War of the Worlds: Global Dispatches

Another review connected to the recent H. G. Wells series.

Raw Feed (1996): War of the Worlds: Global Dispatches, ed. Kevin J. Anderson, 1996.Global Dispatches

“Foreword”, Kevin J. Anderson — An ill-conceived and badly executed conceit for this anthology: that all the stories represent a unified, expanded view of the Martian novel depicted in H. G. Wells War of the Worlds. Anderson would have been better off presenting each story as a particular riff on Wells’ story, not part of a unified suite on Wells’ story.

The Roosevelt Dispatches”, Mike Resnick — Not one of Resnick’s better alternate histories involving Teddy Roosevelt. Essentially, this is about Roosevelt discovering a Martian scout and expressing optimism about the innate American ability to resist Martian invasion.

Canals in the Sand”, Kevin J. Anderson — This story features Percival Lowell (the spiritual godfather, in a sense, of Wells’ Martians and Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Barsoom) and draws most of its strength by using the historical Lowell – a haughty, Boston Brahmin who spent most of his life as a professional diplomat to Japan and Korea amongst other places – rather than the current conception of him as a crazed astronomer drawing maps of a dying Mars canals. Haughty, rich, strong-willed Lowell spends a fortune constructing an excavation in the Sahara so the (he presumes) peaceable Martians will meet him there thus making him man’s ambassador to them. The Martians do come. Anderson doesn’t explicitly tell us what happens to Lowell when the Martians come, but, having read Wells, we can guess.

Foreign Devils”, Walter Jon Williams — An intriguing, well-done story in which the puppet Emperor (he is under the control of the military faction of “Iron Hats”) and Dowager Empress use the Martian invasion to free themselves from the Iron Hats, the Boxers (the story is set during the Boxer rebellion), and China from foreign influence. The Emperor will use his new power to modernize the hide-bound Chinese state. Continue reading “War of the Worlds: Global Dispatches”

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A Fire in the Sun

As I work on reviews of new material, you get old stuff.

In this case, it’s the second book in George Alec Effinger’s Budayeen series.

In my usual desultory way, I never have gotten around to reading the third and last book in the series.

This is definitely a Raw Feed. I can see several thematic elements I would be less kindly disposed to these days. But I’m too tired right now to argue with my younger self.

Raw Feed (1989): A Fire in the Sun, George Alec Effinger, 1989.fire-in-the-sun

I liked this book.

It had a black, grim humor about it that glimmered on and off like a knife blade in an alley.

I liked having Mârid Audran back as a policeman. He moves from the uncompromising, somewhat romantic and naïve, character of When Gravity Fails, a character of fierce independence, to an owned creature: property of Friedlander Bey and his conscience. In the process, he finds, refreshingly, a reaffirmation of his Islamic faith, some of his past, and a tentative relationship with his mother.

I liked Audran establishing his friendships again with the characters who abandoned him in When Gravity Fails. Yasmin, Audran’s sex-change lover, was back as was the stupid (comically so — some of the scenes with him serve no function but humor) Fuad Il-Manhous; the ferocious, emotional bartender Chiriga; the perverse, but blackly funny homosexual (and lover of young boys) Saied the Half-Hajiz, the sinister and possibly mad and oddly devout Friedlander Bey (Audran’s patron).

There were new, interesting characters Shaknahyi the policeman and his oddly devout, stripper wife Indihar (who is so conservative she enjoyed being circumcised), the humorous, devoted, intelligent Slava Kumuzu, and the monstrous, perverted Abu Adil and his naively ambitious, sex-toy and personal assistant Umar Abdul-Qawy. (One of the delightful things about this novel is Effinger’s further exploration of his mind-programming moddies showing everything from religious counseling moddies, moddies to do drudge work.)

Abu Adil has a truly sick propensity for moddies recorded off terminally ill people, and mind-rape — moddies recorded off tortured people.) The sleaze is here — slavery, child prostitution, torture — as is references to the Balkanized world of the future as well as Abu Adil and Friedlander Bey’s roles as power brokers.

I, as in the first book, liked the Arab culture and its idiosyncrasies. It is there, however, the book falls down.

The novel is a tale of corruption, double-dealing, and power-broking. However, Effinger never really sets up the cultural, legal, and political rules of his world and that definitely dulls the edge on a tale of corruption and mystery.

