by Harry Turtledove

Del Rey


415pp/$18.00/October 2001

Best Alternate History Stories of the Twentieth Century

Reviewed by Steven H Silver

Any anthology which claims to include the “best” of any subject is likely to raise controversy.  Harry Turtledove and Martin H. Greenberg’s selection of The Best Alternate History Stories of the Twentieth Century is a case in point.  While some of his choices clearly rank among the top tier of alternate history, several of the best are just as clearly left out and one of his choices is extremely questionable.

The stories which inarguably belong in this anthology include Ward Moore’s “Bring the Jubilee,” Larry Niven’s “All the Myriad Ways,” Brad Linaweaver’s “Moon of Ice” and William Sanders’s “The Undiscovered.”  While all of these are alternate history, Moore’s story incorporates time travel and “All the Myriad Ways” is a multiple world story which is primarily concerned with the reaction to the discovery of more than one reality on the population of the universe.  Sanders explores a straight alternate history in which Shakespeare finds himself in the New World among the Indians while Linaweaver postulates an alternate World War II and a Nazi victory.

Turtledove also includes a number of stories whose right to inclusion can (and perhaps, should) be argued.  Nicholas DiChario’s “The Winterberry” may technically be an alternate history, but it has more of the feel of a secret history.  Nothing necessarily would have changed if the events as depicted actually occurred.  The story, however, is a well-written question about the aftermath of the John F. Kennedy assassination.

Turtledove, himself, has written numerous alternate histories.  Based on this collection, he considers “Islands in the Sea,” a reworking of the historical Khazar polemic, to be his best story.  It is also possible that Turtledove feels that his best alternate histories have been reprinted enough and it is time to give one of his other stories another glimpse of the light of publication.  In point of fact, while “Islands in the Sea” may not have the reputation of Turtledove’s Basil Argyros series, his Sims tales or “The Last Article,” it is a wonderful, if underrated, story which deserves to be more widely read.

Gregory Benford is represented by “Manassas, Again.”  Although set in North America, this war story is placed in a world in which the Romans developed a steam-power machine gun and managed to maintain their empire.  Despite the early change in history, it seems that Benford’s world managed to mirror the history of the real world quite well, resulting in a Civil War between former Roman colonies.

Five of the stories included in The Best Alternate History Stories of the Twentieth Century were also included in the anthology The Way It Wasn’t (1996).  These stories include the aforementioned “The Winterberry” and “All the Myriad Ways” as well as Kim Stanley Robinson’s “The Lucky Strike,” about the prospects of dropping the atomic bomb, “Suppose They Gave a Peace” in which Susan Shwartz postulates an America in which George McGovern becomes President in 1972, and Greg Bear’s “Through Road No Whither,” in which a German victory in World War II takes a strange turn after an insult to a Gypsy woman. 

Bruce Sterling and Lewis Shiner combine alternate history and timeline travel with cyberpunk in “Mozart in Mirrorshades,” a story of environmental piracy.  Another story which employs cross time-line travel is Poul Anderson’s “Eutopia,” which turns its attention to a Norse-Magyar North America, examining cultures which run through many of Anderson’s fantasy writings.   Jack L. Chalker examines cross time-line travel in “Dance Band on the Titanic,” providing a tour of multiple realities as seen from the deck of a ferry between the worlds.

The one true enigma of Turtledove’s selections is the inclusion of Allen Steele’s Hugo-winning “The Death of Captain Future,” which, while an enjoyable story, does not include alternate historical content.  Steele has written alternate histories, both at short story and novel length, but this is not one of them.  Turtledove offers neither an explanation nor an excuse for its inclusion in this book.

Throughout his career, Turtledove has paid tribute to the writings of L. Sprague de Camp for inspiring him to study Byzantine history.  It is strange, therefore, to discover than none of de Camp’s alternate histories have been included in this volume.  Surely Steele’s novella could have been bumped to make space for “The Wheels of If,” “Aristotle and the Gun,” or “Lest Darkness Fall,” all reasonably short works which still rank among the first tier of alternate historical writing.  H. Beam Piper, Randall Garrett or Robert Silverberg are other authors whose contributions to the field deserve to be recognized, not just due to quantity, but also (and more importantly) because of quality.

Turtledove’s introductions to the stories are reasonably short, providing biographical and bibliographical information about the author and leaving the reader to discover the joys of the following stories through reading them.

While arguments may be made about the inclusion of several of these stories in an anthology which purports to contain the best alternate history stories of the twentieth century, only one story is clearly not alternate history and all of the stories are well written and entertaining.  Furthermore, the breadth of styles and subgenres this anthology contains demonstrates the vitality of alternate history throughout the twentieth century, with the earliest story (“Bring the Jubilee”) originally appearing in 1952 and the most recent (“The Undiscovered”) published in 1997.  For all that these stories were all published in the second half of the century, the field, as Turtledove introduction points out, extends much earlier than Ward Moore’s story.  Quibbles about selection aside, The Best Alternate History of the Twentieth Century provides a solid introduction to a popular subgenre.

Kim Stanley Robinson The Lucky Strike
Nicholas A. DiChario The Winterberry
Harry Turtledove Islands in the Sea
Susan Shwartz Suppose They Gave a Peace
Larry Niven All the Myriad Ways
Greg Bear The Road No Whither
Gregory Benford Manassas, Again
Jack L. Chalker Dance Band on the Titanic
Ward Moore Bring the Jubilee
Poul Anderson Eutopia
William Sanders The Undiscovered
Bruce Sterling & Lewis Shiner Mozart in Mirrorshades
Allen Steele The Death of Captain Future
Brad Linaweaver Moon of Ice

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