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A mixed lot, with the good and the bad stories in equal numbers.
on 8 December 2010
The title of this book itself merits some analysis, before even going further into examining the stories themselves:
"The best" - well, as you will see below, it is really not the case for most of them...
"alternate history" - not always; at least one of the stories is mainstream (and very good) SF;
"stories" - two of the "stories" are actually shorter versions of novels
"of the 20th century" - to clarify things, the stories were indeed all written in the 20th century, and some are placed in XXth century, but many of them treat other time periods
As for the stories themselves, here are my impressions (with as little spoilers as it was possible):
"The lucky strike" by Kim Stanley Robinson. The story is linked to the first nuclear attack against Japan (we learn it on the first page so this is not really a spoiler). It is very well written and a good read, no argument there. But it is also - in my modest opinion - the MOST BIASED and the least satisfying in the whole anthology. Author looks at the situation in July 1945 in Pacific with the eyes of a far left peacenik from the 70s and as a result the whole story horribly and - in my modest opinion - unfairly insults a great American soldier, brigadier general Paul Warfield Tibbets Jr. (1915-2007) and a great American president, Harry S. Truman (1884-1972). The last two pages are so incredibly stupid and naive that I laughed out loud. I will not reveal more, but if after reading this short story you feel like agreeing with the author, I propose you to watch a great Japanese movie "Japan's longest day" (1967) and/or read the extraordinary book "Hell to pay: Operation Downfall and the invasion of Japan 1945-47" by D.M. Giangreco. They are I believe a sufficient rebuttal to Mr Robinson's views.
"The winterberry" by Nicholas A. DiChario. This story is connected to the Kennedy clan and I will say nothing more about the plot. It is a short, sad and very well written tale, which I am certain you will enjoy. Is it however really alternate history? Well, a little bit certainly - but I would rather consider is as mainstream literature, just with a little surrealistic twist.
"Islands in the sea" by Harry Turtledove. The great master of alternate history can do no wrong, so this is another very good story. In the first paragraph we learn the time and place of action - 769AD, just after the fall of Byzantium to the conquering Arabs, in the Balkans, among the still pagan Bulgars (today we would say Bulgarians)... Nothing more will be said on the plot. Very well written, very erudite (Mr Turtledove is a recognized expert on Byzantine history) but the idea of the great Greek city falling to the Muslims already in VIII century makes it a rather sad reading to any Christian (like me)...
"Suppose they gave a peace" by Susan Schwartz. A really VERY interesting story about the Vietnam War and the peace movement between 1968 and 1975 with a really sharp shock coming in the second part. The title is a variation on pacifist slogan from the 60s "suppose they gave a war and nobody came" - and towards the end you will understand how intelligent this title is...
"All the myriad ways" by Larry Niven. I usually like very much Larry Niven works but this is a very poor story. At the end I was like "Duh?". Also it is not really an alternate history story, but rather... well, here I admit that have a problem - I do not really know what this story is about. It is however also mercifully short - only eight pages and half...
"Through road no whither" by Greg Bear. It is about two German officers traveling through occupied France and losing their way. For the life of me I could not find any alternate history motives in this one either. It is also a very poor story but once again, thanks God, it is really short - even shorter than the previous one.
"Manassas again" by Gregory Benford. Here there is some alternate history in the distant background but this is mostly a story about a war of humans against robots. A rather dull read - if you skip it you will not loose anything.
"Dance band on the Titanic" by Jack L. Chalker. No, sorry, contrary to the title, "Titanic" does not figure in this story, which is focused on a point in which many alternative realities interpenetrate and enter into contact one with another - and also about a business company which profits from it when in the same time providing a quite useful public service to all the worlds concerned. Not a particularly great story, but certainly better than the three previous ones.
