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Doomed to Repeat It

The Agony Column for June 28, 2002

Commentary by Rick Kleffel


It often seems that some snarky sub-genre is about to take over science fiction. For years now it's been cyberpunk. The argument would go (and I have made this argument) that since our present is cyber-loaded, all futures will be only more so, or not so in such a fashion that the very absence of computers is itself an issue. Thus what was once something of a novelty becomes something of a necessity. And the takeover is complete. The imagination is fettered and we wear our chains as if they were jewelry. Oh wait, those are jewelry, aren't they?

But I'm tired of crying "Cyberpunk!" or "Vampire!" or whatever the flavor du yesterday might have been. I'm ready to face a bold new past. Today (at least in some reality), I've decided that Alternate History has subsumed not only science fiction, but in fact, all of fiction. I could easily argue that Alternate History has taken over not only all of fiction, but all of reality. We all manufacture our own alternate histories, don't we? Nobody remembers the past the same way. Everybody has their own story. Everybody has their own alternate history.

Ward Moore's 'Bring the Jubilee' is arguably the first alternate history novel.

Harry Turtledove built his empire on the strength of his treatment of this novel.

Of course some of us have more concrete alternate histories than others. While Ward Moore's 'Bring the Jubilee' is credited as the first alternate history novel, a simple 'the South wins the Civil War' schtick, Harry Turtledove is the name on the tip of most people's tongues these days. His 'Guns of the South' set the recent standard and he hasn't looked back since. He's the lead author in Roc's 'Worlds That Weren't', a collection of alternate history novellas by Turtledove, S. M. Stirling, Mary Gentle and Walter Jon Williams.

Turtledove has become so popular that he's become a target for satire, most recently by, which on June 17 took a series of potshots at Turtledove's 'Worldwar' series. I tried to check out the website to see what the article looked like, but it lived up to its name and crashed my browser after taking an eternity to load lines of tiny blue dots. So I had to rely on a Usenet quote. Close enough for the Internet, I figure.


Dopey lizards invade the earth during World War Two in Turtledove's entertaining 'Worldwar' series.

As it happens, my reading of Turtledove has been limited to the novella in 'Worlds That Weren't' and the 'Worldwar' series. I rather enjoyed the 'Worldwar' series, with its dopey lizards who pick a pretty damn bad time to invade the earth. Since I'm no history buff, and certainly no World War Two expert, any niggly mistakes or misplaced details certainly sailed by me at -- well, given the time, say, the speed of sound. You know pretty much from the get-go that Turtledove isn't trying to write great literature here. He's writing an action adventure story and actually managed to make World War Two a bit more interesting to this 'doomed to repeat it' reader. The sweep of the four novels is impressive, though I must admit I was more than a bit disappointed when the story didn't wrap up in the first set. But Turtledove corrected that problem by releasing a second set of novels 'Colonization', which I own in hardcover but haven't gotten round to reading. Part of the problem was that after reading the 'Worldwar' series, I got tired of waiting a year between books, so I decided to let the next set accumulate until the series was finished. I waited through the first three novels ('Worldwar' is a four-volume series) and waited for the fourth book to come out....and waited...and waited --wait, there is no fourth book. So now I have three novels waiting (a lot of waiting in this experience) for a rainy day.

This collection of novellas is an excellent way for the reader to get acquainted with the Alternate History genre.

Turtledove's story in 'Worlds That Weren't' is 'The Daimon', and to my mind it suffers from being set in history too ancient to have the immediate emotional draw that an alternate World War Two has. 'The Daimon' is set in ancient Greece, and speculates what might have happened had Sokrates accompanied Alkibiades to Sparta. Though it eventually becomes compelling, it's rather dry. One suspects it's the product of someone who has given a few too many lectures on the Peloponesian War and the Socratic Dialogues. It lacks the Big Boy adventure story feel of the 'Worldwar' series, and the mind-boggling possibilities of alternate history are apparent only to those who have recently sat through the lectures. Even then it takes more cogitation to work out the potential consequences of the changes that Turtledove has wrought than the story inspires.

Stirling's novella in 'Worlds That Weren't' is set in the same universe as his latest novel. The stor was so good that I went out and bought the book almost before I'd finished the story.

S. M. Stirling, in the afterward/introduction to his 'Worlds That Weren't' entry, 'Shikari in Galveston', suggests that once the world was pretty thoroughly mapped, the room that authors such as Edgar Rice Burroughs, Arthur Conan Doyle and H. Rider Haggard had to create new landscapes of adventure was wiped out. There's no place for a lost continent these days. By tweaking history, Stirling says, he's able to give himself the room to write the kind of adventures that these authors once wrote -- essentially "stories for boys". 'Shikari in Galveston' does exactly what Stirling sets out to do, and it's one hell of a thrilling wonder story. It was so good, in fact, that I trotted right out to buy 'The Peshawar Lancers', which is the first instance of the world that Stirling has created for 'Shikari in Galveston'.

