Fiction Reviews

Alternate History Short Stories

(2023) edited by Anon, Flame Tree Press, £20 / Can$40 / US$30, hrdbk, 430pp, ISBN 978-1-804-17272-8
Forward by Alison Morton.


Much of the criticism I have for this anthology equally applies to the publisher's, Flame Tree Press, Hidden Realms collection that I am also reviewing this quarter as well as other titles in their growing body of large beautifully bound anthologies. Trouble is the covers of these books look identical so with more than one of the books on your shelf you’ll need to inspect the spines closely to tell one from another.

There are many extracts and isolated chapters from longer works, which I dislike as I would rather read the complete self-contained stories than portions taken out of context. The editors only share chapters 17 to 19 of Livy’s ‘The History of Rome’, (neither fiction nor alternate history), but a speculative essay. Livy contemplates what might have happened if, instead of heading east to conquer much of India, Alexander The Great had turned west with his armies and challenged the early Roman Empire.

Livy concludes that while the eastern nations were unsuspecting, and ill-equipped, enabling Alexander an easy victory, he would have faced more formidable opposition from Rome, whose armies had superior fighting skills. Livy largely wrote a grovelling love letter to the later Roman leaders he served. It is a well written essay, in which Alexander fails spectacularly rather than an imagining of Rome and Europe under Alexandrian control.

Erskine Childers - ‘The Riddle of the Sands’ (extract only). This 1903 novel, filmed in 1979, is again not really alternate history, though it considers the Germans attempting to start World War One years before the war actually commenced. It was a prophetic warning of a conflict that had hadn't started when penned, and runs as a rather dull maritime romance in which a yachtsman ends up struggling to foil the invasion when he stumbles into the hands of some of those orchestrating events. In many ways this reads like a weak cousin to the average John Buchan thriller.

Jay Caselberg - ‘Herd Mentality’ As a Nazi concentration camp is liberated, a startling discovery is made. The Nazis captured and killed Albert Einstein but created 250 infant clone versions of him, branded with the numbers of prisoners. Many decades later the now aged great scientists are living in the same small American town together and preparing meetings to present some great new discovery to the World. The narrator initially dislikes and mistrusts the strange man/men, but in helping prepare a meeting hall for them, he comes to see their individual quirks and learns to respect them. It is unclear whether the Einsteins plan is to save humanity from our follies or enslave us in tyranny. The former seems more likely given the Einsteins are aware of their grim origin.

Vylar Kaftan - ‘The Weight of the Sunrise’ The collections most powerful and detailed alternate history and a widely acclaimed story, with good reason. Having survived the efforts of the Spanish Conquistadors to wipe them out, the Inca peoples have endured into the 19th century when smallpox begins to decimate their numbers. Enter white saviours promising the magic of Edward Jenner’s life-saving vaccine, but only at a terrible price.

Lanchi, one tribe’s chief translator, acting as a go-between for his people and the men selling the vaccine with deadly strings attached, embarks on a dangerous mission to liberate the medicine and learn its secrets for his people. When one of the new settlers offers to help him, can Lanchi trust the man?

This has a realism, sincerity and credibility that lifts the narrative to exceptional standards.

Guy Provost’s ‘Intervention’. Inspired by claims that there was a single point in time (in 1913) in Vienna when Stalin and Hitler were in close proximity to one another and could conceivably have met while oblivious of their respective terrible future impacts on World history. The moment is not however lost on a time traveller intent on making the most of an opportunity to assassinate the pair of them, but things do not go according to plan.

This seems more of a traditional time travel story that blatantly disregards paradoxes or the danger of the assassin wiping out even his own conception, preferring to go for a tense Day Of The Jackal tease on whether or not the mission will succeed.

Richard Kigel - ‘The Untold History of the First Flight.’ Set in a Pre-American Civil War era, with slavery at its height, one slave has painstakingly secretly invented a one seater plane to enable a desperate escape, but not for himself. He feels too old to take the flight. He grants the privilege to a younger slave, launching the man on a perilous flight, with no advice on piloting, and no idea where or how to land. It’s the escaping narrator’s eternal gratitude to his selfless saviour that drives this moving piece. The pre-Wright brothers' aircraft does nothing to change history, and serves only as a means to get the protagonist on his way.

Adam Lawson - ‘The Husband of Henry VIII’. This has the marvellous premise that instead of seeking divorce from his first wife to marry another woman, Henry wants to marry a man, leading to conflict with a homophobic church, marred by the husband being a demonic entity merely using Henry in order to conquer the World. The agenda shifts in mid-flow and the opening premise was intriguing enough to pursue further in itself.

Eve Morton - ‘Where in Time is Mark Twain?’ My favourite tale has a team of time-anomaly agents chasing rogue authors through time to put them back in their rightful time lines. Though mainly after Twain, who likes going on a time-leaping pub crawl just to start fights, they also have to catch Philip K. Dick and Emily Dickenson. This one is a hoot. The closing twist is fun, but easy to see coming from early on.

This book could, and should, be a continuing series.

Arthur Chappell


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