Kaleidoscope

The alternate history series continues with a Harry Turtledove collection that, of course, includes a lot of alternate history.

Raw Feed (1994): Kaleidoscope, Harry Turtledove, 1990.kaleidoscope

And So to Bed” — I appreciated this story more upon a second reading. The first time I liked the basic idea of this alternate history – that Samuel Pepys, in a world where Neanderthals were never supplanted by modern man in the New World, develops the theory of evolution. On a second reading, I appreciated more Turtledove’s technical skill in reproducing, via diary, Pepys world (and, I assume, style though I never read Pepys) with wit.

Bluff” — A story based – with acknowledgements – on the ideas of neurologist Julian Jaynes’ The Origins of Consciousness in the Breakdown of Bicameral Mind. Jaynes postulated (so I gather from Turtledove’s summation and the intro that says Jaynes liked the story) that primitive man was not truly conscious (defined by psychologist Helga Stein in this story, as being aware, of manipulating mentally metaphorical representations of objects and ideas) and operated on pattern recognition and habit. (Not as silly as it sounds. As Turtledove points out, complex activities like typing and playing a musical instrument are best done unconsciously.) When a novel situation presents itself, the right side of the brain generates auditory and visual hallucinations – often interpreted as gods and dead ancestors speaking. An earth survey mission finds an entire alien civilization at the Bronze Age level built by unconsciousness aliens. But just as Jaynes’ theory has consciousness developing when things get to complicated, so it is starting in this culture with alien soldier Tushratta. Consciousness first begins in merchants and soldiers who deal with strangers who hear other gods’ voices; gradually, they realize that these strangers have inner selves and begin to think of their inner self. A casual poker game with Tushratta and the humans ends in the corruption of the alien culture, the emergence of tyranny, and the beginnings of Tushratta’s consciousness. He is introduced to the idea of bluffing and, its close relation, lying. Turtledove makes a valid point that lying – consciously holding an image of reality and then constructing a distortion of it for social presentation – is a quintessentially conscious act.  (I was reminded of Harry Harrison’s West of Eden where an intelligent dinosaur character is amazed by, and cunningly uses, the human idea of lying.)  Tushratta, at story’s end, is plotting his rise to power via the idea of “bluff”.  An intriguing story that puts to good use an interesting scientific theory.

A Difficult Undertaking” — Basically a pun story set in Turtledove’s alternate Byzantine fantasy universe of the Empire of Videssos (and, on the basis of this story, I’m not eager to read them); allegedly, this story is based on an incident from Byzantine Princess Anna Commena (Turtledove does, after all, have a PhD in Byzantine history) about a soldier escaping a siege by appearing to be dead and transported across enemy lines in a coffin. 

The Weather’s Fine” — A strange, delightful fantasy based on the conceit that the years and not the temperature changes with the weather. “Year conditioners” maintain a constant time. Objects like clothes and calculators (or slide rules depending on the year) change with time as do people’s money and memories. A couple in the story, a couple with an unpleasant past, reunite as the man decides to leave the Eighties for the year-conditioned Sixties his beloved is so fond of.  (Appropriately enough, the story is told in present tense.) Rationally the story is absurd and rife with obvious violations of causality, and the society described seems, on close thought, unworkable, but rationality and plausibility are not what pure fantasy is about, and this story is a good, original fantasy.

Crybaby” — A mainstream horror story certain to scare prospective parents. Turtledove effectively shows a good, average man driven to near insanity by his colicky baby (Turtledove remarks, in the intro, that one of his daughters was colicky). Gradually he becomes convinced the child is deliberately tormenting him, challenging him to respond.  He does, in a rage, and the story ends with the accidental killing of the man’s wife and his suicide. In a typical horror “the monster-is-not-dead” ending, the baby ends up with its aunt and uncle who think they can handle the child’s crying.

