While I’m off working on new stuff, the alternate history series continues with another collection from Harry Turtledove.
Raw Feed (1994): Departures, Harry Turtledove, 1993.
“Counting Potsherds” — I liked this alternate history of a democratic Greece not surviving its war with Persia. This time around I had a better appreciation of the irony of the haughty Persian courtier Mithredath – who ridicules the notion of, to him, ancient Greeks governing by popular vote – being reduced to poverty due to political convulsions in far off, autocratic Persia.
”Death in Vesunna” — Historically minded sf writers like Turtledove, Poul Anderson, and L. Sprague de Camp like to write time travel stories (or other types of sf) where historical people are shown not to be as stupid as popularly imagined. Here a couple of time travelers illegally travel through time to buy up classical manuscripts which are alluded to in works we have but not extant. During the process of such a purchase, they murder a Roman citizen and arrogantly suppose the locals are too dumb and superstitious to figure out what happened or catch them. They prove wrong on both counts as a tesserarius of the local vigiles and a local doctor do just that. The story ends with the Romans accusing the time travelers of being barbarians since they thought the Romans fools and couldn’t imagine the consequences of their act.
“Departures” — Third time I’ve read this excellent start to Turtledove’s alternate history series of Basil Agroyos. I still liked the depiction of Mohammed as a Christian monk and how the story ends with his composing a Christian hymn and, with his fellow monks, fleeing the Persians down the road to Constantinople, a journey full of historical import.
“Islands in the Sea” — An excellent alternate history set in the year 769. Constantinople has fallen, and the king of the Bulgarian tribesmen is the subject of proselytization. An Islamic delegation, led by a soldier who was in the army that took Constantinople in approximately 719, and a Christian delegation, led by the grandson of the last Byzantine emperor, match wits and theology in an attempt to convert the strategic land of Bulgaria to their side. Not only is the story a good character study of these two men but an interesting contrasting of Christian and Islamic thought. The story ends on a somber note with the Bulgarian king choosing Islam. The Christian monk knows that the Christian of Northwest Europe will soon become islands in a Muslim sea, that the decline of Christianity that started with Constantinople’s full will continue.
”Not All Wolves” — A werewolf story that stands as a metaphor for man’s inhumanity to man or, more specifically, gentiles sometime inhumanity to Jew. The time is 1176 in Cologne and a boy, now a hunted werewolf, is sheltered in the Jewish ghetto. As the old Jew Avram says at story’s end to the boy, he is not the only thing hunted in Cologne’s streets and the worse wolves run on two legs. An obvious metaphor that works adequately but it’s not a great story.
”Clash of Arms” — A humorous, deal-with-the-devil story whose only point of interest is the bizarre, arcane love of heraldry used. Turtledove, in the intro, says all the examples of heraldry are real.
”Pillar of Cloud, Pillar of Fire” — A new installment in the alternate history series featuring Byzantine magistrianos Basil Argyros. This is a departure from most of the stories in that series. Usually Argyros discovers a nascent technology (gunpowder, telescopes, distilled liquor, moveable type) and puts it to use solving a military, religious, or political problem. Here Argyros initiates labor negotiations to get the construction of the Pharos lighthouse at Alexandria back on track. As usual, Turtledove does a good job creating his alternate world and showing Argyros’ life (here he conducts, after his wife’s death, an adulterous affair).
”Report of the Special Committee on the Quality of Life” — This is the second time I’ve read this “story” (really just satire without drama) and – while I agree with Turtledove’s attacks on our modern state/culture’s short-sightedness, political correctness, radical environmentalism, and aversion to risk – I still find this “story” dull and ineffective propaganda (if intended to initiate change) and uninteresting satire.
”Batboy” — In his introduction, Turtledove identifies this as a Ring Lardner pastiche, an allusion I am totally unfamiliar with. Anyway, it’s the story of a poorly educated Southern boy in the big leagues (at least minor leagues) of baseball. Trouble is a member of the team – the batboy – is a vampire sapping the vitality of the players. The humor of the story lies in the Southern boy first-person narrative that is much more interested in baseball than the minor business of killing a vampire.
”The Last Reunion” — This very fine story was inspired by the writings of Sergeant Barry Benson of McGowan’s Brigade, Wilcox Division, A. P. Hill’s Corp of the Army of Northern Virginia. Perhaps Turtledove came across while researching his The Guns of the South or, like I did, the tv series The Civil War. If Turtledove cut out the last three pages, he would have a fine story of Civil War veteran Captain John Thorpe (a real historical person though Turtledove admits he can’t place his whereabouts at the time of this story) attending the Confederate reunion at Richmond, Virginia in 1932. Turtledove does a marvelous job depicting the inner life of an old man. Thorpe, like most of us, has an inner age he has trouble correlating to his chronological age. He contemplates the technological progress during his life, the growing infirmity of his body and the minds of some of his old colleagues, gently chides a man for wishing he could have partaken in the “glory” of the Civil War, agrees with a World War One veteran that war is never glorious, savors the memory of sexual desire and the talk of old comrades, realizes that, while not glorious, the Civil War imbued them all with some special experience that bound them together and defined them. It’s a well-done, poignant story of not only an old man but the special place in American history of the Civil War and the changes it brought. At story’s end, Turtledove introduces the fantasy element: Benson’s conceit of a Valhalla for dead Civil War soldiers where the epic that defined them is always relived. It’s a wonderful cap to a story that’d be good without it.
