|Del Rey Books, 342 pages |
|A review by Steven H Silver|
The first short story Harry Turtledove published, back in 1980 in Universe 10, was a satirical piece called "Report of the Special Committee on the Quality of Life." This story was written as a bureaucratic study and explained why Christopher Columbus' proposed journey to find a Western passage to China was impracticable. Although short and not particularly memorable, this story does show evidence of the wit and humour which appears, to various degrees of subtlety, in many of Turtledove's later works.
But this was not the first story Turtledove sold. Previously, he had sold the short story "Death in Vesunna" co-written, as Turtledove tells us, with his now ex-wife, Elaine O'Byrne. While both stories have an historical basis, "Death in Vesunna" would have been a more appropriate story for the beginning of Turtledove's career. It is a mystery in which a Roman is killed by a handgun brought from the future. The question is whether the local authorities can figure out what happened before Turtledove's time travelers can escape back to their own time. It combines Turtledove's love for anachronistic weapons with his knowledge of history, and the story is one of the stand-outs in this collection.
The title story is one of the more traditional alternate histories to appear in the book. Although it is not included in Agent of Byzantium, it does set up that entire story sequence by making Mohammed a monk gifted with the ability to write beautiful hymns. Although the story only begins to look at the results of such a world, the effects can be seen in "Pillar of Cloud, Pillar of Fire," the last of the Basil Argyros stories in which Turtledove's spy visits the Great Library of Alexandria. If you haven't read Agent of Byzantium, this story is a good example of what's there.
As Turtledove points out, his story "Islands in the Sea" views the flip side of the coin that makes up the Basil Argyros stories. It is based on an historical event known as the Khazar polemic. In Turtledove's version, the Bulgars are trying to decide between Christianity and Islam. He further changes the historical polemic by having Constantinople fall to the Muslims in the first wave of Islamic expansion.
One of the tools of archaeology is the examination of the remnants of pottery. In "Counting Potsherds," Turtledove uses this technique to reveal not what actually happened, but what failed to happen in his world. This is a very effective way of explaining the point of divergence in an alternate history story, as well as give the reader some insight into the study of archaeology.
Although originally known for his alternate takes on Roman and Greek civilization, more recently Turtledove has become known for his examination of the American Civil War. This trend began with The Guns of the South, and has continued through How Few Remain and the Nebula nominated "Must and Shall." "The Last Reunion" grew from the same research which produced The Guns of the South, and is an examination of a reunion of Civil War vets and the memories it instilled.
After the Civil War, a World War II in which Nazi Germany is victorious is the most popular alternate history scenario of choice. In "In the Presence of Mine Enemies," the Nazis have won the war and, they believe, exterminated all of Europe's Jews. This story tells of the difficulty involved in committing total genocide, and what happens if the exercise is not a complete success.
Although many of the stories in the collection fall under the "Stories of Alternate History" cover rubric, not all of them are. "The R Strain" is a tale of the consequences of genetic engineering: specifically, it asks whether a pig genetically engineered to chew its cud is thereby made kosher according to the biblical definition. The 1993 introduction to the story comments that a relative to the pig, the babirusa, does chew its cud. Unfortunately, the introduction has not been updated to reflect the fact that the babirusa does not, in fact, chew its cud.
Other straight science fiction stories include "Lure," a time-traveling palaeography story which is the set up for one of the puns for which Turtledove is known, and "Secret Names," which explores the idea that knowing the true name of an object grants a person power over the object. The latter becomes science fiction rather than fantasy by being set in a post-apocalyptic age.
Turtledove includes three sports stories. "Les Mortes d'Arthur" is a ski jump mystery story set on Saturn's moon, Mimas. "Designated Hitter," a story named for one of the most insidious rules in baseball, looks at the miraculous achievements of a DH on a softball team and what it may mean for the future of humanity. "Batboy," takes the job title literally as one of Turtledove's few forays into vampire fiction.
"Not All Wolves" looks at another traditional monster from the werewolf's point of view. Just as "Not All Wolves" is set in the Middle Ages, "Clash of Arms," as the name suggests, takes place at a medieval tournament, although the clash of arms of the title is not traditional jousting, but a contest to recognize heraldic images.
Many of the stories in Departures are linked to other works by Turtledove. As mentioned, two of the stories are tied to the world of Agent of Byzantium. Some stories come from the research Turtledove did for the "Worldwar" series, or The Guns of the South. "Nasty, Brutish, And..." is set in the same universe as his fix-up novel, Earthgrip. The story holds particular interest because it introduces one of the races in Earthgrip, the Foitani, but does not include the novel's protagonist, Jennifer Logan, consequently providing a different view of the rather unpleasant aliens.
The short story "Gladly Wolde He Lerne" seems to be something of a wish-fulfillment story. Not for the characters in the story, but for the author and anyone who has been in academia. The story is fairly obvious, but still manages to work well.
One of the few stories in Departures which does not particularly work is the humourous "The Barbecue, The Movie, And Other Unfortunately Not So Relevant Material" about T.G. Kahn, whose father's sense of humour resulted in a 20th-century man having a name similar to that of a world-conqueror. Normally only having to deal with practical jokers, Kahn now faces the challenge of a time traveler who is in search of his famous namesake.
"Last Favor" begins with a variation on Star Trek's prime directive (which Turtledove has used in his novel Noninterference), and plays with ways to circumvent the proscription against interfering in local affairs. In this case, the problem centres around the obvious (to humans) oppression of one race by another, although the oppressed race does not seem to oppose their treatment. "Last Favor" stands out because it is the most atypical Harry Turtledove story in the collection.
Despite its alternate history billing, Departures shows Turtledove's versatility as well as his knowledge of history. For readers who have not read any of Turtledove's works, I recommend beginning with Departures (or the currently out-of-print Kaleidoscope) to get a feel for the wide range of stories this author has to offer. For people who only know Turtledove through his novel (and multi-novel) length works, I recommend this to show how masterful he is when it comes to writing short stories.
Steven H. Silver is one of the founders and judges for the Sidewise Award for Alternate History. He sits on concoms for Windycon, Chicon 2000, and Clavius in 2001, and is co-chair of Picnicon 1998. Steven will be serving as the Programming Chairman for Chicon 2000. In addition to maintaining several bibliographies and the Harry Turtledove website, Steven is trying to get his short stories published and has recently finished his first novel. He lives at home with his wife and 3200 books. He is available for convention panels.
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