by Nick Gevers & Jay Lake
Reviewed by Steven H Silver
Other Earths opens with Robert Charles Wilson's "The Peaceable Land, or, the Unbearable Vision of Harriet Beecher Stowe," a story in which the American Civil War is averted that manages to avoid the usual pitfalls of such scenarios. In a letter written by Stowe, whose Uncle Tom's Cabin couldn't find a publisher, she postulates a war between the states which is much different from the war that racked our own timeline. Wilson also hints throughout the story of a Holocaust-line "solution" to the slave problem, but it turns out to be quite different from the operation the Nazis used in World War II. The story works, however, because Wilson populates his world with strong characters, from the sympathetic white photographer, to the balck author who is trying against all odds to remind people about what happened, to the bitter survivor who is not able to move on with his life.
"The Goat Variations" looks at a new President whose world is quite different from our own. The President's grasp on his own world is tenuous at best, although he is aware of the difficulties he faces, such as the evangelical rebels in the heartland who could strike at any time. While lacking a certain amount of definition in the world he is describing, author Jeff VanderMeer's story implies predeterminism, if not of specifics than at least of general themes of history. Just as steam engines will be developed when it is steam engine time, VanderMeer says that when it is cataclysm time, cataclysms will occur.
The sun never sets on the Incan Empire in Stephen Baxter's "The Unblinking Eye." With a world-spanning empire, the Incans make contact with the backwards Frankish Empire in the 1960s, befriending the various courts of Europe and giving them high technology gifts before departing for their unknown homeland with a series of guests, including the son of Emperor Charlemagne XXXII. Baxter focuses on a young girl, Jenny Cook, who has also been taken on the ship, and her curiosity about what the Incans are planning and why they are so magnanimous. She is guided by one of the Incan servants, a boy whose name is only given as Dreamer, and who clearly wants to tell Jenny more than he knows, but his loyalty is ultimately to the Incans. The story has an interesting setting, but Baxter needlessly limits the reader's view of it by setting his tale on a ship.
In "Csilla's Story," Theodore Goss looks at the Tündér, a legendary dryadic race long scattered across the world from their native Hungary. Focusing on a young girl who has only recently been sent away by her father, Goss explores, through the girl's own life and the stories of the Tündér, how a people is not only defined, but also held together, by their history and lore. Almost as important to Goss's characters as the lives and safety of their refugees are the stories and legends they bring which might otherwise be lost.
Liz Williams offers a magical London in "Winterborn," ruled by the faerie queen Aeve. Told from the point of view of Mistress Isis, who can commune with the dead, Williams tells of a metaphysical threat to the realm in 1602, when the glory of the defeat of the Spanish Armada is still fresh in Queen Aeve's mind. Mistress Isis finds herself having to solve a puzzle of how best to avert the threat she senses, but also a political trial as she must work to assure that Queen Aeve does not merely take the most exigent action, but rather responds in manner which will be the most beneficial to the state and to Mistress Isis.
It seems that every alternate history anthology must contain a Nazi-wins-World-War-II scenario and in this volume that story, "Donovan Sent Us," fell to Gene Wolfe. In this case, the Nazi victory is caused by American failure to enter the war when an American Firster is elected President in 1940. Two agents are sent into Nazi-occupied London to extract Winston Churchill, believe to be a prisoner of the Nazis. The story slowly reveals what separates his creation from our own world, and in the process points to some of the less pleasant aspects of America in the 1940s. Wolfe's story is one of the few in the collection that seems shorter than it should be, offering Wolfe plenty of opportunities to expand on the story, examining his Germans, British, and American characters and their situations.
While many have criticized various religious organizations for crass commercialism over the years, Greg van Eekhout takes the idea of a commercial church to extremes in "The Holy City and Em's Reptile Farm," allowing his church to run the casinos of the holy city of Las Vegas in their effort to remain solvent. There, the create a strange mixture of religion, spirituality, and capitalism. Unfortunately for Em and her family, a new road has bypassed their small town and business to see their pilgrim attraction of reptiles has fallen off. Em sets off on a journey to Las Vegas to take her chances at acquiring a piece of the True Cross, even while railing against the Church that would give away such a relic. Although van Eekhout has an interesting idea that works well as satire, the specifics of his world never quite come together, requiring, perhaps, a little more detail of the history that caused this world to come into being.
In Alastair Reynolds's "The Receivers," The War to End All Wars becomes the War that Doesn't End, resulting in a strange amalgam of World War I strategies with World War II technology. This sets the background for a mission that reunites old friends and composers Ralph Vaughan Williams and George Butterworth at an isolated Scottish listening station, where the wounded Butterworth is searching for invading German planes. Reynolds's story looks not only at the loss or delay of artistic endeavors, but also the bonds of friendship, even when friends haven't seen each other in years. "The Receivers" is far and away the most emotionally satisfying story in the anthology.
Alternate histories have a tendency to focus on great men and great events. Although Paul Park does begin "A Family History" with such an event, he then shows the results on the Fontenelle family, showing what happened to their two children. Told as two separate letters, the Fontenelle family fortune changes between the two, resulting in two very different versions of their personal history, neither of which directly resulted from Park's changed history, but rather could be traced solely to the changes Park made to a single character in his story, presenting micro-alternate history in a successful and moving way.
When Thomas Cradle discovers a novel ostensibly written by him that appears to have fallen through from another world, he goes on an existential journey down the Mekong River in an effort to figure out where the book came from in Lucius Shepard’s “Dog-Earred Paperback of My Life.” Along the way, Cradle becomes unstuck in place, reminiscent of Billy Pilgrim’s own meanderings in Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-5. Cradle’s own existential explorations are rife with sexual activity and occasional lengthy rants. Significantly longer than any other story in the volume, “Dog-Earred Paperback of My Life” Shepard is able to take his time to define not just his own odious creation, but a variety of other versions of Cradle, which make’s Shepard’s narrator seem, at times, almost well adjusted. There are times when the story moves almost too languidly, taking its time to establish Cradle and his relationship to Lucy and the others he has dragged along on his journey of self discovery. In the end, “Dog-Earred Paperback of My Life” is a story that retains a hold on the reader long after the book is closed.
The final piece in the anthology is "Nine Alternate Alternate Histories," an experimental piece by Benjamin Rosenblum. Rosenblum essentially looks at different types of alternate history without any actual historical context. Although an interesting thought experiment, the execution is unable to bring the reader into the piece which lacks characters, plot, and length.
|Robert Charles Wilson||The Peaceable Land, or, the Unbearable Vision of Harriet Beecher Stowe|
|Jeff VanderMeer||The Goat Variations|
|Stephen Baxter||The Unblinking Eye|
|Theodora Goss||Csilla's Story|
|Gene Wolfe||Donovan Sent Us|
|Greg van Eekhout||The Holy City and Em's Reptile Farm|
|Alastair Reynolds||The Receivers|
|Paul Park||A Family History|
|Lucius Shepard||Dog-Eared Paperback of My Life|
|Benjamin Rosenblum||Nine Alternate Alternate Histories|
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