If you want to read Mary Gentle's 'Ash: A Secret History' -- and there are about 1,100 reason why you should -- spring for the UK trade paperback or hardcover. The four paperback that comprise the US version of the same text will shatter the continuity.

I enjoy stories for boys, though not as a steady diet. But alternate history is capable of much more, as Marty Gentle suggests her afterward to 'The Logistics of Carthage'. Like Turtledove's entry, Gentle's novella (from the same world as her 'Ash: A Secret History' is too far in antiquity to inspire a real 'gee-whiz' reaction. But she's not really trying for that. Instead, she concentrates on creating characters that the readers can connect to, in spite of their removed situation. She also excels in gritty, realistic descriptions, and 'The Logistics of Carthage' is no exceptions. It's very grim, but still stirring. If you like this story, then you're probably ready for 'Ash: A Secret History'. This is an immense work of alternate/"secret" history, immersive, possibly too long for some readers. It is like spending a winter or two in a difficult, deadly medieval campaign. But her framing story and the authenticity of the actions of her characters help carry the day, along with her science fictional twist. Just be sure that you get the UK one-volume version. Spread out over four paperbacks as it has been in the US, it would certainly lose its cohesiveness, the density that makes it compelling. Here, alternate history is used to make us reflect on the process of history, how it is created by both those on the scene and those writing about the scenes. Lost Burgundy indeed proves that history is written by the victors, and at one time, France was the victor.

The final entry in 'Worlds That Weren't' is a bit of a schizophrenic mix. Walter Jon Williams 'The Last Ride of German Freddie' puts Friedrich Nietzsche in the wild west with mixed results. The historical aspects mostly fall flat, but Williams' renditions of Nietzsche's journals are compelling. Like most alternate history, Williams' work is an experiment. It's a noble experiment at that, and if parts of it don't pan out, then we'll simply re-write the history of alternate history to exclude those parts we weren't thrilled with.

Jasper Fforde's wacky 'The Eyre Affair' was one of the highlights of last summer. Its alternate history is completely unhinged.

While 'Worlds That Weren't' does a decent job at exploring the potentials of alternate history fiction, it is by no means exhaustive. If you think that alternate history fiction is dry, immature or inaccurate (duh!), then you need only to pick up the latest Jasper Fforde novel to see a great example of how alternate history can set the mind free. In last year's debut, 'The Eyre Affair', Fforde presented readers with a delightful premise -- a 1985 where books and reading had the cachet that movies and audio-visual media have in our world. His main character, Thursday Next was a literary detective who was tasked with tracking down nefarious criminals who kidnapped characters from famous works of fiction. I considered 'The Eyre Affair' a complete success. It was funny, inventive, sweet, literate as all get out but never stuffy or pretentious.


The first print run of this novel is already sold out, with good reason. It's even better than 'The Eyre Affair'.

In fact, I liked it so much, I began to get a little nervous as the time for TN2's release approached. I began to suspect that nothing could live up to the good times that the first novel provided, that everything that was once new would seem old. I got the idea that the parts I liked the best in the first book - the literary excursions -- would be downplayed in the sequel.

As it happens all this worry was for nought. 'Lost In A Good Book' is as much better than 'The Eyre Affair' as 'The Eyre Affair' is better than dry toast. Fforde is one of those remarkable writers who actually understands his own strengths. He expands upon and builds on the world he's created in ways one might hope for but would never dare to expect. The literary excursions are expanded, and they include authors that most readers would only dream of hoping for. (I won't be giving any of them away, thank you very much.) Moreover, he manages to re-create the world he created in the first in surprising and enjoyable fits of invention. The reader doesn't feel that he strains or stretches his creation. Instead, he shines his authorial flashlight onto crooks, crevices, crannies and grannies that one would never expect to come to light.

It doesn't hurt at all that Fforde has the wit of a particularly fervent standup comedian. Robin Williams would be well served to come up with the gags and hilarious dialogue that Fforde creates. There are pages upon pages where puns, jokes and memorable sentences pile up on one another like an out-of-control landslide of language. At times, it's like a Zucker & Co movie that's hitting on all cylinders -- only much, much weirder, and surprisingly, much more literate. Through all the silliness, there's a pervasive but not overbearing sense of spot-on research. Here's how great Fforde is: reading 'Lost In A Good Book' makes you want to go back and study come of those classics so that you can better appreciate his jokes. It's positively scary.

And it's also a fantastic example of what alternate history at its zenith can do for a writer. Fforde is completely free in the world he's created. He can zoom around, make up something insane, tell a joke and still talk about people, feelings and characters that all matter in our history. Sure, we may be doomed to repeat it. But at least we're going to have one hell of a good time doing so.




Rick Kleffel