Friday, September 30, 2016

Alternative Histories

Photo: National Telefilm Associates. But you knew this was Jimmy Stewart, Donna Reed and "Zuzu" from It's A Wonderful Life, right?

This is kind of a review of a book of eleven short stories in the alternative history genre, but it's also kinda not...

I started reading this book because I needed to learn the genre, in case I should need a touch of it for my current novel. I may, but if I do, I'll look to the likes of "A Christmas Carol," or It's A Wonderful Life, which are essentially of the same genre. The first is a story of what Scrooge's life would be like if he doesn't change. In essence, he creates an alternate history by changing, as his dream advises. In the latter, George Bailey witnesses an alternate history of his town if he hadn't been born. They're both inventive and useful (if not life-affirming) exercises, if nothing else. Maybe I'll write each of those some time, just as morning pages.

By the way, an excellent example of this is Ray Bradbury's "A Sound of Thunder," which is the genesis of the phrase "the butterfly effect." In this one, a hunter goes back to the Jurassic--via a time machine and a company that brings you back, tracks a dinosaur that's about to die soon anyway, and puts a red mark on it so you know what to shoot. The catch: Do not step off a hovering path they lay out. If you do, you may step on a plant that was supposed to feed the animals that were a descendant of present-day buffalo, which supplied everything for many Native get the idea. (That was my example.) So of course the guy steps off the path and steps on a butterfly. They return to their present that is now very different...Very worth your time.

Anyway, the eleven stories here are largely unimpressive. Mostly they're not stories; they're an actual history--like from a dossier, or a history book--of what would've happened if Benjamin Franklin had created the steam engine (there'd be flying machines in the Civil War and Crazy Horse would've flown them for the different U.S.) or if the French Revolution had ended differently. You get the idea. The complaint here is that most of them weren't stories; they were inventive--and sometimes over-inflated--histories told too factually that seemed of interest to the writer, but weren't to me. There just wasn't story. Seven of them struck me this way--7 out of 11. That's too many. And they were so long that I just skimmed them.

The better ones had story. A plot. For example, Napoleon is your irritated, and irritating, next-door neighbor. You feel bad for him because he's dying, and because he's unhappy that he hadn't climbed to a higher position than lowly lieutenant in the French army: "The Curfew Tolls." Or, you're the bomber pilot who doesn't drop the bomb on Hiroshima. You get tried for treason. Can you convince them you did the right thing? That's the best one: "The Lucky Strike." Or, the South wins the Civil War. The North stays the same, but the south is taken over by the suddenly-free slaves. But they fight amongst themselves, can't agree on a universal language from Africa (because they came from so many different countries and tribes), and the south falls to shambles and is about to be attacked again by the north. And the story starts with a Silent so crazed with his life that he literally beats his head against the wall nine times before he dies. Now that's a story! The very good "Hush My Mouth." There are some good parts of one or two more, but...

So this one should mostly be a pass, though the ones I liked I liked so much that you may want to check this out of your library and peruse the ones I recommend. It's a different genre; but some of the stories in this book are better thought about than read. But the ones I liked were very good.

BTW, speaking of alternative histories, and this is truly a sign of the times: An anthology is in the works now of an alternative (and, by definition established by the genre, worse) America if Trump becomes President. The website says it's receiving a lot of good, horrifying stories. Think Back to the Future 2.

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