George Paxton is a carver of funeral stones. Being a decent man George needs to ensure that his daughter is safe in a world of nuclear proliferation and wants to buy her a Scopas anti radiation suit. As George’s wife has just been fired from her job at a pet shop for ‘blowing up’ a tarantula, the cost has become prohibitive.
George is then approached by an old woman whom he assumes at first to be a ghost. She sends him off to meet with a Mad Hatter character who sells him a golden Scopas suit but also makes him sign a document which implicates him in starting World War III. World War III duly begins as George is travelling home.
And thus begins this peculiar and very disjointed novel.
Whether or not it is SF at all is debatable but immaterial. I would term it a political fantasy, since some of the science involved, such as The Mad Hatter’s human automata is either dubious or completely unfeasible.
It bears comparison with other novels which feature grotesques and caricatures such as ‘Roderick‘ and Richard Cowper’s ‘Profundis‘ but quite unfavourably I am afraid.
‘Profundis’ – another satire based on characters in a submarine in a post-apocalyptic world – was a far tighter, more structured work, with far less main characters, all of whom had a depth of character.
Morrow’s novel, to its detriment – seems to pay little attention to characterisation, apart from occasionally infodumping the history of his characters’ lives in one way or another.
There are also too many concepts to deal with, one of them being ‘the unadmitted’, a horde of black-blooded potential people who never actually existed, but have invaded our world because of some fissure in reality that the nuclear exchange created.
There is no real reason why Morrow could not have simply had survivors of the war take their place, since the role of the unadmitted is simply to put Paxton on trial and sentence him to death. Their presence is both unnecessary and confusing.
And the structure of the novel could have done with some work. There is a charming introductory section featuring Nostradamus who could, it appears, very accurately predict the future and had Leonardo da Vinci paint a series of scenes of George’s life and consequently the end of human existence on magic lantern glass plates.
Nostradamus appears again once during the novel for no good reason and again at the end in a closing scene. It’s not hard to determine why the Nostradamus scenes work so well and the rest of them don’t since Nostradamus is established quite elegantly and efficiently with a personality in an all too brief number of pages. We could really have done with far more since Morrow seems to have padded the remainder with reams of unnecessary and somewhat self-indulgent text, space which could have been better-employed on furthering the narrative and exploring some actual characterisation.
There is also the seemingly interminable trial of George and his so-called co-conspirators which almost had me wishing for nuclear destruction to arrive and put an end to my torture.
Maybe it’s the US sense of humour (although I suspect not) but I really must be missing something since this is published in the prestigious Gollancz SF masterworks series and praised by such luminaries as Brian Aldiss and Justina Robson. I can’t presume to fault their judgment, but I can’t find it within me to agree with them.
This is the way the book ends… with a whimper from me, praying to the Great Mythical Being that there isn’t a sequel.
An excellent anthology of the Steampunk subgenre from Gevers and the good people of Solaris, with not a bad story in the whole bunch. Of particular note are the stories by Marly Youmans and Margo Lanagan.
Steampunch – James Lovegrove (2008)
Static – Marly Youmans (2008)
Speed, Speed the Cable – Kage Baker (2008)
Elementals – Ian R Macleod (2008)
Machine Maid – Margo Lanagan (2008)
Lady Witherspoon’s Solution – James Morrow (2008)
Hannah – Keith Brooke (2008)
Petrolpunk – Adam Roberts (2008)
American Cheetah – Robert Reed (2008)
Fixing Hanover – Jeff VanderMeer (2008)
The Lollygang Save the World on Accident – Jay Lake (2008)
The Dream of Reason – Jeffrey Ford (2008)
Steampunch – James Lovegrove
A deportee narrates a tale of Steampunch, the strongest and best mechanical pugilist.
Static – Marly Youmans
A beautiful and descriptive tale of a world in which physical laws are far different to those of our own and where static is a powerful and possibly deadly force.
Speed, Speed the Cable – Kage Baker
The battle is on to save the laying of the transatlantic cable from being sabotaged, and secret agent Edward Alton Bell-Fairfax is on hand to save the day. This story is set within Kage Baker’s complex ‘Company’ Universe
Elementals – Ian R Macleod
A Victorian scientist attempts to trap an ‘elemental’ in an electric cage, with disastrous consequences for himself.
Machine Maid – Margo Lanagan
One of the most powerful stories on this collection is this unashamedly feminist piece from Lanagan, set in a Victorian Australian outback where automata can be programmed to do almost anything
Lady Witherspoon’s Solution – James Morrow
Morrow’s satirical piece follows a young lady’s initiation into the charitable work of Lady Witherspoon, whose main aim is to deal with the worst excesses of male behaviour with a unique Darwinian solution.
Hannah – Keith Brooke
An investigation into a child’s death leads a Victorian forensic scientist to investigate the identification of blood, which leads to the culturing of the victim’s blood cells, and the cloning of the dead girl
Petrolpunk – Adam Roberts
A rollercoaster of a story from Roberts which features parallel worlds, an immortal Queen Victoria and the fight for petroleum across the dimensions
American Cheetah – Robert Reed
A robotic Abraham Lincoln attempts to dissuade robotic representations of the infamous James gang from their criminal pursuits.