Is Audran being corrupt in being on the police payroll as well as Freidlander Bey’s? He is very open about it and gets little by way of social and legal sanctions. Just how much influence do Adil and Bey have? Can they buy their way out of anything? If so why does Adil fear the potential sanction of Islamic clergy? Is there something in Arabic culture that keeps Bey and Adil safe despite their lax security? Is there something in Arabic culture which stops Audran from killing Adil at novel’s end?

Nevertheless, I liked the novel a lot and look forward to what Effinger is going to do in the future with Mârid Audran’s character.

 

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

When Gravity Fails; Or, Adventures in Reviewer Perspectives

Alternate perspective on this is supplied by Speculiction who was less impressed than I was.

Raw Feed (1988): When Gravity Fails, George Alec Effinger, 1987.when-gravity-fails

An excellent book that makes me want to read its model Raymond Chandler.

While this book does have the elements of cyberpunk: underworld characters and schemes, a hi-tech polyculture, it has much less of an emphasis on tech though the cybernetic “moddies” and “daddies”, brain plug-ins that alter personality or supply knowledge, are standard cyberpunk gear, and something much like them appears in Swanwick’s Vacuum Flowers.  Personality modification is used to a different, more probable effect than Swanwick.

Orson Scott Card’s blurb about this book being cyberpunk after it grows up is somewhat valid. There is a good deal more real emotion and characterization than in Gibson or Sterling’s work. Literarily, Effinger’s book is every bit as style conscious as Gibson though it is an imitation style.

Marid’s relationship with his friends and lovers and the other colorful denizens of the Budayeen is well-done and one feel’s Marid’s romanticism, rage, disillusionment and eventual realization of just how sleazy his world is. Continue reading “When Gravity Fails; Or, Adventures in Reviewer Perspectives”

Nimbus

Something a little different in the alternate history series — a partial satire of alternate histories.

Once upon a time, I was a fan of Alexander Jablokov — still am, but, as with many authors, I’m a couple of novels behind in his output.

I’ll just have to take my younger self’s word for how much I liked this novel. I remember almost nothing of it.

And that, after all, is why I made notes on it in the first place.

Raw Feed (1994): Nimbus, Alexander Jablokov, 1993.nimbus

In some ways this novel – Jablokov’s self-described attempt to do a cyberpunkish film noir – is Jablokov’s best novel. The story has the needed suspense and mystery to not only do credit to Jablokov’s attempt at homage but also to compel the reader to read more.

The themes include, but are not restricted to, Jablokov’s usual death and art as jazz musician and seller/installer of black market mental prosthetics, Peter Ambrose, is forced into the role of detective as his former fellow veterans of the Group (a secret research project in the Devolution Wars – Jablokov has a knack for suggesting complex historical events in the background of his stories with just a well-chosen phrase or bit of nomenclature) begin turning up dead. Naturally, for a film noirish story, he meets a woman and falls in love with her.

I liked what Jablokov did with some fairly off the shelf components of modern sf. Nanotechnology is used to redecorate homes casually overnight. Brain modifications (a lá George Alec Effinger’s Budayeen series) are common with implanted abilities, personalities, neuroses, and psychoses. Jablokov seems to be satirizing some elements of modern science fiction, particularly the alternate history and cyberpunk aesthetics. In this novel’s world, constructing alternate worlds is a craze. Ambrose’s friend Sheldon has constructed an elaborate time line where jazz took a different path and rock-n-roll was never invented. He fabricates supporting artifacts like photos and musical instruments and scores. Fellow Nimbus member Hank Rush, utterly devoted to transforming himself into a machine, ridding Earth of man, and a cohort of a ring of extorting environmental terrorists, has fake fossils which purport to document the evolution, from the Cambrian era, of his machine evolution. Cyberpunk is wryly poked fun at with passing references to a fad involving a fetish for industrial era relics including motor oil in coffee and on penises. Jablokov also makes the valid point that a computer Net is not a magic pathway to education and enlightenment but just another pathway for more of the same with “datadork” foolishness, error, rumor, and conspiracy theories.

