Not that long ago, I sampled another anthology of alternate history, Other Earths. Now I’m dipping into this specialized sub-genre again with Roads Not Taken. The premise is similar, but in this case the stories were all previously published in either Analog or Amazing. Though I’m disappointed that not one of the ten contributors is a woman, the stories themselves are much more thoughtful and interesting than those I encountered in Other Earths.
“Must and Shall” is a Harry Turtledove story. It diverges during the American Civil War, an all-too-popular event in alternate history. In this case, a stray Confederate bullet kills Lincoln in his first term as he peers over the battlements, so his vice president inherits and the Civil War becomes a much bloodier affair. What makes this story stand out against all the other Civil War alternative history is how Turtledove then jumps towards the present day and shows the consequences of this divergence. The South is a much less forgiving place; the United States are not so much united as held together by the iron fist of the North. It’s intriguing, because Turtledove taps into the cultural tension that is still present, to some extent, in the United States today.
Robert Silverberg’s“An Outpost of the Empire” posits that the Roman empire never fell. Instead, it swallows the Byzantine empire in a single, mighty gulp! The protagonist of this story is a rich, single woman in Venice, watching the Romans move in to occupy her city. She becomes a target of affection for the new consul and aims to seduce him, only to discover that foreigners are more complex than they appear. It’s a slow and thoughtful meditation on the conflict between occupier and occupied.
In “We Could Do Worse”, Gregory Benford paints a chilling picture of a United States in which Joe McCarthy becomes president. This is an America where the Constitution is no longer worth the paper it’s printed on, and civil liberties is a dirty phrase. I couldn’t connect personally with this story, since I’m too young to remember McCarthyism, but I can understand the type of dread it’s supposed to instil. It’s not the most gripping story of the collection, though.
“Over There”, by Mike Resnick, sees Teddy Roosevelt blackmail Woodrow Wilson into resurrecting the Rough Riders division and taking them into World War I. It’s a fabulous concept, but as with“We Could Do Worse”, I wasn’t very intrigued. It was obvious from the beginning that Roosevelt could not achieve the glory he sought. There isn’t much depth here.
A.A. Attansio’s “Ink from the New Moon” reminds me of Bridge of Ancient Birds, in that it has the Chinese visiting North America before the Europeans do. In this time they make contact with the indigenous inhabitants and set up a trading network, scooping the Europeans (also known as the “Big Noses"). It’s a cool concept, and Attansio does a good job developing a main character who is flawed but likable.
“Southpaw” is somewhat similar to “Over There” in that it follows a single character’s divergent path through history. Bruce McAllister wonders what would have happened if Fidel Castro came to play baseball in the United States instead of becoming a revolutionary in Cuba. This story is an excellent example of how alternative history can allow introspection. It shines a light on the paradox of immigrating to a nation like the United States, allowing people who are not migrants to sympathize with the conflicting emotions that migrants face on a daily basis.
Greg Costykian’s “The West is Red” takes us to an alternative universe where communism succeeds and capitalism fails. Central planning is all the rage, even in the United States. This story captivated the technophile in me: Costykian posits that because communism is so obsessed with centralization, it would retard the development of personal computers in favour of large, centralized supercomputers accessed through dumb terminals. I’m not sure it’s that simple, but it’s an intriguing thought that allows him to construct a wholly different technological background to that of our society.
“The Forest of Time” is a story about universe-hopping. A man invents a method to travel to different universes. But the act of travelling itself creates different universes, altering the distance between universes. He ends up in a radically different North America, one where the colonies never unified, and the prisoner of a suspicious Pennsylvanian scout. Michael Flynn sets an interesting dilemma for the main characters, who struggle with whether to believe the traveller. I did find that having some of the names begin with the same letter really confused me with this story, for some reason. That’s really the only criticism though. Otherwise, Flynn does a good job highlighting how fascinating this concept of divergent and convergent universes is.
But now we come to “Aristotle and the Gun”, my favourite story of the entire collection. The other stories were all fine, but none of them really stood out for me. I can’t explain why this one seems so much better than the others, but L. Sprague de Camp somehow manages to make me invest in the main character’s struggle. I think it’s just the fascinating relationship we see develop between the main character and Aristotle. That, and a level of sympathy for his desire to advance science more quickly (and the irony that it didn’t quite work out that way). Though de Camp doesn’t depart from the conventions of time travel and alternate history that much, he embraces them and uses them so well that the result is a predictable yet gripping and fun adventure.
Gene Wolfe finishes up with “How I Lost the Second World War and Helped Turn Back the German Invasion". This is best described as “fun”, in a similar vein to the Fidel Castro story above. The main character and his friend are fans of tabletop strategy games. The two World Wars are just games that they designed in this universe. Instead, the “German invasion” of the title is the threat of German cars surpassing British-made ones. The protagonist helps Churchill avert this eventuality in a devious, underhanded competition.
Roads Not Taken has some good alternative history between its cover. I think I’m done with such anthologies for a good long while now. Binging on alternative history is exhausting and can result in a bit of a headache. I’d rather sample a longer work next. Reading so many short stories in a row just makes it harder to appreciate novelty when it does come around.