by Harry Turtledove
Reviewed by Steven H Silver
Departures is a reprint anthology in two ways. All twenty stories which appear in the book have previously been published and the book first appeared in 1993, now being reprinted, with a new (and better) cover. In fact, the cover and copyright pages are the only things which have changes from the first edition. Even the excerpt from The Guns of the South which appears at the end announces that the book will be coming to paperback in October 1993 (although I am told this will be changed in future printings).
The first short story Harry Turtledove published, back in Universe 10 in 1980, 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's 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 humor which appears, to various degrees of subtlety in many of Turtledove's later works.
"Report of the Special Committee on the Quality of Life" 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 Turtledove's career to begin with. 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. "Death in Vesunna" combines Turtledove's love for anachronistic weapons (as in The Guns of the South, Agent of Byzantium, "Worldwar", etc.) with his knowledge of history. 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 and, although it is not included in Agent of Byzantium, it does set up that entire story sequence, 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 gives a good example of the stories which appear in that book.
As Turtledove points out, his story "Islands in the Sea" views the flip side of the coin that makes up the Basil Argyros stories. This short story 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. Turtledove further changes the historic polemic by having allowed 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 tie 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. In "In the Presence of Mine Enemies," the Nazis have won the war and, they believe, exterminated all Europes Jews. This story also 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" rubric which appears on the cover, not all of the stories are alternate history. "The R Strain" is a tale of the consequences of genetic engineering, specifically it asks whether a pig genetically engineered to chew its cud, thereby making it kosher according to the biblical definition. In the introduction to the story, written when the book was first published in 1993, comments that a relative to the pig, babirusa, does chew its cud. Unfortunately, this introduction has not been updated to reflect the fact that the babirusa does not, in fact, chew its cud.
Other straight science fictional 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 combines 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 Medieval period, "Clash of Arms," as the name suggests, takes place at a Medieval tournament, although this clash of arms of the title is not the 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 from Earthgrip, the Foitani, but it also does not include the protagonist from the novel, Jennifer Logan, thereby demonstrating 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 humorous "The Barbecue, The Movie, And Other Unfortunately Not So Relevant Material" about T.G. Kahn, whose fathers sense of humor resulted in a twentieth-century man having a name similar to that of a world-conqueror. Normally only having to deal with practical jokers, Kahn now faces the challange of a time traveler who is in search of his famous namesake.
"Last Favor" begins with a variation on Star Treks 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 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 billing as "Stories of Alternate History," Departures shows Turtledoves versatility as well as his knowledge of history. For readers who have not read any of Turtledoves 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.
|Counting Potsherds||Designated Hitter|
|Death in Vesunna (with Elaine O'Byrne)||Gladly Wolde He Lerne|
|Departures||The Barbecue, the Movie, and Other Unfortunately Not So Relevant Material|
|Islands in the Sea||In the Presence of Mine Enemies|
|Not All Wolves||The R Strain|
|Clash of Arms||Lure|
|Pillar of Cloud, Pillar of Fire||Secret Names|
|Report of the Special Committee on the Quality of Life||Les Mortes d'Arthur|
|The Last Reunion||Nasty, Brutish, and. . .|
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