By Alex Wallace
One of the oldest forms of alternate history is the portal fantasy involving real history. Much of the genesis of the current genre came from such stories in pulp science fiction magazines in the early twentieth century. It has proven to be an enduring part of the genre; this week we shall discuss a recent instance thereof, Sidewise Award nominee Andrew J. Harvey’s Through the Dark Mirror.
Harvey approaches this interdimensional contact as something resembling the European arrival in the Americas more than any other historical analogue. This is refreshing; it is an investigation into the moral issues arising from such travel, and more directly, taking another universe and using it for their own purposes. Harvey’s uptimers belong to an Empire that is collapsing, its Earth having been polluted to the point they have to leave. This Empire represents what Ambrose Bierce called ‘pickpocket civilization,’ and it seeks to pick another universe’s pockets.
Harvey chooses an interesting selection of characters to depict this first contact. There are high-ranking officials and low-ranking grunts in his choice of imperials. You get a look at a Tsar, for they land in Russia. Harvey also depicts, with heartbreaking frankness, one of the people who loses everything due to the coming of the uptimers.
Through the Dark Mirror is a parable of colonialism. It forces you to reckon with the truth of ‘hurt people hurt people,’ of how the victimized can make others into victims. What brings the imperials from their original world is real pain, and real desperation, but the effect they have on this Russia is catastrophic. They have come as imperialists, as their name might suggest, and their greed abuts their goal to survive. The whole novella echoes the themes of W. H. Auden’s poem September 1st, 1939:
I and the public know
What all schoolchildren learn,
Those to whom evil is done
Do evil in return.
There is a quiet morality here, brave in a way that most alternate history simply refuses to be. It forces you to look at the butchery that underlies the pomp of flags and banners and uniforms. Through a kaleidoscopic view at so many different aspects of this contact, Harvey shows that when events shake the ground, the quakes destroy lives and societies. It is a bold statement, one that the genre needs all the more.