The Mammoth Book of Alternate Histories

I spotted this book a while ago, and had it on my mental list of “things to read at some point”. Well, that point was over the last week or so, and it went to work with me on the Kindle every day. I do like the odd bit of alternative history[1] and this quite large collection looked like a good deal. There’s a good mixture of old and new stories, including a few getting their first publication here.

Part of the fun of alternative history[2] stories is often working out when and where we are, how we got there, or more precisely, what has changed to make things this way. This fun is taken away by one of the stories – A Letter from the Pope by Harry Harrison and Tom Shippey, which involves King Alfred, some Vikings, the delivery (or not) of a letter and the famous cakes.

There are a few stories based on the idea that the Roman Empire never fell, but they all take it in such different directions that it’s not a problem for the balance of the anthology. Frederick Pohl has a lot of fun with this in Waiting for the Olympians, in which a writer of “sci-roms” is desperate for a new idea in the face of rapidly approaching aliens. His friend tries to suggest the idea of writing some kind of alternative history story…

And of course, there’s the usual “do something with the Nazis” stories, of which the most interesting for me was The Einstein Gun by Pierre Gévart, translated from the original French for this book. In that world, the Archduke Franz Ferdinand wasn’t assassinated, World War I never happened, and things went to pot in completely different ways. So a plan is devised to use Einstein’s time machine to change things so it’ll all be fine and dandy. Err, ooops. Gets the prize for “oh bugger, so that’s how we got into this mess”.

Then there’s the kind of story where the Church keeps more control over secular matters. Steven Baxter explores this in Darwin Anathema, where many years after his death, the Inquisition (please don’t call us that) dig up his bones to put him on trial, along with a descendant.

One possible objection to a lot of these stories is that given some greater or lesser change centuries earlier, it’s a little odd to find the same people in equivalent positions today. But I tend to file that under “required suspension of disbelief” and enjoy the ride, so there.

Not every story gripped my attention, one or two seemed longer than they really needed to be, but that’s generally the way it goes with anthologies. In any case, there was more than enough here to justify the quite low price. Good stuff.

[1] “Alternate” history sounds more like history taking it in turns with something else. Geography, maybe?
[2] Nope, can’t bring myself to say “alternate”