Thematically, at its most basic level, this is a novel on the perils and human toll (in alienation, loneliness, depravity, and death) of a mechanistic view of the universe – or, more correctly, an extrapolation on the consequences of mechanistic thought as applied to the human psyche. Narrator Ambrose supports himself by modifying brains to spec with everything from custom neuroses to increased associational abilities to increased sexual potency. He sees his clients brains as “complex gray oatmeal” and, as his ex-wife Corinne notes, he compulsively views others as little more than machines to be modified. Yet, he has resisted most modifications to himself – with the large exception of blocking his old memories of the Nimbus project and reconstructing a new personality – and realizes that his modification don’t “force the universe to make sense … [or] make you a better human … just a more efficient one”. Self-modification is practiced by several characters. Anthony Watkins, another Nimbus alum, habitually takes psychoactive drugs and deliberately induces psychoses in himself. Rush is utterly devoted to becoming more machine like and moving off world. Nimbus alum Lori Inversato has extensive modifications allowing her to change her body, sex, and personality at will. However, if psychic and body manipulation can be voluntary, it can be coerced too. Helena Mennaura, another Nimbus messenger, has constructed an elaborate fantasy life of marriage and a family complete with supporting artifacts (again, a sort of play on a personal alternate history) and has accepted, as part of her employment conditions, that she can only consciously recall her research when at work. Priscilla McThornly, Gideon Farley’s mistress and Ambrose’s lover, was covertly brought up to be a high price prostitute.

The methods used are social and psychological with no high tech but the goal of creating a personality by coercion is the same. Gene Michaud, as head of a security company, socially manipulates urban gangs in order to develop them into mercenary troops. Rush wants to force humanity to become like him and stop infecting Earth. Jablokov seems to thematically be saying that these scientific tools can be used, like all technologically and science, for good and ill. Sometimes the destruction is deliberately self-inflected as when Mennaura chops her mind to induce aphasias. And, of course, the novel ends on the note of Linden Straussman possessing, in sort of demonic fashion, the recently modified brain of Gideon Farley and somehow controlling, even after death, the Nimbus group. Of course, with manipulation comes deceit which also is engineered with the tool of this society. Corinne becomes an unknowing lock to Ambrose’s memories; Michaud is spied on by a supposedly inert machine of Rush; Mennaura is blackmailed into giving the tainted “virt” to Ambrose for implant in Farley.

In this world where everything – including the human soul and mind – can be broken down into bits for processing (the evil fallout of present tech trends) the only salvation, Ambrose seems to say, lies in honesty as he learns to confide in his ex-wife and current lover. It’s also significant that one of the moral compasses of this novel is a cop, Amanda TerAlst who, as an “Inherent Potentialist”, is philosophically opposed to modification. In short, this novel is thematically sophisticated, perhaps more than any other Jablokov work.

Yet, the novel didn’t quite work at the end. Jablokov does a little bit of handwaving at end to explain the book’s murders. I accept the psychic possession of Farley via the Straussman tainted implant. Yet, the explanation at to how Straussman was kept alive in the minds of the Nimbus Group was incomplete (especially given Ambrose’s technical expertise – Jablokov could have given some pseudo scientific explanation). It’s a notion that doesn’t mesh well with Straussman’s personality being resurrected accidentally because of TerAlst’s investigation. (I bought Straussman implanting tropism and different gifts in the Nimbus Group to be used later, but what “crimes” they committed and blamed on Straussman is not clear.) The philosophic point of the ending is that chance plays a role even in this mechanistic universe. Straussman dies in an accident; Priscilla’s transformation to whore is derailed by incest with a brother; TerAlst revives Straussman’s pysche by mistake; and Rush says that chance drives evolution; Farley’s original personality emerges to commit suicide.

Continue reading “Nimbus”

The Write Off Post

I’ve reached the blogger equivalent of bankruptcy

The blogging obligations have piled up the last five months. As other bloggers have noted, sometimes the books and stories slip out of your mind, and it’s not worth going back to them.

No sunk cost fallacy here.

Not even a real effort to firmly grasp an author’s arms to stop their slide into the pit of obscurity. At best, a half-hearted, weak snatch at their sleeve going by.

Sorry. Some of them deserved better.

This isn’t a rundown of everything I’ve read lately. Some of the books are going to get the usual treatment.

(After reading this whole post, you may think I should have went with a constipation metaphor.)

Low Res Scans: Awaiting Strange Gods: Weird and Lovecraftian Fiction, Darrell Schweitzer, 2015.

I Am Crying All Inside and Other Stories: The Complete Short Fiction of Clifford D. Simak, Volume One, ed. David W. Wixon, 2015.

Future Crime: An Anthology of the Shape of Crime to Come, eds. Cynthia Mason and Charles Ardai, 1992.

Dinosaur Fantastic, eds. Mike Resnick and Martin H. Greenberg, 1993.

Alternate Warriors, ed. Mike Resnick, 1993.

Alternate Outlaws, Ed. Mike Resnick, 1994.

