The finalists for the 2009 Sidewise Awards, honoring the best in alternate history, have been announced. And just in case the version of you in this universe hasn't already read the novel and five short stories, here's your primer.
The Sidewise Awards have two categories: long form, for works longer than sixty-thousand words, and short form, for pretty much everything else. Short stories and novellas are most often nominated, but everything from poetry to comics have also been up for the short form award over the years. Previous winners in the long form category include , Philip Roth's The Plot Against America, comic (and all-around) genius Stephen Fry's Making History, and Michael Chabon's The Yiddish Policemen's Union.
There's only one long form finalist this year, Robert Conroy's 1942: A Novel, although apparently the judges can simply make no selection at all if they don't think it deserves to win. On the short form side, there's a full slate of contenders. Here's what you need to know and where you need to go to get caught up on the various finalists.
1942: A Novel by Robert Conroy
One of alternate history's most prolific authors, Conroy's stock in trade is to pick a given year, make that the title of his book, and come up with the biggest military-related historical divergence he can. (He's already done 1945, 1862, and 1901.) In 1942, he explores what would have happened if the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor had been even more successful, completely crippling the US Navy and leading to the occupation of Hawaii. The book follows an American intelligence officer as he sneaks back into Hawaii to retrieve a captured codebreaker who could be the key to winning back the islands. He also romances a beautiful Pearl Harbor widow who has been chosen to be the personal mistress of the head of the Japanese secret police. The officer's various activities place him in great danger, and what follows is something between a twisted World War II epic and an episode of 24.
"Yes, We Have No Bananas" by Paul Di Filippo
Di Filippo is known for creating some seriously weird alternate universes, but at its most basic this story concerns a world where global warming happened a lot sooner and was a lot worse. Sort of - at the very least, a seriously ancient Daniel Webster is still somehow the President, and that's one of the more mundane details. There are quantum debates, Nubian princesses, growing apathy toward ocarinas, and a hapless hero named Tug Gingerella at the center of it all just trying to get by. In fact, the title might just say it all: there really are no bananas in this world, and apparently that's enough of a difference to make everything go utterly bonkers. It's maybe not as rigorously researched and thought out as some of the others, but it's a hell of a lot of fun.
The story is collected in Eclipse 3. Buy it here.
"The Fixation" by Alastair Reynolds
Folks, I'll be honest here - "The Fixation" has got my vote. Not only does the author share my name (even if he has misspelled it), but the work also concerns one of my favorite topics, archaeology. Oh, and the story has shades of The Gods Themselves by Isaac Asimov, an author who I occasionally discuss. So I'm hideously biased. Even so, this is an inspired story on its own merits, as a group of archaeologists from one universe steal entropy from another in order to revert ancient artifacts back to pristine condition, with dire consequences for a second team of archaeologists in one of the universes that's "donating" entropy. The story centers on one of history's great mysteries, the ancient Greek artifact known as the Antikythera Mechanism, which may or may not be an ancient computer.
The story was originally published in a Finnish science fiction collection back in 2007, which is awesome enough in its own right. It's since been republished in English in The Solaris Book of New Science Fiction, Vol. 3. Buy it here.
"Edison's Frankenstein" by Chris Roberson
Although the title references a 1910 silent movie made by Edison's film studios that was the first screen adaptation of Mary Shelley's novel, the actual story is set in 1893 at Chicago's Columbian Exposition. The story takes place in a world where a mysterious wonder material was discovered in the early 1800s known as promethium, which has pretty much solved all the world's energy problems forever. The best part is that, when promethium is placed near charcoal, more promethium is created. That's the sort of game changer that has left electricity as little more than a dead end for eccentrics like Thomas Edison. All that, however, is merely the backdrop for a story of intrigue and murder told from the perspective of an Algerian expat named Chabane, who is busy serving as bodyguard for the proprietor of the Algerian Village on the outskirts of the Exposition.
The story is available on the author's website. Read it here.
"The Black Swan" by Bruce Sterling
The story takes its name from the notion of a black swan event, which refers to the philosophical thought experiment that the existence of a single black swan disproves the hypothesis that all swans are white. This might seem like a banal observation, but it opens up larger questions about how to deal with very low-probability events that have a huge impact on our conception of the world simply because they happened at all. With that allusion in mind, we enter a seemingly standard cyberpunk scenario, in which a ethically compromised science writer is being given huge scoops from an industrial spy in a cafe. But then, things get weird, as it becomes increasingly clear that the spy isn't getting his secrets through the usual channels. I won't give anything away, but it's a safe bet that alternate universes are somehow involved.
The story was published in issue #221 of the British science fiction magazine Interzone. Buy it here.
"The Persistence of Souls" by Sarah Zettel
This story is part of a larger anthology, The Shadow Conspiracy, which imagines a steampunk nineteenth century borne of the imaginings of four poets in 1816. Set twenty-four years later, the story concerns Ada Lovelace, the daughter of Lord Byron and the brilliant business partner of difference engine inventor Charles Babbage. The two proto-computer geniuses look to carve out their own sphere of influence in a world of clockwork robots and thinking machines and escape of the influence of their Romantic predecessors.
The story is available at Book View Cafe. Read it here.
The entries are judged by a panel of six writers and luminaries: Stephen Baxter, Evelyn Leeper, Jim Rittenhouse, Stu Shiffman, Kurt Sidaway, and Steven H. Silver. The winner will be announced at the beginning of August at ReConStruction in Raleigh, North Carolina.