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An Alternate History of the 21st Century
William Shunn
Spilt Milk Press, 68 pages

An Alternate History of the 21st Century
William Shunn
William Shunn was born in Los Angeles in 1967 and raised in Utah. Since his first publication in 1993, his stories have appeared in Salon, F&SF, Science Fiction Age, Realms of Fantasy, Electric Velocipede, Storyteller, and elsewhere. His novelette "Dance of the Yellow-Breasted Luddites" was nominated for the 2001 Nebula Award. He has served for three years as a national juror for the Scholastic Art & Writing Awards. He also works as a software developer, and on September 11, 2001, he created what may have been the first online "survivor registry," where people in affected cities could let friends and loved ones know they were okay. Since 1995 he has lived in New York City. He and his wife Laura were married in 2001 on the Travel Channel series Two for Las Vegas. He is currently working on a novel, and on a memoir of his youth as a Mormon missionary. His novella "Inclination" appeared in the April/May 2006 issue of Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine.

William Shunn Website
ISFDB Bibliography

Past Feature Reviews
A review by David Hebblethwaite

In his afterword to this collection, William Shunn cautions against the natural human tendency to look for patterns in everything. And, indeed, anyone trying to fashion a single, coherent future history from the six stories in the book will be disappointed. Nevertheless, the tales do comprise an interesting set of snapshots of where we might be heading -- or (as Cory Doctorow's introduction reminds us) where we are now.

The first story, "From Our Point of View We Had Moved to the Left," is, unfortunately, the one I appreciated the least. Originally published in 1993, it is set in 2009, at the inauguration of a President belonging to the New Right party (which has swept aside the Republicans and Democrats alike), when a vital moment in the ceremony goes wrong. I think the main reason for my disappointment in this story is that, despite some keenly sharp moments ("This is what becomes of protestors in the new America. A way is found to turn them. The lucky ones, that is"), I didn't truly feel what it was like to live in that "new America." (On a lesser note, the ending is let down by a pun, which Shunn may like, but which I felt undermined the seriousness of what had gone before.)

Happily, though, that sense of not fully participating in the story did not carry on into the second piece, not at all. "Kevin17" revolves around an experiment investigating a genetic disorder that induces suicidal tendencies. A number of cloned boys (named Kevin1, Kevin2 and so on) are placed with adoptive families in an attempt to study what effect environment might have on the disorder. What's particularly good about this story is that it examines the human implications of the experiment from several different angles: it doesn't just look at the effects on the subjects (such as Kevin17, who has so much academic knowledge, but can't understand why the other boys at his new school pick on him), but also on the experimenters -- Shunn's chief scientist is, at heart, just trying to do the right thing; but it leads him down difficult ethical paths all the same.

In "Observations from the City of Angels," Bryan Hayes is one of seven people who have volunteered to have their every move broadcast online to subscribers (the point being to get the public used to the idea for when this "spyware" system starts to be used on parolees). He is receiving a healthy amount of financial compensation for his trouble; but is the impact on his personal life really worth it? The story is engaging and quite amusing, and all the more effective for depicting the kind of world that one hopes will never arise, but which seems all too plausible -- and which then makes one look around nervously to make sure that we're not already in such a world.

"Strong Medicine" is a short-short set at a time when the promises of nanotechnology have been fulfilled and, at least in the Western world, people want for nothing -- certainly not surgeons, when nanotech can do the job so much better. Emmett Fairbairn is a surgeon who would've liked to use his skills in the developing world, where they could still be of use; but he's never been able to make it there, so now he prepares to take his own life. "Strong Medicine" doesn't have quite as much about it as the previous two stories, perhaps because it's more of a vignette; but it still makes the point that one person's loss can be another's gain -- and vice versa.

"Objective Impermeability in a Closed System" is the one story in the book where the science clouds over the emotional element to an extent. It's the story of Hector Baratoux, a scientist in the field of some abstruse area of physics beyond this reviewer's understanding. At least, that's what Hector studied; in his working life, he found himself mostly in administrative positions. His relationship with his partner, research scientist Arantxa, became strained, to the point that he suspected her of fathering another man's child. Now, in 2059, he uses the new technology of time travel to go back for (he hopes) a better life. Hector's scientific work is used as something of a metaphor for his emotional state (Shunn describes him "circling back to causes" and "running away from effects"); but I'm afraid I found it difficult with which to properly engage.

The final (and longest) story in the collection, "Not of This Fold," features a pair of Mormon missionaries who have been sent to work on a space station. While they're there, an alien spacecraft -- the first ever encountered by humanity -- docks at the station; subsequent events will challenge the faith of both missionaries in different ways. The resultant story is a careful and thought-provoking exploration of faith and belief.

Maybe it's not always productive to look for patterns, but it seems to me that a major theme running through An Alternate History of the 21st Century is that scientific and technological change generate constant challenges that we have to deal with. But Shunn says in his afterword, "I have no doubt that what bad still lurks ahead will come mixed with plenty of good"; and there's hope to be found in these stories along with the difficulty. The coming century may be nothing like those depicted here, but I think one thing is for sure -- we'll have to tackle issues every bit as complex as those faced by Shunn's characters.

Copyright © 2008 David Hebblethwaite

David lives in Yorkshire where he reads a lot of books and occasionally does other things. His reviews have appeared in various venues and are all logged at his review blog He also maintains a personal blog, Reading by the Moon.

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