list of accomplishments is astonishing, all the more so for being completely true: Globe-trotting spy working for the United States government in the 1930s and 1940s; supremely talented baseball player; polyglot who spoke and understood multiple languages; involvement with the American and Nazi nuclear programmes; and even agent of the CIA in the last few decades of his life. When you consider all of that, Wilber's addition of Berg being able to slide between realities to conduct espionage missions doesn't seem all that unrealistic by comparison!
In the alternate reality of Something Real, Berg finds himself in a crowded lecture room in Zurich, capital of neutral Switzerland in late 1944. Only a few hundred miles away the Battle of the Bulge rages, with the fate of an entire continent in the balance. Berg is unable to influence that battle, but if all goes well he will have a far greater impact on the conflict; certainly far greater than what he considers to be a mediocre baseball career, something that quietly depresses him. As the reason for Berg's attendance at the lecture draws near, Wilber deftly interlaces moments from Berg's earlier baseball career to get insights into the man, and show how he made the transition from baseball player going to seed, to trusted agent of "Wild Bill" Donovan, head of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the forerunner of the CIA.
But before Berg can execute his mission, a combination of terrible news from Bastogne, and the arrival of a mysterious woman who speaks in riddles, and knows far more than she should be able to about his mission and career, leads him into a very different destiny. One that involves a very different Nazi nuclear programme, with terrifying implications both for the conflict and for the fate of the world in general. It's a brilliant extrapolation by Wilber of the work done by the Nazi regime to create a nuclear weapon in our reality, and is chillingly plausible in its goals. It also leads to a genuinely surprising ending that I hadn't seen coming, as well as a trip into other realities that will lead to the other Moe Berg stories written by Wilber.
Wilber has written a flawless piece of espionage fiction, but what makes it stand out even further is the alternate reality it's set in. The hints at the changes in this particular timeline are incredibly subtle, but all the more intriguing when they do appear and can be considered by the reader. Changes have occurred many years prior to the Second World War, and the implications for Italy in particular are incredibly tantalising, both because they hint at a very different role for Italy in the interwar period and then the Second World War, and also because it's so rare to see alternate history fiction that focuses on Italy in any significant capacity.
In addition to the alternate history elements of the story, Wilber's intimate knowledge of baseball is just as informative, and exhibits an infectious enthusiasm that leavens the story with snippets of baseball history and lore that even had me - someone who is generally apathetic about sports in general - looking up terms and reading about famous baseball games. It's exactly the same for the advanced mathematical papers and nuclear physics concepts introduced into the story as the reason for Berg's attendance at the lecture in Geneva; Wilber has a knack for taking complex concepts and making them easy for amateur readers to understand. Wilbur takes multiple subjects and concepts - counterfactual history, nuclear physics, baseball - that might have potentially alienated a reader, deftly blends them together into a tense, atmospheric and thought-provoking tale.
At just over 30 pages, Something Real is perfectly judged in terms of length, with Wilber packing in a deeply impressive amount of action, plot and background detail into the story as a whole. It's a fantastic concoction of espionage, baseball, time travel, alternate history and keen insights into the character of the remarkable character of Moe Berg, and absolutely deserved to win the Sidewise Award in 2012. It also deserves to be read by anyone with an interest in baseball, alternate history or just brilliant, incisive and engaging writing, and I hope one day to read the rest of the Moe Berg stories to see where Wilber takes such a fascinating character.
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