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Thursday, March 9, 2017

“Worlds That Weren’t”, by Harry Turtledove, S.M. Stirling, Mary Gentle, Walter Jon Williams


295 pages, ROC, ISBN-13: 978-0451458865

Perhaps every historian’s – professional and amateur alike – favorite pastime is speculative or alternate history, a form of fiction in which a fundamental change creates a world different from what we now occupy. Worlds That Weren’t contains four such novellas, all written by experienced creators of alterative worlds, with Harry Turtledove leading off this compilation with The Daimon, where in ancient Greece the philosopher Sokrates joins former student Alkibiades in a war against Sicily. In S. M. Stirling’s Shikari in Galveston, a 19th Century meteor shower results in an empire based out of India and a 21st Century America which hasn’t progressed much since. The main character in Mary Gentle’s The Logistics of Carthage is a warrior woman fighting in mid-15th Century North Africa who is visited by a woman archaeologist from the future. The fourth story, Walter Jon Williams’ The Last Ride of German Freddie puts German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche right in the middle of the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral.

There is no doubt that each author deserves kudos for all of the in-depth research they most certainly undertook to develop these stories. Imagination alone warrants much credit, as well (I mean, c’mon, how many philosophy students, no matter how bored they might occasionally find themselves, would think of matching Nietzsche up against the Earp brothers?!) But a problem does exist. To get the most out of speculative or alternate history stories, how much of the history does a reader need to know? While even grade-schoolers know that the South didn’t win the Civil War and that Hitler was defeated in World War II (two favorite alternate history subjects), and they would be fairly sure a meteor shower didn’t strike in the 1800s leaving India in charge of most of the world, how many of us would know offhand whether or not Sokrates fought in Sicily or who controlled North Africa in the 1400s? It is important to know when reading an alternate history story at what point history changes. In the case of the four novellas in Worlds That Weren’t, as with most alternate history stories, the change took place before the story began. Unless the reader is a scholar or an armchair historian, he may be left wondering what happened in the real world and what didn’t. The authors and/or editors of Worlds That Weren’t perhaps tried to compensate for a supposed lack of knowledge on the reader’s part by including at the end of each novella a concise paragraph consisting of true facts. My advice for the layperson picking up this book for the first time is to look at this paragraph first. You’ll spend less time being distracted by your own questions.

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