What if the Nazis won WWII? What if Al Gore became President? What if Robert E. Lee used dinosaurs at the Battle of Gettysburg? What if I ordered the chicken instead of the fish? We've all asked ourselves these questions. Indeed, this kind of thought experiment forms the basis for an enduring subgenre of speculative fiction called alternate history. Appropriately, this subgenre has many names: The British say alternative history, the French uchronie , and historians use the term counterfactual history because they do not want to admit that they are secretly big SF nerds. There's also parahistory and my favorite, allohistory. I think IT workers call it Ctrl+Alt+Hist. But I digress, wildly.
The contents of Other Earths also branch off on many unexpected paths, not just in setting but in style and scope as well. Gevers and Lake have chosen some very atypical, even experimental, approaches to allohistory. As they point out in their introduction, this type of work has a strong military theme: Harry Turtledove and Eric Flint spring immediately to mind. While war affects the storylines of each of the pieces in this book, only a few of these stories actually occur during combat. "The Receivers," by an uncharacteristically understated Alastair Reynolds, takes place on the British Home Front during WWII. Rather than being built around a pivotal battle or the decision of a great general or politician, the Point of Divergence here rests upon the lives of two common soldiers who would have become famous composers in our world.
Literary treasure Gene Wolfe presents one of those stories of an Post-War England where Hitler won. Here we have spies and a dangerous mission involving the fate a great world leader. Far from the best work of this truly great author, "Donovan Sent Us" is still packed with compelling dialogue, tension, and of course some surprising twists. The triumphant Axis is a commonly-used Point of Divergence in allohistories including the very well-known Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick. A touch of PKD's later work can be felt in a hallucinogenic nightmare by Jeff VanderMeer about the last American president and the horrors of 9/11. We may not be living in the best of all possible worlds, but it could be a lot worse.
How realistic should an allohistory be? I really like Jo Walton's trilogy of novels starting with Farthing where the alternate world behaves exactly like ours without the inclusion of any fantastic elements. More often authors can't seem to resist adding a certain something-something: psychic powers, aliens, advanced technology, or trained dinosaurs. Who can blame them? Stuff like Naomi Novick's Napoleonic dragons is pure fun, even if your belief needs more suspension than the Dover-Calais Bridge. Other Earths spans this continuum from very realistic and compelling tales by Robert Charles Wilson and Paul Park to the magical or batshit insane.
I had some trouble accepting Stephen Baxter's technologically advanced Incan empire dominating a more primitive Europe and the rest of the globe even with a diversionary point of cosmic proportion. I blame the excellent and informative Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond, a must read for any student of counterfactual history. Greg Van Eekhout avoids explaining how the Holy City of Las Vegas came to be controlled by the Knights Templar and fez-wearing Chicago mobsters and his story is actually the stronger for it.
Another common type of allohistory is one where magic works like in the Lord Darcy stories of Randall Garret. We have two examples in Other Earths. Theodora Goss weaves together the legends and history of the Magyar people to bring us the tale of the Tündér, the Hungarian version of the Faerie, who have endured the Inquisition, pogroms, and concentration camps. Compare and contrast this with Liz Williams' story about a version of England in the year 1602 ruled by a half-fey Queen.
Although there are many decent stories in this anthology, it was the one by Lucius Shepard that really grabbed me and wouldn't let go. For those of you unfamiliar with Shepard, his edgy and visceral writing can come as quite a shock. He refuses to be pigeonholed in any easy category of speculative fiction infusing lyrical magic realism into tales of jungle warfare, smoky dives, and scar-knuckled brawlers. "Dog-Eared Paperpack of My Life" concerns an author who stumbles upon one of his books on Amazon, though he knows he never wrote it. With one fateful click he embarks on a harrowing and freakish exploration of self-discovery. There's a great deal of Joseph Conrad in this one, with quite a lot of depravity and a bit of that one goofy Jet Li movie. Not for the squeamish or overly sane.
The closing piece by Benjamin Rosenbaum is a brief meditation on the form. An excerpt:
We love choice. Choice is liberty, choice is the bounty of the common man. When we tell ourselves alternate histories, we are reassuring ourselves of the profaneness of events. We might have lost the war. And then everything would be different. There was a point of diversion. For want of a nail.
(If you had kissed the other one instead...)
And so too in this moment: For want of will, for want of clarity, for want of love, we could lose this moment, this war, this choice. We stand at a fork in the road, and one road leads down into darkness and the other up into light. Choose, choose, choose, choose, choose wisely.
Despite the disappointing lack of lack of Civil War dinosaurs, Other Earths might be a refreshing change for fans of alternate history, or whatever you call it in your world.
Commenter Grey_Area is known amongst the brave men of the 79th Armored Triceratops Cavalry as Christopher Hsiang. All your books are belong to him.