Pros: Fascinating concepts; some strong and unusual stories
Cons: Some stories stronger on concept than execution; the usual variable quality in an anthology
Rating: 4 out of 5
Review book courtesy of Penguin Group.
Alternate history stories have occupied a section of the science fiction section, often populated by specific authors, and much of it fascinated with wars and the military. In Other Earths, Nick Gevers and Jay Lake set out to challenge the form, to warm things up with both familiar voices and innovative outsiders. “In short, this book is intended to be a showcase of what can be done by some of the most brilliant minds writing today, many working in a form not normally their own.”
Of course, this approach has both positive and negative aspects to it. You end up with unexpected and unusual results when great writers work outside their comfort zones, but while some of those results will be brilliant, others will recreate the wheel or just plain fall short of one’s hopes.
I haven’t kept up with the alternate history genre in recent years, so I can’t comment on the originality of these works when compared with others. But overall I very much enjoyed this book. The stories are so different from each other that there are bound to be some you’ll enjoy more than others, but that’s normal with an anthology. In particular with this anthology I found I would have gotten more out of certain stories if I had a stronger knowledge of history, but that isn’t unusual.
Robert Charles Wilson, This Peaceable Land; Or, The Unbearable Vision of Harriet Beecher Stowe: It is perhaps unsurprising, given recent events, that slavery and the events surrounding the Civil War are on some minds. Robert Charles Wilson asks, what would have happened if the Civil War had never happened? If slavery had simply become economically and politically unfeasible, instead of being outlawed? And the answer might not be what you’re expecting. This story is a slow, seemingly gentle introduction to Other Earths, but the ending packs a punch.
Jeff VanderMeer, The Goat Variations: Jeff VanderMeer’s tale is half experimental exploration of the concept of alternate universes itself, and half exploration of one particular alternate universe. It’s a head-twisting tale that I find myself almost entirely unable to describe without saying too much. I particularly like it in that it’s an experiment that doesn’t sacrifice story in order to play with form.
Stephen Baxter, The Unblinking Eye: Stephen Baxter’s tale of the recent past sets the world on its ear, placing the Incan civilization at the apex, with flying ships and radios, while the rest of the world still struggles with the knowledge that the world is round. A most interesting sort of culture shock and confrontation is about to change the balance of power. The plot itself is more traditional than that of the other stories in here, but the world the story explores is beautiful and fascinating.
Theodora Goss, Csilla’s Story: What if fairies were real? What if they’d intermarried with a certain tribe of early humans, and while those humans revered them, others persecuted them? What if their descendents were refugees, forced to hide and in danger of losing their most precious things—their histories, their understanding of who they were? This is a beautiful story with poignant real-world parallels.
Liz Williams, Winterborn: Aeve is the half-faery Queen of England, and she has hired Mistress Dane, a river-speaker, to find out why drowned ghosts walk the halls of her palace. An interesting world, but to my mind, not the most engrossing of the stories in this volume.
Gene Wolfe, Donovan Sent Us: London has been bombed all to hell, Kuhn is president of the US, and Churchill is a prisoner of the Germans. An office previously established by Roosevelt has sent men in to rescue Churchill, hoping to use him to stir a British resistance up against the Germans. Of course, things can never be quite that simple. Despite the fact that this isn’t a time period that fascinates me the way that it does so many others, this story was so well-written and detailed that it riveted me.
Greg van Eekhout, The Holy City and Em’s Reptile Farm: In a world where religion rules men’s hearts and minds with all the zeal (and slot machines) of Vegas, Em and her family run a tourist stop on a failing pilgrimage route. What she does to save her business and family brings her face-to-face with deadly Templars, disenfranchised Hawaiians, a deadly pit of snakes, and a holy relic armies would kill for.
Alastair Reynolds, The Receivers: To be honest, I’m not even sure how to describe this one. It contains an unlikely mix of wartime ambulance drivers, ex-composers manning listening posts, and a sort of unearthly music. It has a lovely aspect to it, but I was never quite sure what to make of it.
Paul Park, A Family History: This is the story that felt most self-consciously “experimental.” A winding, tortuous back-and-forth explores several possible routes a family history might have taken. It was somewhat interesting, but mostly I found it confusing and unnecessary.
Lucius Shepard, Dog-Eared Paperback of My Life: Thomas Cradle is an author of genre fiction—until one day he spots a book on Amazon.com by another Thomas Cradle, a literary, winding piece about alternate universes and travel through Cambodia. After he orders a used copy, however, all trace of the book disappears from Amazon or any other source. Slowly he comes to believe that he must travel the same route through Cambodia, and there he encounters a most unusual “family” history of Thomas Cradles. This is one of my favorite stories of the book, even though the ending somehow didn’t quite live up to the rest of it. The lush, winding feel of the story imitates the changes occurring in Thomas absolutely perfectly, and his unfolding discovery of his alternates’ place in the Cambodian world is fascinating and feels surprisingly “real”. [Obligatory note: this particular piece contains adult, explicit sexual material.]
Benjamin Rosenbaum, Nine Alternate Alternate Histories: This is an unusual and experimental form that explores brief points of convergence and divergence. But instead of feeling self-conscious or too intellectual, it comes to an all-too-real and chilling end that turns what could have been a merely good and interesting piece into a wonderful one!
While you can’t escape the usual anthology fact that you probably won’t be thrilled by all of these stories, Other Earths contains many solidly good stories and a few real standouts. If you enjoy the genre, then definitely give it a shot.