Greenberg, Martin (ed.). The Way It Wasn’t: Great Science Fiction of Alternate History.

NY: Carol Publishing Group, 1996.

Alternate history and “what if” stories are a particular sub-genre of science fiction with its own rules (or at least expectations) and its own devoted fandom. To succeed, a good “what if” story must first be a good story, just like any other piece of narrative fiction. Beyond that, though, the author has to have a good grasp of how the forces of cause and effect work in the past and present.

You don’t have to explicitly state what the change consists of between a fictional past and what we are pleased to call the “real” world — in fact, it’s probably a better story if you just let the reader work that out on his own, a little at a time. And, ideally, you should make the point of departure as small, and as reasonable and likely, as possible. (The young Winston Churchill falls off his horse in South Africa in 1898, breaks his leg, develops gangrene, and dies. Or Booth’s derringer misfires. Both entirely possible, if only one tiny thing were different.) Greenberg is a very experienced thematic compiler of short stories and all the thirteen offerings in this volume meet those standards. Though, naturally, I think some of them are much more successful than others.

All the pieces included date from the previous two decades, except for the slightly older and somewhat longer “Lion Time in Timbuctoo,” a deserved classic by Robert Silverberg, a sort of spinoff of his novel The Gate of Worlds. This is a timeline in which the Black Death killed off nearly all of Europe, leaving an almost empty continent for the Ottomans to occupy. Of course, that also means both Africa and the New World were left alone for much longer and the plot concerns itself with the royal succession in the kingdom of Songhay and the presence of diplomatic representatives from Peru, Mexico, Istanbul, Russia, and the other great powers. As always, Silverberg gets the tone and the voices just right. Howard Waldrop (one of this country’s most underappreciated literary treasures) contributes “Ike at the Mike,” about what might have happened had young Dwight Eisenhower, waiting at the station to catch the train for West Point, been fatally distracted by a jazz clarinetist, and later met up with Pops. (I remember hearing Howard read this one to a rapt audience at a con years ago, complete with props.) “Over There,” by Mike Resnick, tells about the aging Teddy Roosevelt who got his wish to command troops again in the Great War, and his discovery that the demand for blazing heroes isn’t what it was in Cuba. “Suppose They Gave a Peace” is a relatively quiet effort by Susan Schwartz, about an anonymous family man’s gradual coming to terms with the anti-Vietnam War movement, and what happens when McGovern wins on a peace platform. For those of us who grew up in the ‘60s, it’s a painful story to read.

Larry Niven’s “All the Myriad Ways,” on the other hand, while also regarded as a classic, has never made a lot of sense to me. He considers the effect the proven multiverse has on ordinary people, the realization that anything that can happen, has happened — somewhere in the skein of worlds. It’s the reaction he assumes people would have to all this that I personally don’t agree with — at all. Read it and see what you think. Pamela Sargent has written a novel and several stories based on the premise that the American Indians escaped wholesale colonization by Europeans. In this variant, “The Sleeping Serpent,” the Mongols (who conquered Europe centuries ago) enlist the aid of the Iroquois and their allies to suppress the struggling English settlements in New England, mostly to ease control of the fragmented empire of the khans. The narrator is a Frank-born Mongol who has gone native and become the interface between the two cultures in which he shares. A little confusing in places but an interesting story.

Fritz Leiber was another of the Greats, and the point of departure in his “Catch That Zeppelin!” is the marriage of Marie Sklodowska to Thomas Edison instead of Pierre Curie, a union that produced a supergenius son whose inventions led to a peaceful and technologically and socially advanced early 20th century, especially in Germany. The writing is less subtle than with most of the others here, but it’s an interesting story. “Through Road No Whither,” by Greg Bear, is quite short, almost a rumination, on a Second World War lasting into the 1980s. Barry Malzberg has always been an abstract sort of writer and “Ship Full of Jews,” in which Columbus acts as overseer of a fleet of religious deportees from Spain, can be a bit hard to follow. Nor am I quite sure just what it is he means to say. Harry Turtledove all by himself accounts for probably half the alternate history novels published in the last dozen years (most of them sub-mediocre, in my opinion), but his earlier short stories with a Byzantine setting, a world in which Mohammed became a Christian and the Roman empire lasted another couple of millennia, are quite good. In “Archetypes,” Basil Argyros, a magistrate of Constantinople in the equivalent of our 14th century (I think), is sent off to Mesopotamia to investigate a pro-Persian propaganda campaign, and discovers a handy new invention in the process.

Greg Benford is a rather uneven writer in my opinion, but “We Could Do Worse” will make you glad Eisenhower beat Taft for the nomination in our world. But in Benford’s universe, Taft is followed by a Joe McCarthy/Richard Nixon administration, pretty much the worst of all possible worlds. I’ve never seen another story by Nicholas DiChario, but “The Winterberry” is first-rate, a rather sad piece from the point of view of a John Kennedy who survived the assassination attempt — but just barely. Finally, saving the best for last, there’s Kim Stanley Robinson’s “The Lucky Strike,” which really is one of the best alternate-history stories every written. What if Col. Tibbets and the whole first A-bomb delivery crew were killed in the crash of a practice flight? And what if his replacement had other ideas when it came to dropping a nuclear weapon on a Japanese city full of civilians? And what if, after his trial and execution, the spread of January Societies led the way to disarmament and a chance at real global peace? It’s a story that can give you chills.

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