As I’ve stated in previous reviews I love a story that makes you think. The Alternate History genre is on the top of that list for me. The idea is to explore what could have been or what could be. We all ask the “What if?” questions. What if the South had won the Civil War? What if Hitler hadn’t killed himself? There are so many different tracts our lives and histories could have gone down. The idea that changing one event could change all of history is an intriguing idea. Which is why I enjoy stories like the one presented in this collection.
“The Best Alternate Stories of the 20th Century,” edited by Harry Turtledove and Martin H. Greenberg, has fourteen alternate history stories written by various authors. The questions asked range from the generic about the South winning the Civil War to what if Shakespeare had never written his famous plays and sonnets? The stories presented here do not stay in one area. It is not a collection all about the Civil War or World War II. It runs the gamut of topics and explores many ideas and questions that you may never have thought too much about before. The range of histories are scary and unnerving at times while others do not seem all that bad.
Not all the stories of the collection were memorable to me, though most were. I did have a bit of trouble in a few of the stories pinpointing exactly how history had been altered for the story, mostly in the stories that were set in the far distant future. This could be for a variety of reasons. It is most likely because I have a limited knowledge of history. There is a good possibility I missed a significant aspect of a story because I did not know about that moment in history. But this did not happen often and was only for one or two of the stories.
I did have three stories that stood out to me. The first was titled “The WinterBerry,” by Nicholas A. DiChario. The story is told in a what appears to be a diary format with dated entries. It is never stated outright who the speaker is but you can infer from the dates and other characters present that it is President John F. Kennedy. The what if question that is asked and answered is, What if President Kennedy had not died in the assassination attempt? In this story it appears he survived but was severely mentally handicapped to the point where he thinks like a young child. The story gives us a glimpse into the extent that the government could go to, to hide something them deem harmful from the American people.
John F. Kennedy is hidden away from the public, leaving everyone to believe that he has died. They say it is safer for the country. It is an interesting story because it seems plausible to me. (Not that I believe it is true but the actions taken seem like a possibility). People see leaders has infallible many times. For a country to see their leader acting and speaking like a child would be a shock and could cause issues. I could see people becoming confused and having trouble trusting the government for a time. They would have trouble reconciling the incident and consequences throwing off many other aspects of life. Hiding him away would make sense to keep people from losing trust and faith in the power of the country. The What if here asks how far would our government go to conceal truths they believe would hurt and cause disruption to the country?
The second story that stood out to me was “Dance Band of the ‘Titanic,’” by Jack L. Chalker. This story didn’t ask just one historical What if question. What it did was more of show that there are many alternate lines of history that could be running all around us.
The story centers on a ferry boat that travels on the edge of alternate world lines or parallel universes. The crew are the only ones who realize that they are slipping between different histories. People board from all type of histories and time periods and do not interact with people outside of their own time. The crew watches as these people come and go, over and over, sometimes changing dramatically and sometimes not at all.
The story focuses on one young woman who commits suicide time after time. Our protagonist is intent on saving her and eventually does just that. The question becomes how has he now altered her storyline and that of those around her?
This story takes the concept of the whole book and sort of sums it up in one story. The crew of this ferry boat are able to see just how life can be altered by one decision. I enjoyed this story because it makes you think about the concept of alternate histories.
“The Undiscovered,” by William Sanders asks the question of What if Shakespeare ended up in the New World and never wrote his famous plays and sonnets?
Inside of this story the reader gets to watch as a master of words is lost to time. He never leaves anything behind him. The story doesn’t give details about a world without his writing instead leaving the reader to consider the consequences. Such as what would our idea of love and sacrifice be like without a classic such as “Romeo and Juliet,”? What would tragedy have evolved into without “Hamlet,” and “Macbeth,”? What would our language sound like without the multitude of words and phases he left behind. This story is one where we are able to consider a world that could be vastly different from ours today.
If you want to explore what could have been I suggest taking a trip through this collection. Not every story will make you step back and go “Hmmm,” but some will. It is a book full of stories that allows you to think about the consequences of one action or one event. It allows you to be able to consider the vast amount of possibilities that history has to offer.