Harry Turtledove,
S.M. Stirling,
Mary Gentle &
Walter Jon Williams,
Worlds That Weren't
(Roc, 2002)

Worlds That Weren't seems like a great idea. Four skilled alternate historians give us stories from worlds not so far removed from ours. Two philosophers, a war and a planetwide catastrophe plague these barely alternate worlds, but it's the history they don't have that hampers this ambitious project.

Harry Turtledove starts things off subtly with "The Daimon," a just-barely alternate history. Those not familiar with Greek history may not even know what's alternate about this Socrates-centered tale until his decidedly non-hemlock death. A philosopher may not be the most obvious or even interesting subject for an alternate history, but Turtledove uses Socrates like a keystone, shifting the arc of history on the old man's participation. He also captures perfectly the annoying conversational style Socrates was notorious for in his own time, so that even the sympathetic reader can see how this single small voice could have brought such angry attention from the mighty Greek state.

S.M. Stirling has casually dropped a rain of comets on the Earth's most developed nations, and created a huge wild world to play with. "Shikari in Galveston" happens in the recovering land of Texas, where the descendants of early settlers and old Native American tribes are creating a new society against the threat of the cannibal tribes that live in the thick woods. The Texan tribal culture is a joy to experience, recognizable to a native but as alien as any strange planet. Stirling draws inspiration from the unknown lands that populated Victorian fiction, and it shows in the unfettered enthusiasm of his writing. Though this is obviously a story linked to a larger tale, its Victorian feel makes it seem more like part of a serial than an uprooted prologue.

Mary Gentle examines "The Logistics of Carthage" in a story that at first seems closer to home. Soldiers on a Crusade stomp through the Holy Land, bringing the wreckage that so often accompanies soldiers. But Gentle seems unsatisfied with her well-spun story of clashing ideologies and the normal people who drive them. The heroine of the story interrupts this solid tale with frequent forced visions of the future. These visions sap the uniqueness from Gentle's world, as her tired archer converses with women who could be any archeologist, any modern soldier. It makes the changes in her Middle Ages seem unimportant to be so quickly ironed out. "The Logistics of Carthage" is a branch story from a larger work, and feels like it.

Worlds That Weren't ends as it started, with a story about a philosopher. Walter Jon Williams says "The Last Ride of German Freddie" sprung into his head full blown. Putting Friedrich Nietzsche in politics of Earp-era Tombstone may seem like a pointless idea. And it is. If you're an enormous fan of Nietzsche, "The Last Ride of German Freddie" may be slightly less irritating. Where Turtledove kept Socrates distant, and therefor interesting, William dives into Nietzsche's inner thoughts and makes him intolerable. Nor does the story even change history beyond drawing out the tensions of Tombstone, unless you think the Third Reich wouldn't have found another pet philosopher.

My main problem with Worlds That Weren't is that the stories just don't stand well enough on their own. While author's notes may illuminate or add to a story, they shouldn't be necessary to understand what's going on. Of the four stories gathered here, only Turtledove's "The Daimon" is so self sufficient. "Shikari In Galveston" manages to embrace its limitations and delivers an exciting story that leaves the background open to exploration. But both "The Logistics of Carthage" and "The Last Ride of German Freddie" depend too heavily on a fondness for background materials readers aren't especially likely to have read: Mary Gentle's epic Ash and the ideas of Friedrich Nietzsche. Worlds That Weren't is a collection of tantalizing but ultimately unfulfilling histories that will leave readers looking for more.

- Rambles
written by Sarah Meador
published 14 December 2002

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