By Alexander Wallace
The alternate history genre grew, ultimately, out of portal fantasy stories in science fiction magazines. Despite this, we think of the genre as something that is primarily an inhabitant of published books, be they novels or anthologies, print or ebook, large press or small press. Even so, occasionally I will see an alternate history story published in one of the major science fiction and fantasy magazines. Here, I shall discuss a story that appeared in the September/October issue of Fantasy and Science Fiction: The Scorpion and the Syrinx by Brian Trent.
The Scorpion and the Syrinx is based on a not-hugely-common but not-unheard-of scenario in alternate history communities: the Romans landing in America. The North America of the story is divided between Romans and Aztecs, between whom relations are tense. It’s not the most original premise, certainly, but there have been good stories written with old scenarios (on this blog, I’ve reviewed Dennis Bock’s The Good German, which is an example of such).
Trent describes this world, in a physical sense, in a way that many alternate history writers could emulate. There’s a very strong sense of place in every scene, even if the cultures on display never existed. He brings you to a serene river that is the site of a heinous crime, the shock of the deed made all the more stark by the peace of the setting. You visit the smelly confines of a military camp, where suspicious events are afoot.
The plot, like so many other alternate history stories, is a mystery and an investigation. Like Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, Robert Harris’ Fatherland, or C. J. Sansom’s Dominion, the investigation is used as the engine that drives you through the world. Fortunately, this is not tedious; the plot is constructed as such that everything feels meaningful and that no scene is wasted.
This is also a story that does well on one of my particular allohistorical hobby horses: points of view. The story is narrated from the perspective of a Roman investigator, arrived to solve what appears to be a murder. This narrator meets a number of interesting people, all of whom reflect, in one way or another, the world that Trent has created. You have the indigenous officer with a Roman name, and a number of servants in the household of the deceased. Particularly, Trent has a firm grasp of social class and how that drives interactions between people in certain situations. I know that’s vague, but I want the reader to have the joy that I did.
For far too long, internet alternate historians have neglected alternate history that has come out of magazines. The Scorpion and the Syrinx is proof that this vaunted source of science fiction and fantasy can provide us with quality alternate history. Readers should most certainly take note.