I never actually intended to do a full review of Darrell Schweitzer’s Awaiting Strange Gods: Weird and Lovecraftian Fiction. A lot of plot synopses would give a bad impression of the varied tones and emotions of Schweitzer’s work.awaiting-strange-gods

As Pete Rawlik noted in his review in issue 329 of the New York Review of Science Fiction “a trope that Schweitzer often repeats, that of an unwilling companion who is constantly drawn back into the company of a more dominant personality whose story must be told.” In the context of a story not included here, “A Servant of Satan”, Schweitzer refers to this as “what I call the Old School Chum story, which I’ve written several times. The narrator tells of some remarkable person he met in his youth, who led him on an improbable, frightening adventure …”. That structure is used in several of the stories.

It should be noted that, unlike many writers, Schweitzer, though he has been writing critical works on Lovecraft since 1976, took up Lovecraftian Mythos tales only recently in his career.

And “Mythos” as in mythology is the appropriate term. Schweitzer uses the pantheon of Lovecraft’s aliens as we use the gods of classical myths – handy symbols, shorthand and fodder for stories that can venture very far in tone and subject from Lovecraft. It reminds me of what I recall Alan Moore saying about using DC Comic characters as ready-made symbols when he took over writing for Swamp Thing. (Though it could have been Neil Gaiman and The Sandman. Do you really think I’m going to take the time to fact check in this posting?)

Schweitzer uses Lovecraft for purposes of horror, but awe and terror are not the only emotions in his stories using the Gentleman from Providence’s fiction.

Thus the teenage lovers of “Innsmouth Idyll” are in a Ray Bradbury-flavored coming of age and mutation story. The adults of “Class Reunion” return to the Orne Academy (as in Simon Orne of The Case of Charles Dexter Ward) in a story that sets off middle-aged regrets about lost opportunities against the secret occult purposes their parents have committed them to.

Original to the anthology is “The Head Shop in Arkham”. Sure things end horribly, but things are amusing on the way with references to Poe and underground comics. Human-like resentment seethes behind the words of the ghoul-narrator in “The Warm”, a parallax on Lovecraft’s “Pickman’s Model”.

Schweitzer isn’t content to riff on Lovecraft exclusively. He has created his own weird town of Chorazin, Pennsylvania – home to a long lived cult. It shows up in “Why We Do It” and “Hanged Man and Ghost”.

Several stories feature young, threatened protagonists or absent fathers. A young girl can break dimensional barriers with a scream to escape in a story with a horror plot and non-horror joy, “Sometimes You Have to Shout about It”. A young orphan boy is brought to the house of an English relative in “The Runners Beyond the Wall”, another story related to The Case of Charles Dexter Ward. The survivor of an abusive family meets “the stone man” who guides him into alternate dimensions but not away from his despair in “Howling in the Dark”.

Schweitzer shows his historical interest – though, unlike S. T. Joshi’s introduction, I don’t find his historical erudition all that remarkable even for a pre-Internet age – in “On the Eastbound Train”, which fuses elements of Robert W. Chambers The King in Yellow, Lovecraft, and Byzantine history, and “Stragglers from Carrhae” which is narrated by a Roman legionnaire wandering the desert with a fellow survivor of that crushing Roman defeat. Medieval Europe in the era of the Crusades is the setting of “The Eater of Hours” which seems to be part of a series featuring the extraterrestrial Chronophagous.

Schweitzer is a skilled borrower of other authors’ voices and themes. “Ghost Dancing” is a Cthulhu Mythos story run through Donald Westlake.

One of the best stories belongs to no series: “The Corpse Detective”.  A bit of Kafka (the narrator, a private detective, says “the investigation is not going well”) in a story set in the Dark Place, a land of the dead. But the dead are vanishing, becoming undead, and the Minister of Dreams hires the narrator to investigate.  It’s a conservative world of tropism and habit where politeness prohibits mention of the sensual world of the living the inhabitants remember to varying degrees.

Definitely worth a look if you are interested in modern weird fiction.

i-am-crying-all-insideI feel bad about the next short-shrifted author: Clifford D. Simak. Open Road Media has finally released all his short works. (Don’t make the mistake I did and buy a paper copy. I’m not at all sure their multi-volume publication of Simak’s short fiction will get paper editions.)

Chris over at Battered, Tattered, Yellowed, & Creased has been taking a close look at them, and I urge you to check his site out. I really hope someday to thoroughly cover Simak’s work, but it’s not going to be now.