Fixing Hanover – Jeff VanderMeer
Borderline cyberpunk in which an android is washed ashore in a post-apocalyptic world and found by a primitive Viking like people, one of whom is a refugee from a more advanced culture, and wants to rebuild the android.
The Lollygang Save the World on Accident – Jay Lake
Complex steampunk goings on in what seems to be a generation ship launched by a Victorian society.
The Dream of Reason – Jeffrey Ford
Fantastical story about a scientist who believes that matter is light slowed down and that the stars are diamonds. He hatches a complex plan for an experiment which involves slowing down light and firing it into the eye of an expendable volunteer.
Alternate histories – in which some aspect of our past history has been changed, leading to minor or major changes in subsequent timelines – have formed a large subgenre of SF since at least the early sixties, although there may be earlier works. The earliest piece in this volume (Keith Roberts’ excellent ‘Weihnachtabend’) is from 1972.
This is a varied and high quality collection, showcasing some of the diversity of work in this most malleable of subgenres.
The Raft of the Titanic – James Morrow (The Mammoth Book of Alternate Histories 2010)
It’s odd that the passage of time allows us to make light of tragedies of 100 years ago. I’m glad it does since this is an wonderful piece, speculating that had the passengers and crew of the Titanic pooled their resources and cannibalised the ship to make a raft, all the passengers (and dogs) could be saved. Morrow goes further, and suggests that the passengers, having become accustomed to their odd new life (once the real cannibalism was over with) would not wish to abandon it.
Sidewinders – Ken MacLeod (The Mammoth Book of Alternate Histories 2010)
There are people, sidewinders, who can travel easily between alternate timelines. They are divided into two factions, The Improvers, who wish to optimise every possible world, and The Conservers. In a world where a Socialist Scotland extends to the middle of London, an Improver is being pursued by a Conserver.
The Wandering Christian – Kim Newman and Eugene Byrne (Tales of the Wandering Jew, Mar 1991, ed. Brian Stableford)
A somewhat disappointing tale which suffers from the ill-suited combination of alternate histories and the supernatural. The Jew who stamped on Christ when he was on his way to the cross, is cursed by The Son of God that he will not die until Christ returns. Newman and Byrne’s idea is that this ‘Wandering Jew’ converts to Christianity and wanders for a thousand years through a world where Constantine died before Christianity could be established, leaving Christianity (and Islam) as a forgotten sect. It’s somewhat dry and heavy on historical detail. One wonders why Christ would bother returning.
Hush My Mouth – Suzette Haden Elgin (Alternative Histories, Dec 1986, ed. Charles G. Waugh, Martin H. Greenberg)
A quite powerful piece set after the American Civil War in which the North declined to include ‘Negroes’ in its forces. The war was extended far longer than it should have been with appalling consequences to both sides.
A Letter from the Pope – Harry Harrison and Tom Shippey (What Might Have Been? Vol II: Alternate Heroes, Jan 1990, ed. Gregory Benford, Martin H. Greenberg)
When Alfred the Great was famously ‘burning the cakes’ a letter was on his way to him from The Pope, a letter which he never received. Alfred went on to defeat the Danes and reclaim England. Harrison and Shippey consider what the situation might have been if the letter had been received.
Such a Deal – Esther M. Friesner (The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, January 1992)
An entrepreneurial jew travelling with Columbus does a deal with the Aztecs, makes his father a god, and claims America for God’s Chosen people.
Ink from the New Moon – A. A. Attanasio (Asimov’s Science Fiction, November 1992,)
A Chinese traveler visits an America which was colonised by the Chinese
Dispatches from the Revolution – Pat Cadigan (Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine, July 1991,)
A powerful political punch from Cadigan, which sees a very different history of America from the Sixties onwards changed, it seems, by the non-appearance of Bob Dylan in Chicago.
Catch That Zeppelin! – Fritz Leiber (The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, March 1975,)
An excellent bit of alternative jiggery-pokery from Leiber, who postulates that Thomas Edison met and married Marie Curie (before she met Mr Curie). From this union came an electric battery that fuelled all transport needs and made Germany a leading economic power, obviating the need for fossil fuels.
But where would leave this leave Adolf Hitler?
A Very British History – Paul J. McAuley (Interzone, #157 July 2000)
The British steal the secrets of V2 and V3 engines before the Germans can make use of them and inaugurate the space race early. McAuley here provides a review of a book exhaustively covering man’s expansion into the Solar System, placing us with bases on The Moon, Mars and the moons of Jupiter by the beginning of the 21st Century.
The Imitation Game – Rudy Rucker (Interzone, #215 April 2008,)
Turing, the gay genius legend of the Enigma Code, is here planning a clandestine holiday with a Greek lover. Turing, in this reality, is toying with growing human cells and manages to use his new (and somewhat improbable) techniques to his own advantage when his lover is poisoned by the security services.