Hindsight” — This story is one of those cases of a skilled writer making a hoary cliché work. Actually, two hoary clichés here; specifically the idea of a time traveler using knowledge from the future or present to get rich in the past and, a subcategory of this, the time traveler who steals stories to sell them in the past. Here sf writer Pete Lundquist and James McGregor, editor of Astonishing magazine (an obvious reference to James Campbell of Astounding magazine), track down a mysterious sf writer of widely varying styles but always consummate skill. It turns out she’s a woman from the 1980s – the story is set in the 1950s – who is not only selling other writer’s stories (like Larry Niven’s “Neutron Star”) but fictionalized accounts of Watergate and the Vietnam War. (She’s also not a total plagiarist but has a legitimate career as an sf writer in the 1980’s.) She’s not only trying to get rich but rather, through her stories, propagandize, via sf, to future engineers and scientists, to inspire them, promote logic, help the Fifties maintain the national will the U.S. lost in the Sixties and Seventies. Lundquist is fascinated by her future tech, shocked by a future issue of Playboy he sees, and sexually attracted to her. But, in a surprise – and satisfying – ending, the married Lundquist reject’s writer Michelle Gordian’s advances with the thought that she has chosen to live in 1953 for the era’s virtues which include marital fidelity. Perhaps, Turtledove means us to see Gordian as tainted by the Eighties ethos, including sexual looseness, even though she reviles much in her time and admires the fifties.

Gentleman of the Shade” — A Jack the Ripper story featuring the old and distinguished vampires of the Sanguine Club of Victorian London (being Victorian gentleman – though vampires – they of course belong to a club) who hunt down – and entomb alive (though there is doubt at story’s end that this will be a permanent solution) – an uncouth, vicious vampire known to us as Jack the Ripper. (The gentleman of the Sanguine Club feed on prostitutes but don’t maim or kill them and their amnesia and anesthetic spittle make the experience sometimes even enjoyable.)  A nicely done treatment of the time and its mores.

The Boring Beast” — A humorous fantasy adventure with Condom the Trojan trying to best, through sheer stupidity, the Boring Beast and win the hand of a not-so-fair (as it turns out in the end) maiden.

The Road Not Taken” — The second time I’ve read this story of furry teddy bear aliens with mediaeval technology bent on interstellar conquest, and the surprise that awaits when they land on modern Earth. I think this story will definitely go down as a classic.

The Castle of the Sparrowhawk” — A literal fairy tale about Prince Rupen enduring the trial of the Sparowhawk (made reference to by Sir John Mandeville, a test involving keeping the sparrowhawk awake for seven days and seven nights) to win the bed, for a day and night, of Princess Oissa. She tries to dissuade him from claiming that particular prize (he gets his heart’s desire after completing the test), but he insists and claims her, but she curses him for his presumption. At story’s end he is deposed, becomes a fugitive, a maimed bandit king who, nevertheless, does not regret his decision.

The Summer Garden” — A theme running through some of Turtledove’s work is marital infidelity and marital reconciliation. (I know Turtledove was married and divorced once before his present marriage, so I don’t know if there is personal experience speaking here.) Here knight Rand wants to bed the beautiful, but married, Dianora. She sets a test, which he magically meets, of creating a summer garden in dead winter. She tearfully tells her husband of this, and he says, if Rand insists, she must have sex with him, that a “woman’s faithfulness lies in her heart, not between her thighs”. (Turtledove here, and in Worldwar: In the Balance and World of Difference and, to a certain extent with the prostitute of The Guns of the South, says that marital love should be able to survive succumbing to the sexual temptation of extra-marital sex.) Rand, realizing that he will satisfy only his lust and not have Dianora’s love, only submission, frees her from her promise. He knows, like the garden, his love is out of season. I liked the point of this story and its Dunsanian style.

The Last Article” — Second time I’ve read this story, and it still strikes me as a well-done alternate history making the valid point, via a conflict between Nazis and Gandhi, that nonviolence only works when used in a tolerant, democratic society. This time I noticed that Gandhi is mentioned advising the Jews, in 1938 after Kristallnacht, to adopt a stance of passive non-resistance – an obvious and horrible shortcoming of his philosophy often not mentioned by those worshipping at his altar.

The Girl Who Took Lessons” — A clever and wry mainstream story about a married woman always taking lessons. After a long separation broken by surprisingly skilled and glorious sex on her part, the man realizes she’s been taking lessons in that subject too. A divorce ensues.

 

More reviews of fantastic fiction are indexed by title and author/editor.

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