Alternate history can often act like a soothing balm: science fiction, but of a very special type. It’s the ultimate “what-if” version of science fiction, the impossible attempt to create counterfactual stories. It is the logical conclusion to the lying that is the art of storytelling; taken to extremes, any story is alternate history. But with Other Earths, we’re on more conventional ground when it comes to alternate history. It’s exactly what it says on the cover: an anthology of stories in which something happened to cause that Earth to diverge from our own. Where Nick Gevers and Jay Lake go above and beyond their duty as editors, however, is to encourage (or insist upon) stories that tackle such divergence in very creative or unusual ways. So, while there is the requisite "Nazis won World War II" story (and even that has a neat twist), most of them are far more than simple what-ifs.
In “This Peaceable Land, or, The Unbearable Vision of Harriet Beecher Stowe”, Robert Charles Wilson examines how abolition might have occurred had the American Civil War been diverted (if Douglas had won the presidency instead of Lincoln). War is a tragedy. Yet peace through appeasement can often be fraught with landmines of its own. This story reminded me a little bit of the classic Star Trek episode, “The City on the Edge of Forever”. In that episode, Kirk inadvertently saves the life of a woman who would go on to preach pacifism in pre–World War II America, allowing fascism to sweep in and take power. In Wilson’s alternate 1870s, slavery has still died out, but it was a result of economic and social change rather than the hard-and-fast, morally-based abolition decreed by the Emancipation Proclamation and related documents. It’s a story with a very obvious moral; I can see myself teaching it to some of my students. That being said, I would have been interested to skip forward a century and see how this affects the civil liberties movements of the 1950s and 1960s.
“The Goat Variations” is a clever tale that centres around George W. Bush’s actions during September 11, 2001. He received a lot of flak for continuing to read My Pet Goat to schoolchildren after being informed of the attacks on the World Trade Towers and the Pentagon. But really, what else was he supposed to do? Jeff VanderMeer explores this question from a very sympathetic perspective, as his particular Bush’s exposure to a psychic alternate-realities machine allows him to experience the tree of all Bushes’ actions from that moment onwards. It’s a little psychedelic but very cool.
Stephen Baxter’s “The Unblinking Eye” is alternate history of the Mesoamerican stripe. Columbus fails to rediscover the New World from the European perspective, and the Inca develop into a technologically superior power, Guns, Germs, and Steel be damned. This is a very short and punchy story told from the perspective of a few people who are privy to the movements of the players without actually being players themselves. It’s very much a “what-if” that doesn’t really explore its consequences too thoroughly, content more with the ironic shout-outs to historical personages who have been altered along the way (Newton known for proving that the Earth is only thousands of years old by back-calculating from the Bible, Darwin a theologian instead of the first evolutionary biologist, etc.).
“Csilla’s Story” features many stories-within-a-story in a modern paean to the power of storytelling and oral history. Theodora Goss creates a fantastical group of dispossessed and persecuted in order to mirror the loss of culture (and its preservation through storytelling) that many groups have historically faced. I found this a much more moving and impressive story than it probably should be, by all rights.
Liz Williams also includes magical elements in her alternate history “Winterborn”, which features a protagonist who speaks to the genius loci resident in rivers and streams. There’s also a half-faerie queen on the throne of seventeenth-century England. I was rather underwhelmed by this story, which I would have liked to be so much better. It’s one of those stories where the plot doesn’t seem to become more than a murky, amorphous blob. The setting is intriguing, but that’s about it. It’s notable, and regrettable, that of the 11 stories in this anthology, only two among them were by women. I don’t begrudge the other authors their place in this collection, but it would have been nice to see some attempt at parity.
“Donovan Sent Us”, by Gene Wolfe, is the requisite “Hitler wins” story that is contractually required by all publishers. It involves two American soldiers sent to infiltrate a German prison camp in London and rescue Winston Churchill. I like how Wolfe analyzes some of the fallout of the United States failing to enter World War II, not to mention the general cynical twist that the story takes. However, I didn’t find the story terribly entertaining or enchanting. It’s technically skilled but lacks a certain vivacity to keep me hooked.
“The Holy City and Em’s Reptile Farm” mixes Templars with Vegas for a very odd alternate take on religion. Greg van Eekhout’s protagonists wind up stealing the Holy Grail and using it to prop up their failing reptile farm! It’s cute and much more action-oriented. Like many of the stories, the point of divergence from our own Earth is not very prominent; van Eekhout is more concerned with telling a good story within this universe of his.
Paul Park’s “A Family History” doesn’t really work for me, sorry to say. It’s told in a negative hypothetical syntax, “They would not have, she would not have, …” and the affectation here doesn’t appeal to me or hold my interest. I admit I skimmed most of this story.
Some of the stories are more about alternative realities than they are stories within alternative realities. “The Goat Variations” probably falls into this camp, and the label applies to these three stories as well. In “The Receivers”, two army officers who once manned listening post stations discuss how they can hear the music that they might have written, had they become composers instead of joining the army in this reality. “Dog-Eared Paperback of My Life” is the longest story in this collection, nearly a novelette in its own right. It fascinated me against my will; I didn’t want to like it, but I had to know how it ended. Finally, Benjamin Rosenbaum finishes the book with “Nine Alternate Alternate Histories”. It isn’t actually a story so much as a list, and I’m ambivalent about it. On one hand, it’s clever; on the other hand, it is also a little boring. Though its place at the end makes sense, I was also rather tired by the time I reached it and probably didn’t give it the attention it deserves.
Other Earths is a varied but somewhat uneven anthology. I’m struggling with whether I would call it diverse … I think the stories are very diverse, but I’m sure the editors could have collected some that were weirder if they really wanted to. As it is, if you are looking for some short alternate history stories, then this collection is for you. It showcases some of the possible paths of alternative history to good effect.