Installment Plan” from 1959 is one of those anthropological stories (why are those aliens acting so weird?) common in 1950s and 1960s science fiction. Simak is best remembered for his dogs-and-robots novel City. This story cuts out the dogs but the human-robot relationship is described in terms of man and dog. A team from Central Trading is sent to a planet to make a trade deal with the local aliens who have a herb, podar, which is the perfect tranquilizer. (Don’t get smug about 1950 Americans and their tranquilizers. We consume a lot more prescription psychotropics today.) An interesting ecological detail is that humans have tried to cultivate the herb, but only some protozoan on the aliens’ planet allows it to grow there. The robots of the story have skill modules they swap out of their bodies according to the task at hand.

But it’s what happens at the end to the story that makes it memorable and another version of Simak’s wariness about capitalism.

I have to admit that the main point of interest for me in Simak’s “I Had No Head and My Eyes Were Floating Way Up in the Air” was finding out what was considered cutting edge, taboo breaking science fiction by Simak when he wrote this for Harlan Ellison’s never published anthology The Last Dangerous Visions. Like Simak’s “Desertion”, it has a man transformed into an alien form. A new body requires new goals, new drives, new urges right? Not to mention new thoughts and emotions. Our hero is very definitely not grateful for his transcendence.

Simak had a fondness for time travel and “Small Deer”, set in a geologically accurate version of Wisconsin’s past, is a fine example. It’s a tale of a mechanical genius and his idiot savant friend building a time machine to watch the dinosaurs.

Simak’s “Gleaners”, from 1960, seems partially an answer to T. L. Sherred’s famous “E for Effort” from 1947. The latter story imagined the documentation of the historical past made possible with time travel causing international chaos when cherished historical myths are overthrown. Spencer, the protagonist of Simak’s story, specifically rejects the notion that his time travel agency, publically chartered Past, Inc, is going to undertake a similar project with religion. What it does do is retrieve lost artifacts and genealogical research for wealthy patrons. But political pressure is starting to be brought to bear to change that policy. There are also nice asides on the psychological toil on Past, Inc’s temporal agents as they spend years in the future, with no ties beyond vacations, to their home time.

Ogre” with its sentient, musical plants, a possible plot to subvert human civilization, and an annoying, rules spouting robot accountant was also a standout story. I’m usually a sucker for “vegetable civilization” stories.

The collection has an example of one of Simak’s western stories too.

Open Road Media is not collecting Simak’s stories in the order they appeared which is probably a good thing.

And next we have three anthologies from the early 1990s. As to why I was reading so many 1990s anthologies now, I will come to in another posting.

Future Crime turned out to be a surprisingly enjoyable anthology. Also surprising was that four of the twelve reprints were either from Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine and Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine. That was ok with me. When I was young and wasn’t reading science fiction yet, I used to read Ellery Queen’s regularly.future-crime

Standouts (or, it must be admitted, stand out in my memory after three months) were several.

Isaac Asimov again churned out, with 1976’s “The Tercentenary Incident”, another paean to rule by technological elite. It turns on whether the president of the World Federation is or should be a robot. It all seems even more divorced from political plausibility 40 years later when centralization and elites do not seem to be doing too well in managing the world.

I was an admirer of John Shirley’s cyberpunk work of the 1980s, particularly his A Song Called Youth trilogy, but I had forgotten how good and serious and grounded in plausible tech (as far as contemporary science went) it was. “The Incorporated”’s hero senses part of his memory has been wiped and learns it was because he developed a “Media Alarm System” which detects “special interest distortion” in the news.

Orson Scott Card’s “Dogwalker”, from 1989, was his celebrated foray into cyberpunk. Now it’s suspenseful and gripping enough, but I suspect a lot of its acclaim came from the damaged nature, a perpetually thwarted puberty, of its narrator, the Password Man.

I’ve long heard of Harry Harrison’s “I Always Do What Teddy Says”, and it was enjoyable with its bunch of discontents in a future near-utopia plotting its overthrow via a child’s toy.

As you would expect, a fair number of these stories turn on speculative technologies and the world they created, so it’s not unexpected that, if you’re one of these people who don’t like dated science fiction, you’ll find their worlds, lacking our internet or the mobile devices that became so prevalent, stale after their near quarter century ago appearance.

One story that surprisingly isn’t as dated as you would expect is C. J. Cherryh’s “Mech”, original to the book. Set in a future Dallas, it involves a police call about an assault at an upscale apartment building. If rewritten today, it would involve drones and robots, but here one of the responding officer’s serves as a human sensor platform with his partner combining his feed with other data. The ending surprisingly opens the story into much broader political concerns.

