by Harry Turltedove
Reviewed by Steven H Silver
While best known for his lengthy alternate history series, as well as his historical-based fantasy novels, Harry Turtledove has also kept up with the short story, his tales appearing on Tor.com, in the pages of Analog and various anthologies. His last collection, Atlantis and Other Stories was published in 2010, and the subsequent years have seen a score of stories published. Turtledove has collected several of those stories, as well as stories that predate Atlantis into his latest collection, We Install.
We Install opens with a farcical look at marriage in “Father of the Groom,” with the titular character being a mad scientists and the narrator intruding himself into the narration with a variety of asides. The story places the mad scientist, Tesla Kidder, in opposition to his future daughter-in-law, the Bridezilla Kate. Of course, whatever damage Tesla does, in order for his son to live happily ever after with Kate, Tesla will have to undo it. “Father of the Groom” sets the light-hearted tone for many of the stories in the collection, but certainly not all.
The title story, “We Install,” is one of those light stories, little more than a shaggy dog story. Unfortunately, Turtledove gives the joke away in his introduction to the tale, so read the story before looking at the introduction.
The first of the serious stories in the book is “Drang von Osten” which focuses on a Nazi push into Ukraine during World War II. As Juergen Sack and his forces move deeper into the Soviet Union, they keep running across indications that things are not as expected. The fight put up by the Communists is supported by more powerful weapons than they should have. Although there is an explanation, it isn’t entirely satisfying, leaving the impression that Turtledove may have planned, at one time or another, the explore this world in more depth.
In the essay “Alternate History: the How-to of What Might Have Been,” Turtledove writes about the difficulties, and the enjoyment, in writing alternate history stories. Given the number of alternate histories Turtledove has written, it is no surprise that he can mine his own novels and short stories for just about any example he wants to discuss. His main point is that Alternate History is a kind of game, but there are rules that must be followed.
While Turtledove is best known for his alternate histories, he has also written about a wide variety of alien races, and “Hoxbomb” is a police procedural set against the background of the alien colony Lacanth, where Snarre’t and Humans live together. When a human infant is born malformed, the Snarre’t are blamed and it takes police from each race to resolve the crime and overcome the interracial tensions. Although one of the series stories in We Install, Turtledove does inject humor through the nomenclature adopted by his characters, often a riff on the canonical detectives of mystery literature.
“Logan's Law” is the only story original to this collection, as well as the only story which is neither fantasy or science fiction. Instead, it details Steven, a post-divorcee academic, attempting to get back into the dating pool with a fellow academic. The title refers to a rule of relationships expounded by one of Steve’s friends, Ed Logan, and Steve’s hope that his budding romance with Jen (if that’s what it is) won’t succumb to Logan’s Law.
The second essay in the collection in “The Ring and I,” in which Turtledove pays homage to the writing of J.R.R. Tolkien. Turtledove talks about the way Tolkien influenced his writing, including given him the inspiration for the story which eventually would become the Videssos novels, but also had a negative impact, at least in the short term, on his educational plans.
Competitive birdwatching is the sport of choice in “Birdwitching,” made even more competitive when the towns competing against each other contain witches who are so intent on winning that they don’t care about the rules or the lives of those around them. Although Fred O’Neill and Lucy Parker don’t do any real permanent damage, their need to win completely overshadows their concerns about their children, who are caught in the middle in a Montague-Capulet-like situation.
Perhaps the best known work in the collection is Turtledove’s Hugo Award winning mystery/travelogue “Down in the Bottomlands.” The story appears to be one of a nature trek through an area that in our own world is the bottom of the Mediterranean Basin. While Turtledove and the characters explore this world, their journey is interrupted by a murder which leads to the potentiality for the biggest terrorist attack that world has ever known and a race against time to determine the source of the threat and disable it. The story is intriguing because it not only has a thriller feel to it, but it also allows Turtledove to patiently build up his world and the characters who inhabit it.
The final essay in the collection sees print for the first time, although “Perspectives on Chanukah,” a look at the history of the holiday, as well as trying to understand it from different points of view and apply those points of view to the modern world situation, first appeared as an oral piece of National Public Radio in December 2001. It makes for an interesting interlude.
“Under St. Peter's” takes Jesus’ words from Matthew 26 a little too literally. When a new Pope is elected, he finds himself learning all of the secrets of the Holy See, including many which he could never imagine, despite already being an insider. One of those secrets is kept by an ancient order of monk, the Order of the Pipistrelle. The new pope is led through a maze beneath St. Peter’s and made to undertake a ritual without being given any explanation beyond a vague instruction that all will become clear to him.
“It's the End of the World As We Know It, and We Feel Fine” is set on a far future Earth where conflict is mostly a thing of the past and people live together in harmony, although at the expense of individuality and creativity. One person who doesn't fit the mold is Fritz, who tries to take advantage of those around him who don't understand his motivation. The story examines how the human race got to be where it is and what that change means for an outlier like Fritz.
We Install offers a quick sample of Turtledove's short fiction, but not necessarily his best or most representative works. Alternate history is represented by "Drang von Osten" and "Down in the Bottomlands," but neither are the straightforward alternate history which Turtledove discusses in his essay. His science fiction chops are shown in “It's the End of the World As We Know It, and We Feel Fine” and "Hoxbomb," while he indulges in his fantasy and humorous stories as well.
|Father of the Groom|
|Drang von Osten|
|Alternate History: the How-to of What Might Have Been|
|The Ring and I|
|Down in the Bottomlands|
|Perspectives on Chanukah|
|Under St. Peter's|
|It's the End of the World As We Know It, and We Feel Fine|
|Purchase this book|