Turtledove, Harry. Departures.

NY: Del Rey, 1993.

I began reading Harry’s short fiction in the pulps in the ‘80s, when he first appeared on the science fiction scene. He had a PhD in Byzantine history, so his alternate history yarns with a similar setting were pretty good. Accurate, anyway.

In the mid-’90s, having struck gold with the popularity of Guns of the South, though, he began cranking out fat novels in multiple series as fast as possible — more than fifty in about eighteen years – and more than half of them about alternate world wars set in the 20th century. Frankly, the literary quality of most of those later works is pretty low, and I quit reading them after the first couple of painful volumes.

However, this volume was the first published collection of his short work and it’s really quite good, the twenty stories being arranged chronologically by setting, from the 2nd century BC to a couple hundred years in our own future. I won’t try to summarize all of them, but I’ll note that “Designated Hitter,” an amusing paean to the author’s love of baseball, won several awards. And there’s another baseball story, “Batboy,” the tongue-in-cheek title of which should give you an idea of the plot.

Also very readable are “Counting Potsherds,” about a Persian eunuch’s official visit to the Athens conquered by Xerxes three generations before, and “Departures,” which sets the background for his Agent of Byzantium stories — a world in which Mohammed the caravan merchant became an Orthodox Christian and a monk. “Death in Vesunna” is a sort of Time Patrol story, and a somewhat ordinary one. Likewise, “Not All Wolves,” set in 12th century Cologne, is a rather lightweight werewolf story. “Clash of Arms,” while at root a deal-with-the-devil story, spins its plot around the arcane details of heraldry. (First time I’ve seen that as a theme.)

“In the Presence of Mine Enemies,” set in the Nazi-ruled Germany of 2010, is quite good in its portrayal of the lengths to which people will go to maintain their traditions under pressure. (Harry is Jewish, of course, so he has a particular point of view about such a future.) And “Secret Names” is a better than average post-Holocaust story with a strong fantasy flavor to it. And, finally, “Last Favor” is quite an interesting thought experiment about human adaptation in unfriendly environments.

This is probably a difficult volume to locate these days, but if you come across it at your local used paperback shop, grab it. There are a couple of clunkers, but the writing overall is much superior to what the author is doing these days. Too bad.


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