Also original to the collection is George Alec Effinger “The World as We Know It”. It’s part of his Budayeen series with the same narrator as those novels. Do I remember much of its plot? No, but then I don’t remember much of the Budayeen novels’ plots. I just remember liking the world and narrator’s voice. Same here.

Alan Dean Foster is probably one of science fiction’s most enthusiastic world travelers and often giving to setting his stories in parts of Earth that don’t often show up in Anglophone science fiction. “Lay Your Head on My Pilose”, also original to the anthology, isn’t at all fantastic and involves a womanizing con man embarking on a new scheme in South America.

I’ve read a fair number of Mike Resnick’s anthologies. He tends to have a stable of writers he goes to again and again.

dinosaur-fantasticI’m not sure why I bought Dinosaur Fantastic – perhaps some temporary paleontological enthusiasm (I’m more interested in straight geology).

I was expecting, frankly, a lot of time travel stories and dino resurrection stories a la Jurassic Park, and there are certainly stories in that category. But a surprisingly number aren’t either, and that led to a relatively rich theme anthology.

However, if I would have thought about it for a bit, I should have realized how many metaphorical and symbolic uses our culture puts dinosaurs to.

Capitol punishment via mind transference to the Jurassic is the idea behind Robert J. Sawyer’s “Just Like Old Times”.

Time travelers introducing dinosaurs to Ancient Rome is only the beginning of a sort of wacky alternate history in Robert Sheckley’s “Disquisitions on the Dinosaurs”.

Gregory Feeley’s “Ways of Looking at a Dinosaur” surprised me. Normally, I’m not keen on metafiction and Feeley’s piece is that. It combines rumination on the symbolism of dinosaurs while spinning off several mini stories on the theme. However, it was one of my favorite pieces. However, it gets points taken off for the mealy mouth piece of pc rhetoric of “… the nineteenth century discovered that the Earth was hundreds of millions of years old”. No, it wasn’t “the nineteenth century”. It was European scientists.

Sure you know where Frank M. Robinson’s “The Great Dying” is going with its contemporary research into the possibility of a dinosaur plague, but it’s a sure-footed and enjoyable journey.

Bill Fawcett’s “After the Comet” is exactly what you would expect, but I enjoyed it, and it reminded me of the old writer of animal tales, Frank Ernest Thompson Seaton.

The speculation that St. Columba encountered the Loch Ness monster is the idea behind Laura Resnick’s “Curren’s Song”. Another story with particular historical resonance, for a 1993 anthology, is Jack Nimersheim’s “The Pangaean Principle” with is ex-Soviet scientist hero and ruminations on vanished worlds geological and national.

Nicholas A. DiChario’s “Whilst Slept the Sauropod” is a fable like story of an isolated island with its own dinosaur.

David Gerrold’s “Rex” is a nasty combination of domestic troubles and household dinosaurs – miniaturized T-Rexes to be specific.

And anyone with a fondness for conspiracy theories will love Roger MacBride Allen’s “Evolving Conspiracy”. Chock full of conspiracy theories, the one it’s most concerned with is the very grand and very encompassing evolutionist-Communist conspiracy.

As you could probably tell in my reviews of the Mike Resnick edited anthologies Alternate Presidents and Alternate Kennedys, I was frequently annoyed by purported alternate history stories that don’t pick up the heavy speculative burden of what a change in history would mean. Rather they do the far easier moment of change. And that moment of change often isn’t very interesting or plausible. (As part of my generally slipshod approach to this posting, I am not going to critique the finer points of the alternate histories either.)alternate-warriors

However, in reading the introductory notes to one of the stories, I realized that Resnick really never intended for all the stories to be serious alternate histories. These books use historical figures for jokes and odd juxtapositions.

Alternate Warriors is the least interesting of the two. As you might expect, we get a lot of stories that rely on the startle factor of Albert Einstein, Martin Luther King, Jr, Mother Teresa, Albert Schweitzer, and St. Francis of Assisi as warriors.

Still, there are some high points.

Resnick’s own “Mwalimu in the Squared Circle” centers on a real, if obscure, historical story. General and President-Elect-for-Life Idi Amin Dada of Uganda challenged Julius Nyerere of Tanzania to a boxing match to settle the war between their two countries. The challenge is accepted here.