"Bring the jubilee" by Ward Moore. This is a very long short story, which later was expanded into a novel under the same title. I must admit that once I realized it, I stopped reading this story, after about 30 pages, so I can read later the novel without knowing how the whole thing ends. The story is centered about the second most enduring fantasy in the whole alternate reality genre - the victory (or at least survival) of Southern Confederation against USA in the War Between The States (1861-1865). Here, already on the first pages, author adopts, somehow irrationally, the view that this Southern victory would break not only the rise to power of USA but even the whole development of our planet - and as a result in the 30s in XXth century the plane was still not invented and the cars are a luxury reserved to the most obscenely rich billionaires... Well, after all may be this is not so strange after all, considering that the author was born and grew up in New York and after that spend most of his life in Chicago, and so is a full blooded Yankee...)))
"Eutopia" by Paul Anderson. A very interesting description of an alternative North America, which was colonized between X and XV century by the Vikings coming from Greenland and the Magyars (Hungarians) coming from Siberia, both of them clashing with native Amerindians. The story occurs long time after those struggles in a time when the three cultures learned to coexist, developing even a common syncretic religion - and I almost died laughing when I noticed what is the composition of the Holy Trinity in this religion...))) As most of works of Paul Anderson this story is quite good and already figured in some other anthologies. The final solution is however rather disgusting.
"The undiscovered" by William Sanders. THE JEWEL IN THE CROWN! The best story of this whole book! In the end of XVI century, in a world ALMOST exactly like ours, Cherokee Indians (important notice - William Sanders is himself a Cherokee Indian)living in what will be one day North Carolina raid a village of their hated enemies, the Tuscarora nation. The returning war party brings amongst the captives an Englishman, who was previously captured and enslaved by Tuscarora - he is the first white man the Cherokee ever saw. Now this Englishman is not just an ordinary guy, but I will not say anything more about him to preserve the surprise - however be assured that the mutual cultural shock between the Cherokee and their prisoner is one of the best and merriest stories I read in a very long time. I was reading this story in the subway and at one moment people started changing places to go away from me, because I was wildly laughing with tears running from my eyes! This story is quite dangerous, because later that day I had an attack of uncontrollable laughter during a business meeting and then again during family dinner at home - and both my boss and my wife were VERY unhappy with this! Once I was done with this story I immediately looked up William Sanders on internet and I am going to buy more of his works very soon.
"Mozart in mirrorshades" by Bruce Sterling and Lewis Shiner. This is a story about an inter-temporal colonization, in which a private venture somehow like Indian Company colonizes parallel worlds in various stages of pre-industrial development, using technological superiority to subdue and exploit them. As the result of conquests the destiny of some of the historical figures changes and in one of those worlds, where the colonization occurred in XVIII century, Mozart is reduced to be an unqualified worker... The story is not bad, with some interesting twists and it could be worth to develop in a full scale novel.
"The death of Captain Future" by Allen Steele. Here bad news is that this is definitely not alternative history but the mainstream SF - good news is that this story won Hugo Award and it REALLY deserves it! It is the second best story in this anthology. It is extremely well written, with a very clever plot and has many interesting twists and surprises and at least three very touching and well developed characters. A real pleasure to read!
"Moon of ice" by Brad Linaweaver. This story treats the FIRST most enduring fantasy in the whole alternate reality genre - the victory or at least the survival of Third Reich in WWII. This is never a comfortable topic but here it is treated quite successfully (at least in the beginning) by the author. The story takes place in 1965, it begins the day of Hitler's state funerals and has the form of diary written by Goebbels himself. The first half of this story is not bad, but then it turns weirder and weirder - towards the end I felt more and more like in the old "Wolfenstein" computer game. The finale is simply ridiculous, at least to anybody who has even the slightest understanding how totalitarian regimes function, or even the smallest knowledge about Third Reich security apparatus and its hold on the population and the country.
Conclusion: all in all it is a three star book. The two best stories ("The undiscovered" and "The death of Captain Future"), both already classical, are widely available in other, probably better anthologies - as for the rest it is a mixed lot, with the good and the bad in equal proportions.