”Designated Hitter” — Turtledove uses his love of baseball here. An alien secretly joins a softball league. His form is bad, but he has enough telekinetic control of the ball to never be struck out. When introduced to the concept of a knuckleball, he thinks humans have telekinetic abilities too. On this basis, man is admitted to the “Confederacy of Sentient Beings”. At story’s end, the narrator wonders what’s going to happen to Earth when the aliens realize their mistake.
”Gladly Wolde He Lerne” — This story was originally published in Analog, and it fits perfectly with that magazine’s editor, Stanley Schmidt, preoccupation with issues of education. It’s probably the only place Turtledove could sell this propaganda piece. While I may agree with the story’s premise (it’s set in an alternate world where a different educational philosophy rules) – that the job of teacher should be at the top of the education career hierarchy, not the bottom, the story is told so starkly and with such little drama, it’s certainly not worth a second reading.
”The Barbecue, the Movie, and Other Unfortunately not so Relevant Material” — A humorous story about one T.G. Khan (his dead was a professor of Mongol history and force fed him on the subject) who is pestered by a time traveling graduate student from the future who thinks he’s the real Genghis Khan. The confusion is straightened out, T.G. takes pity on the student and tries to help him prepare his thesis by taking him out to a Mongolian barbecue and showing him a movie on Genghis Khan and exposing to other “trashy sources”.
”In the Presence of Mine Enemies” — An effective story set in the Berlin of 2009, a Berlin under Nazi rule and filled with huge Albert Speer architecture. (This is Turtledove’s second treatment of the popular “what if the Nazis won” alternate history variation.) It concerns crypto-Jews who preserve, in secret, their identity while pretending to be good Nazi bureaucrats, and the risks they run in revealing that identity to their children. It’s not as foolish as it sounds. As one character says, it’s a choice between pretending not to be a Jew to other people or pretending to yourself you’re not a Jew. There’s also – as Turtledove alludes to – the historical precedent of Jews pretending to be Catholic in the Spain of the Inquisition. (The example of crypto-Christians in Japan also comes to mind.)
”The R Strain” — This story was published in Analog originally and is an example of a type of story frequently printed there: a story that exams the social upheaval resulting from a technological innovation. Here the innovation is a pig genetically engineered to chew its cud. A rabbi must decide if that makes pork from this pig kosher. As a one time follower of dietary laws similar to Jewish ones in some respect, I sympathized with the rabbi’s plight of intellectually deciding the R-Strain was kosher but having a hard time actually eating it. It seems to me that a religion’s dietary practices – seemingly some of the most trivial parts of the creed – are usually the last forsaken by an apostate or lapsed member. (Hence their use to set a group apart.). Still, I thought the story’s end, which linked the rabbi’s distress to a litany of Jewish woes (Babylonian captivity, Roman, European ghettos, Dreyfuss, the Holocaust) a bit extreme and/or a rather incoherent thematical end to the story. Is Turtledove trying to say that technological advances can try the ancient Jewish creed and faith as surely as tyrants?
”Lure” — A bad, forgettable pun story with no redeeming qualities.
”Secret Names” — As Turtledove says in his intro, this is an Unknown-type fantasy story. It starts out as post-apocalypse sf story of a shaman in a primitive tribe in Texas. He spends his time prowling the ruins of civilization looking for useful artifacts and old books and periodicals. In the wreck of an old veterinarian hospital, he finds a cache of Journal of American Veterinary Medicine and a book called Taxonomy. At first it seems like this story will be one of those scientific-truth-coming-in-to-the-post-holocaust-darkness plots, that main character, shaman Jorj, will discover something useful about animal diseases. Instead, the book on taxonomy turns out to be the ultimate resource for magic based on the idea of secret names. Magic that turns out successful. A nice fantasy set in the sf post-holocaust setting.
“Les Mortes D’Arthur” — A well-done murder mystery set on Saturn’s moon Mimas during a future Olympiad rife with diplomatic intrigue and possible terrorism. (Mention is made of other Olympiads’ troubles with similar things.) I liked the bits with 5-kilomer ski jumping in low gravity.
”Last Favor” — A story involving a ruthless, self-applied social Darwinism. A race of greenskin aliens suffer horrible persecution (at least if they’re caught outside their ghetto at night) at the hands of blueskin aliens. et these same aliens are the planet’s intellectuals, are the servile administrators of the blueskin empire. When some human traders try to change this culture so the greenskins are better treated, they find the greenskins surprisingly smart, sophisticated and uninterested in human science. Except for evolutionary theory, which they know about and fear the blueskins learning it. The greenskins are willing to forgo respect, wealth, and safety to live in a brutal society (which they preserve but secretly manipulate as invaluable civil servants) which kills the stupider greenskins. They are deliberately breeding themselves for more intelligence via increased selection pressure. At story’s end, the main greenskin character, who the Earthers try to save, gives his life for the cause.
”Nasty, Brutish, And … ” — A story featuring those big, vicious blue teddy-bear aliens from Turtledove’s Earthgrip, the Foitan. Here it’s revealed (in the bar Hobbes – hence the title) that the Foitan, in revenge for a Foitan expedition member being killed by primitive humans on a trip to Earth, genetically engineer a virus to wipe out homo sapiens. What they end up doing is simply creating, to their chagrin, the common cold. Hence, to them, human life is nasty, brutish but not short.