Yes, Michael P. Kube-McDowell’s “Because Thou Lovest the Burning Ground” is a Ghandi gone bad story – gone Thuggee as it happens, but it’s atmospheric and has details on the Kali worshippers.

Maureen F. McHugh’s “Tut’s Wife” is a serious, moody look at what its heroine must do to preserve the Kingdom of Egypt. Judith Tarr’s “Queen of Asia” is a well-done look at how Persian Queen Sisygambis confronts Alexander the Great. Mercedes Lackey’s “Jihad” is a plausible seeming look at T. E. Lawrence’s conversion to Islam.  However, essentially, these are “how things changed” stories which end with the reader being invited to speculate how history will develop – as if the same questions couldn’t be spurred by regular history books.  Both Tarr’s and McHugh’s stories end with their heroines seeking marriages not seen in our history. Essentially, that’s just stretching out the moment-of-change concept and not a real alternate history

Marilyn Monroe has connections to Castro and Che Guevera in Jack C. Haldeman’s II “The Cold Warrior”. Despite not being much interested in the Kennedys and Marilyn, I liked this depiction of Monroe as spurned Commie agent.

It was Resnick’s introductory notes for Beth Meacham’s “One by One” saying it was “a true alternate history” that tipped me off that these anthologies are, by and large, not real alternate histories.

Meacham’s story is probably the best in the book charting into our time the consequences of a different life for American Indian Tecumseh. It’s tale of irredentism in which the Alliance Warriors Society continues the Two Hundred Year of the Shawnee Alliance with the European invaders. Perhaps inspired by Balkan events at the time of the writing, it still, with its Army Counter Terrorism units operating in several parts of America, seems contemporary and, for me, a fictional (though I doubt Meacham intended this) argument that whites and Indians could never equally and peacefully inhabit North America.

Dishonorable mention for the book goes to David Gerrold’s “The Firebringers”, a cheap, implausible, and bad literary collage depending on odd juxtapositions. We not only get some tired arguments about the immorality of using the A-Bomb and with the following characters:  President Cooper, Bogey the bombardier, General Tracy, Drs. Karloff and Lorre, Colonel Peck and Colonel Regan, and Captain Fonda, etc.

alternate-outlawsAlternate Outlaws is even less a real collection of alternate histories, but it is at least unchained to the cheap ironies and paradoxes of humanitarians and pacifists turned warrior.

Pride of place actually goes to David Gerrold’s “What Goes Around”. Charles Manson’s the subject here, still criminal, but a different sort of criminal. An alternate Harlan Ellison shows up under his pseudonym Cordwainer Bird.

The only real clue to the identity of the heroine of Beth Meacham’s “A Spark in the Darkness” is a back cover blurb about Helen Keller as a safecracker.

Thomas Paine lives a much shorter life, and dies in England, in Kristine Kathryn Rusch’s “Common Sense”.

The James Gang goes straight and play a large role in early Hollywood westerns in Allen Steele’s “Riders in the Sky”.

Frank M. Robinson puts his knowledge of pulp and early science fiction history to good use with “One Month in 1907” which features Hugo Gernsback, affectionately known as “Hugo the Rat” by some early pulp writers.

Walter Jon Williams’ plays it straight in “Red Elvis”, the cover story. Nicholas A. DiChario’s “Giving Head” features Sigmund Freud trying to learn what makes the Red Baron so good at what he does.

Most of the rest of the stories are extended jokes, and I gazing at the table of contents again only brings back memories of a few after reading them only a couple of months ago. (And I can’t be bothered to go into the details of others.)

Comrade Bill” from John E. Johnston III is about a certain ex-President. “Good Girl, Bad Dog”, from Martha Soukup, features a certain famous canine gone rogue. As for the rest, well, I remember a lot of jokes but specifics have already faded from my mind in the less than two months since I read the book.

 

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

Alternate Kennedys

No, I am not doing a tie in to the upcoming U.S. presidential elections.

This will be a set up for a future posting.

Raw Feed (1992): Alternate Kennedys, ed. Mike Resnick, 1992.alternate-kennedys-2

“Introduction”, Mike Resnick — Goes into the myth of the Kennedys and some interesting facts about them: the Kennedy daughters, JFK’s son who died, Bobby Kennedy’s wiretappings, Joe Kennedy Sr’s disgrace as Ambassador to the Court of St. James, the valid contention that the Kennedys were the last politicians (except Ted Kennedy — and even he tries) to control the press.

