Book Review: The Mammoth Book of Alternate Histories

(Ian Watson, Ian Whates (eds); Constable & Robinson Ltd.; London 2010)

The wonders of a Kindle (and I’m sure of other e-readers too), is the ease with which one can pick up a book on a whim, sometimes at a scandalously low price, and begin to read. Or dip, as is the case with short story anthologies. Hang on, rewind… I say “dip”, but I read this from cover-to-cover. I am a real fan of the short story form: it forces a literary economy on the writer that serves as a genuine test or showcase of skill; it enables the exploration of ideas which might not sustain a longer form, or at their best they leave the reader excited and craving more. Single author collections can of course be deeply rewarding, but the multi-author anthology offers the excitement of not knowing what you are going to get. Famous, oft-reprinted classics jostle with sparkling new tales knocked-out especially for the collection at hand; disappointing trifles rub shoulders with unexpected gems. Some tales fail to engage and invite a rapid flicking of the pages, whilst others sink their hooks in and leave a lasting impression.

This collection promises much, assembling such luminaries as Harry Harrison, Fritz Leiber, A.A Attanasio, Kim Stanley Robinson, Robert Silverberg, Frederik Pohl, Stephen Baxter, as well as throwing in a few fan favourites (such as Kim Newman, reviewer extaordinaire and creator of the gleefully entertaining Anno Dracula trilogy). And I’m pleased to say it delivers. Its unifying theme of course is the alternate history, an exploration of events in divergent time streams where pivotal episodes in history turned out differently – sometimes ever-so-slightly so – to the way they did in our world. These “wrong turns” enable the authors collected here to explore escalating cascades of events which eventually end up in settings sometimes disturbingly different from the world we know.

Some of these stories employ devices of science fiction or fantasy to enrich their telling, such as Ken McLeod’s Sidewinders or Eugene Byrne’s and Kim Newman’s The Wandering Christian, but others tell it entirely straight, relating counter-factual history without the need for any fantastical elements. Some end up in places that are whimsical and amusing, others are more like morality tales, or warnings from across the multiverse, suggesting how we teeter on the edge of dystopia and horror every day, a single choice away from damnation. This is not a collection which includes examples of the more fantastic alternate histories (there are no vampires living openly amongst us, for example); it is decidedly more “hard core” in its intent. Some of its tales would sit well alongside academic counter-factuals such as Niall Ferguson’s Virtual Histories: Alternatives & Counterfactuals (1998).

The editors are respected sci-fi authors and, in the case of Whates, a publisher to boot. They have done a fine job of selecting and commissioning a collection of tales which beautifully represents the alternate history sub-genre. As with any such collection, some stories are better than others, but you will find here much to entertain, and much to make you think.

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About Mark Winter

Dark Fantasy novelist (INFERNAL PREY). Blogging on politics and current affairs (GibberLog), science and history (BlatherLog), sci-fi, fantasy & horror (WittlerLog), business, product development & start-ups (MutterLog). View all posts by Mark Winter

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