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Other Earths by Nick Gevers & Jay Lake, editors

Published by DAW Books

Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel

What might have been is one of the things almost everyone speculates about. Our lives are full of missed opportunities, of mischances, of events that could have gone other ways, so it's easy to wonder what might have happened had we followed the road not taken. And then there are the big events, the great moments of history that could have so easily gone quite differently, with life-changing consequences for the entire world.

From these roots grew the sub-genre of alternate history. What if the South had won the Civil War, only to be forced into a humiliating peace by a vindictive Union in World War I and playing the role of Nazi Germany, with its colored population taking the place of the Jews in the gas chambers? What if the Russian Revolution had been averted and Communism sprang up instead in a corrupt robber-baron-ridden USA where the Gilded Age continued unabated right into World War I? What if Sergei Korolev hadn't died prematurely and the Soviet Union had gotten to the Moon, keeping the Space Race alive long enough for both sides to establish a permanent presence up there?

In "The Peaceable Land, or the Unbearable Vision of Harriet Beecher Stowe," Robert Charles Wilson gives us a vision of a world in which the great bloodletting that was the Civil War never took place. Instead, key leaders such as John Brown and Abraham Liincoln were subtly shunted aside and never rose to iconic prominence, so that Stephen Douglas became President instead. After he brokered a final compromise that kept the South in the Union for good, slavery was finally ended because it proved increasingly unprofitable in an industrializing country, not to mention becoming the object of scorn from the European countries the South needed as markets for their cotton and other products.

However, the reader should not imagine that this abolition should be all happiness and light. Far from it, there are sinister secrets hidden up in the old farm the protagonist and his business partner are visiting. For in a world where the racism of the South makes the now economically worthless colored population unwelcome and there is no fiery indignation in the North to ask difficult questions, entreprenuers arise who promise to make the Negro problem go away. Their solution might not be quite so horrific as the Nazis treatment of their Jewish population, but the endless rows of names crudely scribed upon the walls of a derelict barracks, eerily reminiscent in their own way to the Vietnam War Memorial, speak eloquently of inhumanity masquerading as humane treatment until the social strain became too great.

Jeff VanderMeer's "The Goat Variations" gives us a world in which telepathic powers are real, but the adepts are a persecuted population, specifically denied rights by the Constitution. A certain President we should quickly recognize is contemplating the apprehensions of certain captive Adepts of impending catastrophe. But it is a strangely changed America where the Imperial Presidency actually uses the trappings of monarchy, although how this was accomplished is never explained. But it is strange to glimpse our own world through the eyes of someone from another quite unlike it.

Stephen Baxter's "The Unblinking Eye" seems at first to be one of those worlds in which Western Europe remained backward while some other part of the world (in this case the Inca Empire) has attained industrial civilization. But as we read further, we see one bit after another of evidence that the situation isn't so simple. In this topsy-turvy world Christianity is a solar religion, with Jesus associated with the ancient Egyptian deity Ra. In fact, every culture around the world practices some form of sun worship, and it's fairly taken for granted that any sane culture would look to the sun as the source of light and stability. In the night sky there is nothing but the moon and the planets, all shifting in strange and complex ways.

I found it a fascinating premise, but had to wonder whether such a world would produce civilizations so remarkably similar to our own. In fact, I would not have been the least bit surprised if a cosmic catastrophe of a magnitude sufficient to eject the Solar System from the Milky Way at the very beginnings of life on Earth would have resulted in evolution going so completely different that humanity itself would not even arise.

In "Csilla's Story" Theodora Goss gives us a world in which the Jews were not the only people subject to repeated persecutions all over Europe. Through the stories remembered by a young refugee from Hungary (presumably from that country's failed uprising against Soviet power) we learn the history of the green-blooded, metal-avoiding Daughters of the Moon, a kind of Fair Folk who have often been persecuted as witches, or occasionally revered as saints.

Liz Williams gives us another world in which the Fair Folk walk alongside mortals in "Winterbourne." It's a world strongly reminiscent to our own worlds's Elizabethan Era, but with an important difference: in this imagined world the ruling Queen has fairy blood and thus the ability to see into the hearts and souls of mortals. And a young woman comes to London to seek her fortune only to discover the memories of lost and buried streams under the streets of the city. One in particular is of extraordinary antiquity and power.

In "Donovan Sent Us," Gene Wolfe gives us a variation on the vision of an alternate world in which England stood alone against the Nazis and was crushed. In this one, American agents are coming to rescue the fugitive Winston Churchill and take him back to the US, where it's hoped he can stiffen the spines of an isolationist land. Churchill is, after all, half American, and it wouldn't be that far-fetched in a time when birth recordkeeping was still sketchy that it could conveniently be discovered that his mother had returned to her homeland at jus the right moment to give her son that quallification to run for the highest office in the land. Given the persistent controversy about the authenticy of President Barack Obama's Honolulu birth certificate, I found the notion particularly ironic.

Greg van Eekhout's "The Holy City and Em's Reptile Farm" gives us a topsy-turvy world where Las Vegas is the Holy City full of Christian relics in a ruined and impoverished America. At first it seems that this is a post-apocalyptic world where memories of history have been confused and the Gospel accounts of Jesus have migrated from a now-forgotten Levant to a more familiar American Southwest. But then we have the Hawaiians wandering forlorn in the wasteland of the Atomic Golgotha, having been brought there as slaves from their home islands in the Pacific Ocean by the Mayas, and it would seem there's more to this world than meets the eye.

One of the common themes of alternate history is the war averted. In "The Receivers" Alastair Renolds takes the converse, the war that doesn't end when it did in our world. In particular, World War I, that tragic meltdown of the nineteenth-century world which produced the horrors of the twentieth. In his imagined world no decisive advantage was ever gained by either side and the war grinds on into the twenties, as an England growing increasingly desperate under raids from ever-improving German aircraft builds giant parabolic microphones, it recruits the trained ears of musicians to listen for the faint sounds of approaching attackers.

Paul Park's "A Family History" is an exercise in metafiction in which multiple lines of might-have-been are laid out for the reader to contemplate. It may well be a little too literary for the tastes of some science fiction readers who prefer more straightforward narrative techniques, especially given the arch and ironic tone of some passages. However, a reader who likes to see an author play with the mechanisms of narative will probably enjoy it.

In "Dog-Eared Paperback of My Life" Lucius Shepard takes us on a surrealistic voyage down the Mekong River to a meeting between alternate versions of an author in a liminal zone between worlds known as the Tea Forest. In the end we're left to wonder whether it's murder or suicide to kill off the other alternative versions of oneself in order to be the only true self. Or maybe it's the ultimate form of self-defense.

The final story in this anthology, "Nine Alternate Alternate Histories" by Benjamin Rosenbaumm is another metafictional exercise, offering us a taxonomy of the various subtypes of alternate history.

Table of Contents

  • Introduction by Nick Gevers and Jay Lake
  • "The Peaceable Land, or the Unbearable Vision of Harriet Beecher Stowe" by Robert Charles Wilson
  • "The Goat Variations" by Jeff VanderMeer
  • "The Unblinking Eye" by Stephen Baxter
  • "Csilla's Story" by Theodora Goss
  • "Donovan Sent Us" by Gene Wolfe
  • "The Holy City and Em's Reptile Farm" by Greg van Eekhout
  • "The Receivers" by Alastair Reynolds
  • "A Family History" by Paul Park
  • "Dog-Eared Paperback of My Life" by Lucius Shepard
  • "Nine Alternate Alternate Histories" by Benjamin Rosenbaum
  • About the Authors

Review posted June 7, 2011.

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