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Alternate Generals II, edited by Harry Turtledove

Cover art by Dru Blair

Published by Baen Books

Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel

Harry Turtledove has established his reputation as the dean of alternate history with numerous successful short stories, novels and series exploring worlds that might have been. Having established those credentials, he has also turned his hand to editing a series of anthologies of alternate history, of which this volume is the second. Like many anthologies, the stories vary in tone and style, and to some extent in quality. Some of them will remain with the reader long afterward, while others are mediocre or even outright absurd.

For instance, Jim Fiscus' "American Mandate" explores what might have happened had the governance of Turkey proper been handed over to the Americans after the conclusion of World War I, much as parts of its former empire became British mandates. The scene in which the battleship Arizona is destroyed was clearly taken from the actual historical destruction of that vessel in the attack upon Pearl Harbor which initiated America's entry into World War II, a parallelism that seems to be just a little too pat. However, the characterization of General Pershing and of the political issues involved seem solid, although this is not one of my own personal strong points in history.

I feel on more solid ground in praising Michael F. Flynn for "Southern Strategy," a grim look at a world in which things went differently in World War I, but their fruits were not fully realized until the 1960's, when the Civil Rights Movement took a very dark and terrible turn. One could debate whether a world in which the horrors of the Holocaust were averted would still be able to have an active Civil Rights Movement, since so much of the latter's success was the result of the disgust felt by American GI's who saw the ultimate fruits of racial hatred in the death camps. But it is also a fact that technological change, particularly the development of the mechanical cotton picker which allowed one operator to do the work of a dozen people picking by hand, led to the breakdown of the sharecropper system and made possible the movement of large numbers of African Americans to northern cities such as Chicago and New York where they were not subject to the humiliating restrictions of Jim Crow laws.

However, the real strength of the story lies less in the rigorous extrapolation of the historical divergence than in the byplay of altered roles of famous historical figures, verging on the satirical. For instance, "Tricky Dick" is the nickname of a terrorist whose personal characteristics clearly indicate he is the alternate version of President Nixon, who in our world was well-known for his unbending stiffness in personal adherence to protocol and his policies of "law and order" in regard to the disorders of the late 1960's. More subtle is the figure of the black rebel known as King, since understanding the historical byplay Flynn is invoking here requires at least some knowledge of early Protestant Reformation leaders. Might an alternate universe in which that particular family drew its inspiration not from Martin Luther, but from John Calvin and his theory of Absolute Depravity, have taken a much darker look upon the problem of ending segregation than MLK of our own timeline?

In "George Patton Slept Here," Roland J. Green draws upon Patton's known mysticism to create a situation in which intervention from beyond the grave prevents him from making the most destructive mistake of his career. With the notorious slapping incident averted, Patton then enjoys a more positive reputation, with notable consequences that ripple throughout the war in Europe.

R. M. Meluch takes a different approach in "Twelve Legions of Angels," in which one man is offered the opportunity to undo the conquest of England by the Nazis. But it will require courage, and there are hints that it may in fact be part of an intricate scheme to ferret out traitors.

"Empire" by William Sanders takes a look at what might have happened if Napoleon had been forced to flee Europe, and had instead founded an empire in the New World. However, I have to question the idea of several major figures of the American frontier finding common cause with a man who had monarchial pretensions, for these men were the sorts who did not bow the knee to any man.

Harry Turtledove includes a story of his own, "Uncle Alf." It starts innocently enough, as a series of cheery letters home to a niece. But as the tone becomes more disturbingly obsessive, we begin to realize exactly who Uncle Alf is, in a world where the Kaiser didn't fall, and thus there was no scope for a certain disaffected Austrian-born artist to become involved in racist politics.

Several of the stories are somewhat difficult for me to review for the simple reason that they depend on relatively obscure parts of history for their divergences. However, even such stories as Judith Tarr's "Devil's Bargain" and Susan Shwartz's "And the Glory of Them," both of which involve events in the Middle Ages, or Noreen Doyle's "Horizon," which involves ancient Egypt, can be enjoyed as stories in their own right even if one does not know the actual history from which they have diverged. However, a person who is indeed familiar with the actual history will gain an additional layer of appreciation for them.

On the other hand, there is another school of alternate history that makes a game or puzzle out of the identity of a key character, so that when we as readers realize who they are and how their role in that world differs from their actions in our own, it is effectively as much the resolution of the story as the formal conflict is. "Compadres" by S.M. Stirling and Richard Foss belongs in this school, which makes it difficult to discuss without giving away the surprise -- yet at the same time I feel uncomfortable about it for the simple fact that the key clues are sufficiently obscure as to fly right over the head of the average reader, such that the revelation of the key person's identity can seem to come out of nowhere at all.

The only story that I really did not like was Chris Bunch's "Tarnished Glory: Custer and the Waffen SS." Marion Zimmer Bradley was fond of saying, "suspension of disbelief does not mean hanging it by the neck until dead." I simply could not swallow the premise of it, which seemed to involve somehow uprooting Custer wholesale from his historical context and moving him forward in time so he could fight in World War II. Maybe it involved time travel, or maybe it involved some form of reincarnation, but I simply could not suspend my disbelief long enough to really read and enjoy it.

However, that one flop is more than sufficiently outweighed by all the strong stories that I feel confident in recommending it.

Table of Contents

  • "American Mandate" by Jim Fiscus
  • "Southern Strategy" by Michael F. Flynn
  • "Uncle Alf" by Harry Turtledove
  • "Horizon" by Noreen Doyle
  • "Devil's Bargain" by Judith Tarr
  • "George Patton Slept Here" by Roland J. Green
  • "Tarnished Glory: Custer and the Waffen SS" by Chris Bunch
  • "Compadres" by S.M. Stirling and Richard Foss
  • "And the Glory of Them" by Susan Shwartz
  • "Twelve Legions of Angels" by R. M. Meluch
  • "In the Prison of His Days" by Joel Richards
  • "Labor Relations" by Esther M. Friesner
  • "Empire" by William Sanders

Review posted February 1, 2009

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