Sunday, 4 March 2012

Other Earths Anthology

one world among many... eleven stories about them all

What if Lincoln never became president, and the Civil War never took place? What if Columbus never discovered America, and the Inca developed a massive, technologicallyadvanced empire? What if magic was real and a half-faerie queen ruled England? What if an author discovered a book written by an alternate version of himself?

These are just some of the possible pathways that readers can take to explore the Other Earths that may be waiting just one page away.

This is an anthology of alternative history stories and it's one of my favourite genres so I was excited about reading it. Sadly, that didn't last...

There are only eleven stories in the book so I'll discuss each one individually.

Robert Charles Wilson's "This Peaceable Land, or, The Unbearable Vision of Harriet Beecher Stowe"

Well, it was interesting, I'll give it that, and well-written too, but I just didn't connect with it. I don't know, maybe you have to be American to really get into a story so deeply rooted in the Civil War (which didn't happen on this version of Earth) and the history of slavery. It's a rather too believable premise, given that it deals with prejudice and genocide, and on an intellectual level I thought it was a fascinating exploration of what could have been and how people treat those they consider to be somehow lesser beings, but I couldn't emotionally connect to the characters. Like I say, maybe you have to be American; maybe it was just me.

Can't say it was a bad story, but I doubt it's one I'll ever re-read. 3/5

Jeff VanderMeer's "The Goat Variations"

I cannot express how much I hated this story. It may be that the narrator is such an annoying voice, but I suspect it's more that I got the distinct impression that the whole thing had been written purely in order to make a political point. At one point it seems to be a pretty thinly veiled personal attack on Bush. Now I am far from Bush's greatest fan, but it made me very uncomfortable. I won't be rereading this and I wouldn't recommend it to anyone else either.


Stephen Baxter's "The Unblinking Eye"

I was really looking forward to this one because the author is so good at exploring what ifs, but I really didn't enjoy this at all. For me an alternate history story needs at least one of interesting and plausible world building or a good story. This lacked both.

I didn't understand the historical premise behind it at all. The idea that the Incan Empire could become a highly advanced civilization had Europeans not arrived in the Americas made perfect sense, but sadly it was the only thing that did. Europe was ruled by a mishmash of civilisations, including the Franks, who seem to have taken the place of the Normans in English history, even invading in the same year, which seemed unrealistic. Somehow these changes meant that Europe had never advance technologically beyond the early 18th century at best and the medieval period at worse (again the word mishmash comes to mind).

The story itself seemed like it had promise and the characters were interesting, but it lacked a point as far as I could see. There was no defined beginning or end, simply the place we came into the story and the place it stopped. Stopping a piece of writing is not the same as ending it.


Theodora Goss's "Csilla's Story"

Oh my, yes. A real winner. It follows the story of Csilla, a young refugee who has been smuggled out of Eastern Europe and into America, but it is interspersed with the stories her new guardian tells her and the stories she tells her guardian about the history of her people.

She is a fairy, or the descendant of one at any rate. For most of the story another word is used, but that, like most of the names, was hard for me to read and remember. I don't fault the author for this though since Anglo Saxon names would have been totally out of place in the narrative.

The history of her people resonates with that of the Jews and the Roma and even refers to the Holocaust at one point. It is a story of persecution and survival and is incredibly thought provoking. It is about our memories and our stories and how they make us who we are. I really loved this and will definitely be reading it again at some point.


Liz Williams's "Winterborn"

This is another winner and, by coincidence, another one that involves fairies. In this case it's set in a kind of Elizabethan England, only the 'Faerie Queen' on this throne, really is!

We follow the investigations of a river reader - a young woman who can communicate with the spirits of the drowned and with the rivers themselves. She is trying to find out why they are suddenly active in London and  we get to watch as her investigation unfolds and the plot to overthrow the Queen suddenly becomes clear.

The imagery in this one is exquisite and I would love to see something longer written in this world. I'd also love to see the finale on the big screen. I won't spoil it for you by saying what happens, but it's well worth reading!


Gene Wolfe's "Donovan Sent Us"

The premise of this one - Nazi success in World War II - isn't exactly original, but Wolfe's take on it is an interesting one.

We follow a clandestine American mission to capture Churchill from the Germans and take him to America, for reasons which become clear as the story progresses.

The mission itself is fascinating to watch and the characters are interesting, especially the main character who is masquerading as an SS officer for most of the story. Churchill himself is, as you can imagine, larger than life, and, as far as I know, based on reality.

The twist in the tale is shocking and is probably a major contributory factor to my enjoyment of this story, which is why I'm not rating it quite as highly as I would otherwise as I think it is unlikely it would be quite as enjoyable a second time around.


Greg van Eekhout's "The Holy City and Em's Reptile Farm"

The premise of this one was very unusual, but the world building was very enjoyable. The idea of the Templars and other religious groups in America instead of the Middle East is interesting, but really too vast to properly explore in such a short story.

The main character is likeable, but not all that engaging. However, she is interesting enough to make you want to keep reading. The hints at miracles that the author throws in caused, presumably, by the item at the centre of the story are very well done and all in all it was an enjoyable read but doesn't stand out as anything special.


Alastair Reynolds' "The Receivers"

Although I could follow the events of this one easily enough I feel that I might have got more enjoyment out of it if I knew more (or anything really) about British composers in the first half of the Twentieth Century.

It's more of a character study than an actual narrative, but despite that I did enjoy it. I liked the three main characters and the setting, the concrete dishes that were used to try and amplify the sound of incoming aircraft before radar was invented, could count as a character in its own right. It was also the perfect setting for a story that is all about music.

Interesting and enjoyable but not one I'll reread. Definitely recommended if you have an interest in Twentieth Century composers though.


Paul Park's "A Family History"

This was certainly an interesting take on the idea of alternate history, but not one I particularly enjoyed unfortunately. Instead of focussing on world events, this story is multiple versions of what could have happened to a brother and sister pairing had various things happened or not happened.

I really didn't warm to this story at all.


Lucius Shepard's "Dog-Eared Paperback of My Life"

I think the writer of this managed to achieve precisely what he wanted to. Unfortunately, that was a kind of self-indulgent, semi-drug fuelled road journey, which felt like it would have been what resulted if Hunter S Thompson had decided to write a story about the intersection of parallel universes and the many incarnations of one man.

If that's your kind of thing, then I strongly recommend it. It's not mine and I felt that this was too long before I even got to the end of the first page.

It was well written and had a cleverly thought out premise, but stylistically it just wasn't my thing at all.


Benjamin Rosenbaum's "Nine Alternate Alternate Histories".

I don't know that I'd even class this one as a story to be honest. It seemed like a combination of notes for potential future works and the outline for an essay on alternative history as set by your English Literature teacher.


VERDICT - more misses than hits in this one. If my maths hasn't failed me it averages out to about 2 1/2 out of 5

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