Weihnachtabend – Keith Roberts (New Worlds 4 1972)
This is how one writes a short story. Roberts sets his in a Britain under Nazi rule (or ‘The Two Empires’ as it is now called). Martin is a trusted aide to the Minister and is invited to his country house for Christmas talking along a young Aryan lady with him. In his room he finds a book, a banned publication of Jewish/American propaganda and gets a call from an American reporter.
It’s a very clever story. The hero is continually running through his thoughts and doubts on the page as though reviewing ‘alternate actions’. This is a device often used on TV and film but is not often seen in literature. In this story it is also entirely appropriate since this is a view of an alternate history. The reader soon gets the idea of what is going on, but Roberts is careful not to flood the piece with historical information. The setting is important but is secondary to the story which is about motivation and manipulation. Just who is pulling the strings?
The Lucky Strike – Kim Stanley Robinson (Universe 14, (Jun 1984, ed. Terry Carr)
The original pilot of the Enola Gay, scheduled to drop the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, crashes the plane in a test flight and is killed. His replacement has more of a conscience. There’s a lovely period feel to this story. Very atmospheric.
His Powder’d Wig, His Crown of Thornes – Marc Laidlaw (Omni, September 1989)
A rather strange tale of an America where Washington was arrested and crucified, but now has become a religious symbol among the Native American population and the disaffected.
Roncesvalles – Judith Tarr (What Might Have Been? Vol II: Alternate Heroes, Jan 1990)
An alternate view of the Romantic epic of Charlemagne. Charlemagne’s forces, while travelling through the pass of Roncesvalles, are ambushed, Charlemagne having been betrayed by one of his Counts. Traditionally, Charlemagne was ambushed by Saracens, i.e. muslims, but here it is shown that they are disguised as saracens. Charlemagne subsequently proclaims himself a Muslim.
The English Mutiny – Ian R. MacLeod (Asimov’s Science Fiction, October-November 2008)
An interesting first-person account of an uprising in London in a world where Europe has been conquered by the Mughal Empire.
O One – Chris Roberson (Live Without a Net, Jul 2003, ed. Lou Anders)
A beautiful little tale which features a world-encompassing Chinese Empire, the threat of an analytical engine to the abacus counters, and genetically engineered mathematical pirhana. Quite neat and lovely.
Islands in the Sea – Harry Turtledove (Alternatives, (May 1989, ed. Pamela Crippen Adams, Robert Adams)
Turtledove (possibly the most prolific of alternative history writers) here posits that the Muslim invasion of Constantinople succeeds in 715 and southern Europe is conquered by Muslims. Delegations of Christians and Muslims visit the King of the Bulgars to present arguments as to which religion the Bulgars should subscribe.
It is quite an amusing and educational piece which highlights not only what the religions have in common, but the slightly obscure and absurd reasons for their differences of opinion. The King of the Bulgars, after suffering days of theological nitpicking, makes his choice based on the size of the armies camped on his borders.
Lenin in Odessa – George Zebrowski (What Might Have Been? Vol II: Alternate Heroes, (Jan 1990, ed. Gregory Benford, Martin H. Greenberg)
Post revolution in the Soviet Union, an interesting alternative to the death of Lenin.
The Einstein Gun – Pierre Gévart (aka Comment les choses se sont vraiment passées) (The Mammoth Book of Alternate Histories, (Feb 2010, ed. Ian Watson, Ian Whates)
A fascinating and amusing piece, featuring Einstein in a world where Archbishop Ferdinand did not die in the assassination attempt.
Tales from the Venia Woods – Robert Silverberg (The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, October 1989)
Silverberg takes an unusual viewpoint on a history where the Roman Empire never fell, and has only recently become a Republic.
Manassas, Again – Gregory Benford (Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine, October 1991)
A bit of an odd story from Benford, set in 1850, where some mechs (robots in truth) seem to have revolted and are fighting back against humans. Or are they?
The Sleeping Serpent – Pamela Sargent (Amazing Stories, January 1992)
Genghis Khan conquered the world, and one of the subsequent Khans has sent a minor son to the Americas to enlist the tribe’s help in conquest of the Inglastanis. A truly marvellous story, filled with character, depth, cultural history and verisimilitude
Waiting for the Olympians – Frederik Pohl (Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine, August 1988)
This is Fred Pohl at his best; witty, ironic, keeping us on our toes, throwing in clues as we are dragged in to the story.
In a future where the Roman Empire never fell, an alien race, whom the Romans term The Olympians, have made contact and are on their way.
The narrator is a writer of Sci-Roms, and is in trouble, since his latest work has been plugged by the censors, since it features the Olympians themselves, and the censors fear he may cause offence. The author has 28 days to submit an alternative or facing being sold into slavery to cover his debts.
Darwin Anathema – Stephen Baxter (The Mammoth Book of Alternate Histories 2010)
In a somewhat gloomy alternative present, a young church official is summoned from Australia to stand witness at the posthumous trial of Charles Darwin for blasphemy. In this world, the Catholic Church regained control of Britain and subsequently most of the world.