Sunday, May 23, 2010

REVIEW: The Mammoth Book of Alternate Histories ed. Ian Watson and Ian Whates

Title: The Mammoth Book of Alternate Histories
Edited by: Ian Watson and Ian Whates
Paperback: 591 pages
Publisher: Robinson Publishing (25 Feb 2010)
ISBN-10: 1845297792
ISBN-13: 978-1845297794
Genre: Short Story anthology
Reviewer: Cara
Copy: Bought myself

What if, in a split second, the world went another way? History as it might have happened…

Every short story in this wonderfully varied collection has one thing in common: a divergence from historical reality resulting in a world very different from the one we know today.

As well as original fiction specially commissioned from bestselling writers such as James Morrow and Ken MacLeod, there are genre classics such as Fritz Lieber’s ‘Catch That Zeppelin’ and Kim Stanley Robinson’s tale of the Second World War atomic bomber Enola Gay being replaced by the Lucky Strike – with profoundly different consequences. 

The stories include:
  • Stephen Baxter’s ‘Darwin Anathema’ – the triumphant Church puts Darwin’s bones on trial for heresy
  • James Morrow’s ‘The Raft Of The Titanic’ – believed by the world to be dead, the passengers and crew are saved by their own efforts
  • Harry Turtledove’s ‘Islands In The Sea’ – only pockets of Christianity remain in an Islamic Europe


  • James Morrow - The Raft Of The Titanic
  • Ken MacLeod - Sidewinders
  • Eugene Byrne and Kim Newman - The Wandering Christian
  • Suzette Hayden Elgin - Hush My Mouth
  • Harry Harrison and Tom Shippey - A Letter From The Pope
  • Esther M. Friesner - Such A Deal
  • A.A. Attanasio - Ink From The New Moon
  • Pat Cadigan - Dispatches From The Revolution
  • Fritz Lieber - Catch That Zeppelin
  • Paul McAuley - A Very British History
  • Rudy Rucker - The Imitation Game
  • Keith Roberts - Weinachtsabend
  • Kim Stanley Robinson - The Lucky Strike
  • Marc Laidlaw - His Powder’d Wig, His Crown Of Thornes
  • Judith Tarr - Roncesvalles
  • Ian R. MacLeod - The English Mutiny
  • Chris Roberson - O One
  • Harry Turtledove - Islands In The Sea
  • George Zebrowski - Lenin In Odessa
  • Pierre Gevart - The Einstein Gun
  • Robert Silverberg -  Tales From The Venia Woods
  • Gregory Benford - Manassas, Again
  • Pamela Sargent - The Sleeping Serpent
  • Frederick Pohl - Waiting For The Olympians
  • Stephen Baxter - Darwin Anathema

I have long been a fan of alternate history, sparked by reading ‘Fatherland’ by Robert Harris, basically a crime novel set in a 1960s Germany which won World War II. Since then I have read various books including ‘Pavane’ by Keith Roberts, ‘The Man In The High Castle’ by Philip K. Dick, ‘Gloriana’ by Michael Moorcock and ‘Romanitas’ by Sophia McDougall. My favourite of all alternate history novels has to be ‘The Years of Rice and Salt’ by Kim Stanley Robinson where the Black Death of the 14th century kills 99% of the people in Europe and over the next seven centuries, India, China and the Islamic world come to dominate the planet. All of the books mentioned begin with the premise “What if…?” and the world-building grows from there. A minor deviation in history can effect significant change in the future, something all of these authors have imagined from their initial starting point. What would our world be like now if

  • China had claimed the Americas before Columbus?
  • Harold had won the Battle of Hastings in 1066?
  • Guttenberg had not invented the printing press?

It’s an interesting exercise in imaginative thinking for all you writers out there, and ideal for the short story form.

The 25 authors included in The Mammoth Book Of Alternate History have all considered the “What if…?” questions in their own particular way. Some tackle a world where Christianity is not the dominant religion, others explore an enduring Roman Empire, all take a familiar concept and show us how it could be very different if one particular event from the past was changed in some way. Three of the short stories were commissioned specifically for inclusion in this anthology and the others have been published elsewhere, the oldest of which, Weinachtsabend by Keith Roberts, dates from 1972.

While each story has it’s merits, I am not going to review each one individually although I did have my favourites. What I would say is that all are worth reading as each brings a new idea to the table. Some are executed better than others, in my view, but for me, the collection worked as a palate cleanser in between novels. I could read two or three SF stories before embarking on another Fantasy book, and I found I enjoyed this, to the point that I have since bought several more anthologies. At this point I should credit Gav at Nextread, whose Short Story Month prompted me to read more short stories, a form I have largely neglected in the past.

The highlight in the Mammoth Book of Alternate Histories is Stephen Baxter’s ‘Darwin Anathema’. Although it is the final story in the book, I read it first as Stephen Baxter is one of my favourite authors. It is set in a London where a hidebound Catholic Church reigns supreme and the Inquisition puts Charles Darwin’s bones on trial for heresy. Given the current attacks on evolutionary theory (and evidence) by the Creationist movement, the story has particular resonance today. One particular line made me laugh at it’s irony…
“We prefer not to use that word [Inquisition],” he said evenly. “The Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith, newly empowered under Cardinal Ratzinger…”
mainly because it is actually true in our world, up until he became Pope Benedict XVI in 2005. While the story is set in 2009, the technology is still mainly steam and coal powered and indicates how the resistance of the Church towards free-thinking has hindered the progress of science, with all that this entails. A fascinating story with a surprising conclusion.

Another story that made me stop and think was ‘Hush My Mouth’ by Suzette Haden Elgin which dealt with an alternate American Civil War and the legacy of this. The strong theme of this story is pride and how ultimately it is a destructive emotion, contributing to the demise of Matthias Darrow. Only 8 pages, and the shortest of all the stories, ‘Hush My Mouth’ packs a powerful punch and stayed with me for some time afterwards.

My final selection from the Mammoth Book of Alternate Histories is by another of my favourite authors, this time Kim Stanley Robinson. ‘Lucky Strike’ is the name of the plane brought in to replace the Enola Gay, which crashed on a training run while preparing for the atomic bomb drop on Hiroshima. We meet the crew of the Lucky Strike and events do not pan out as we know them, but how, and more importantly why this happens is the point of the story, not the outcome. Robinson does not disappoint in his treatment of this premise.

Overall I found the Mammoth Book of Alternate Histories to be a high quality read. I was able to dip in and out of the book as I felt like it and subsequently rediscovered the joy of the short story. While a few stories did not impress, this was mainly due to personal preference and not any failing on the author’s part. In all, this is an excellent anthology, and for anyone interested in exploring the sub-genre of alternate history, it makes an excellent starting point from which to further explore more work by these authors.

Rating 8/10

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