A Fleeting Wisp of Glory”, Laura Resnick — An amusing and grim post-holocaust fable where the Kennedy Camelot and the Arthurian Camelot are being strangely mingled into a legend that explains the poor state of a post-atomic war future yet gives hope to the survivors by reminding them the world wasn’t always so bad.

In the Stone House”, Barry N. Malzberg — Generally I haven’t liked Malzberg’s stories. But he’s done some good work with the alternate president idea. His “Kingfish” in Mike Resnick’s Alternate Presidents was good and this story is too. I don’t know if Malzberg tapped into some conspiracy theories which have the Kennedy family behind the assassination of JFK (I’ve just seen such publications sold but have never read them), but I liked the bizarre notion of ex-president Joe Kennedy, Sr gunning for his president brother JFK. One can argue with the plausibility of an ex-President with Secret Service protection being able to plan the assassination of another president, but the story seems very realistic from a psychological standpoint. I don’t know how closely Joe Kennedy, Sr.’s actions, attitudes, and motives match the same man in our history, but he seemed a plausible mixture of man obsessed with slights to his family and Irish heritage, a man driven to make his sons presidents, and a domineering, inconsiderate, bullying father. Joe Kennedy, Jr. and his relationship to his father seemed quite believable. Junior goes along with all his father’s requests. He sometimes resents his father’s demands but always complies, seldom rebels. JFK is the rebel, the man who breaks free of his father’s psychological grip to destroy the latter’s plan. And, as Junior realizes, there is ambiguity in his assassination of JFK. It may be to please his father, punish JFK’s betrayal. Or it may be to punish his father by killing his president son. There is something to remark on in this story, common to a lot of alternate history story. Authors seem to feel it necessary (perhaps as an inside joke, perhaps just to provide a reference for the reader) to put alternate historical events in places famous in our time. For example, why have Joe Jr kill JFK in Dallas at the Texas Book Depository? Is it really credible to believe that events would have worked out so neatly in another world, that JFK wouldn’t have been a better target (or Joe Jr. had a better opportunity) somewhere else? I think the obvious answer is no, but the ploy is used in alternate history stories for historical reference and irony and reader identification.

The Kennedy Enterprise”, David Gerrold — A funny story of JFK and Bobby Kennedy in Hollywood and an alternate history of Star Trek or, rather Star Track and those associated with it. We also get alternate versions of some famous movies. Some of the better bits: Harlan Ellison as a laidback, compliant (hardly a word associated with Ellison) writer for Star Track; Leonard Nimoy and William Shatner fired from Star Track and replaced by JFK (and other changes are made to the show which make it like Star Trek: The Next Generation; JFK as a bad actor (who never meets Marilyn Monroe). I also liked the irritable, conversational style of this piece. Continue reading “Alternate Kennedys”

What Might Have Been, Vol. 1

As a tie-in to a future posting, I will be doing a Raw Feed series on this classic alternate history anthology series.

Raw Feed (1989): What Might Have Been?, Volume 1: Alternate Empires, eds. Gregory Benford and Martin H. Greenberg, 1989.Alternate Empires

In the House of Sorrows“, Poul Anderson — The best part of this story is the central image of the besieged library which gives the story its name. The end scene, revealing the pivotal divergent point for this reality — the destruction of Jerusalem (surprisingly revealed to be the story’s setting) and Judaism before its descendent Christianity and its many effects can be realized, was rather poignant. However, Anderson’s attempt to create an alien world and remind us of its strangeness (and that the narrator is not a twentieth century American) via strange diction, syntax, and vocabulary gives the story a difficult, dense, sometimes jerky feel. I think Anderson could have perhaps realized those ends by another tool than rather archaic style.

Remaking History“, Kim Stanley Robinson — A delightful story though, for me, its intellectual edge was blunted by having read What Is History? by Edward Hallett Carr since that book deals with many of the same issues in regard to the study of history: where, in a chain of cause and effect, does one say the crucial link is and (the ever popular post-Marx history question) is history made by great men or social movements? Robinson doesn’t really pose an answer except maybe to say art plays its role since a fictionalized representation of a real figure leads to real heroics at the story’s end. Robinson briefly addresses the issue of artistically dealing with history and these questions are quite similar to an historian’s concerns. Setting up an alternate history where the Tehran hostage rescue mission succeeds was original and brilliant. And though rather shallowly drawn, I liked the cadre of part-time, low budget, lunar filmmakers and their friendship. Continue reading “What Might Have Been, Vol. 1”