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Other Earths edited by Nick Gevers and Jay Lake

Like many before them, the editors decided they preferred a unifying trope for the anthology. They gave it thought and came up with alternate history. Pausing at this moment, I confess very fond memories for Ward Moore’s Bring the Jubilee, Keith Roberts’ Pavane, and others of that ilk. There is something fascinating about posing and answering the “what ifs”. Except these editors, having picked the trope, then decided to challenge their authors to bust the boundaries and write something “. . .where the shift of history was something else entirely”. In other words, the authors were commissioned to write stories only tangentially connected with the notion of an alternate history. The plots could be anything from horror to science fiction. This is like announcing a Sherlock Holmes anthology and the first story has him downloaded as an AI program into a robot to catch another robot that is running a simulation of Professor Moriarty and responsible for a crime wave on the Moon. Actually, I have some vague recollection of reading or viewing something along those lines — readers with better memories than I, please remind me what that story is (was it an animated episode of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Fast Forward?).

As to the stories admitted between the covers, we start with a fascinatingly cruel reimagining of what might have happened to resolve the conflict between the North and the South. Robert Charles Wilson in “This Peaceable Land” cleaves to the trope more than others and shows what solution might have been applied had there been no war to abolish slavery. In every respect this is a powerful if disturbing alternate. In the literal sense, there is a horrific possibility that he might be right and, having given us all food for thought, we move on to “The Goat Variations” by Jeff VanderMeer. This is a brave story. Not many US authors have had the confidence to write 9/11 stories so, kudos to Jeff for taking it on. For those of you not up on the lore of the day, President Bush continued reading The Pet Goat to an elementary school class for some seven minutes after being informed of the attacks. Thematically, this is a multiverse story where multiple Presidents in parallel universes face an incredible range of different catastrophes on the same day — I love the idea of the Ecstatics and their god-missiles. Structurally, I am not sure that it all hangs together, but it is such an edgy attempt, it definitely deserves to be included.

Stephen Baxter’s “The Unblinking Eye” is another clever story. He postulates that the southern hemisphere achieved true scientific civilisation while Europe remained little better than the Dark Ages. You may note that I declined reference to Enlightenment because, despite their scientific progress, the Incas seem unenlightened. They come bearing decorative devices with the destructive power of atomic bombs and quietly place them in the capital cities of the North. Local leaders are flattered by these gifts and, not understanding their threatening nature, accept them and, perhaps, venerate them.

We then hit a roadblock. “Csilla’s Story” by Theodora Goss is one of the more turgid piece of fiction I have laboured through over the last few years. It has a not uninteresting premise: that there is reality in the mythology of dryads or nymphs of the woods. Or, perhaps, this particular group of women has some fairy in them. Frankly, it was just too self-obsessed, telling and retelling the stories representing the oral history of these women and, while I am completely sympathetic to the semiotic need for people to seek the preservation of the meaning in their lives, I prefer it about half the length presented here. By a curious editorial irony, we then have a model of how to write a short story about fairy magic. I see absolutely no connection between Liz Williams’ “Winterborn” and alternate history, but it is a very successful story. This is less florid than some of her other short fiction involving the use of magic and it is the better for being leaner.

Taking them slightly out of order, we then have two different World War II stories. The first by Gene Wolfe is a slightly pedestrian alternate in which Britain falls to the Nazis, and Alastair Reynolds has a haunting tale of an alternate Britain in which the protagonists have the same names but are subtly different from their real world originals. Wolf’s “Donovan Sent Us” has OSS operatives parachuting into occupied London for a dangerous undercover operation. Reynold’s “The Receivers” has a wonderful Heath Robinson approach to detecting incoming German aircraft and a delightful possibility of other sounds being picked up out of the aether. As an aside, I recall operators at the Lovell Telescope being able to pick up conversations from miles away. Although I admire the central conceit of Wolf’s story, I found the whole less than impressive. Had it been an attempt at humour, I might de cod cherman accents haf enjoy. But I remember reading comics in the 1950s and 60s where the German in the bubbles was more convincing. Frankly, any author who resorts to imitating foreign accents in stories like this has no confidence in the readers’ ability to “hear” the uses of different languages in context. Reynolds, on the other hand, offers an interesting piece for a “young” writer. He is playing around with the life histories of several people probably completely unknown to the modern generation of readers. I loved its darkly melancholic exploration of why some artists are driven to practice their art. Whether its message will be understood by the majority of readers is debatable so, in their decision to include this story, I give high praise to the editors.

The two war stories sandwich a pleasingly wry tale about life on the ‘gator farm. Greg van Eekhout tells a mean story of religious rectitude in “The Holy City and Em’s Reptile Farm” where a thief with “pure” motives comes through an ordeal like Daniel in the lions’ den and is able to bring the Pilgrims back to the farm. Paul Park’s “A Family History”, partly written as a series of auction prizes on eBay, is a slightly strange dalliance. Albeit for nonsexual purposes, this is a writer being playful, toying with his readers as a man essential to maintain the family’s lineage survives an encounter with a “savage” because of his earlier meeting with a flute-playing dryad.

All of which leads us to “Dog-Eared Paperback of My Life” by Lucius Shepard. This is the reason why you should buy this book. No matter how you look at it, this must be rated as one of the best novellas of the year. We are back in a variation on the multiverse theme where multiple versions of the same character are all drawn to a particular place down the Mekong River. The journey itself and ultimate explanation of why they are drawn to make it are riveting fiction. Intellectually, it is among the most satisfying pieces of fiction I remember reading for some time. I was faintly surprised this was not the final story in the anthology. For some reason not entirely clear to me, the editors felt the need for one more entry into the lists. Except this is rather more a short disquisition than fiction as Benjamin Rosenbaum offers us something slightly more substantial than a powerpoint catalogue of thoughts about alternate history.

Overall, this paperback anthology is sensationally good value and definitely worth buying.

For my other reviews of Lucius Shepard, see: Louisiana Breakdown, Two Trains Running, Vacancy and Ariel and The Taborin Scale.

For a review of another anthology edited by Nick Gevers, see Is Anybody Out There?

For books written by Jay Lake see:
The Sky That Wraps.

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