Archives » Altered History

Rising Sun by Robert Conroy

Baen Books, 2012, 343 p.

I spotted this when the good lady was returning Irène Némirovsky’s Jezebel to the local library. As a sucker for altered histories I thought I’d give it a whirl.

Rising Sun cover

The set up here is that Japan won the Battle of Midway. Hawaii is withering on the vine, Japanese forces have invaded Alaska, raided the Panama Canal and occasionally bombard the US west coast. The sole substantial US aircraft carrier remaining is the Saratoga.

The novel focuses mainly on US Navy officer Tim Dane (who speaks and reads Japanese as a result of a pre-war visit there) though other characters – particularly his nurse girlfriend, Amanda Mallard – are given viewpoint scenes. The plot involves the lack of knowledge the Japanese have of the Saratoga’s whereabouts. A sub-plot involving a German saboteur, Wilhelm Braun, a former official in their embassy in Mexico, folds into the main narrative towards the end. We are given two token sympathetic Japanese characters (one belatedly sympathetic) and one German, Johann Klaas; but neither are all the USians in the book noble, good and true.

The scenario doesn’t really tell us anything new about the Pacific War nor illuminate history to any great degree. Effectively we spend the book waiting on the inevitable (given the author’s nationality and the publisher’s address) US victory.

I must say that for me Japanese Admiral Yamamoto’s tactics in the final battle of the book did not quite ring true; but had it been otherwise the novel would have had to continue well beyond its 343 pages.

This is the sort of thing that Harry Turtledove seems to perform effortlessly. Conroy’s prose is as efficient and his characterisation may (I would put it no higher) be slightly better but the immersion in the milieu feels less deep. I doubt I’ll read any more by him.

Pedant’s corner:-
There are several instances of omitted or repeated words. Britain is named as “England” (though the adjective used for the UK’s forces is “British.”) In a scene involving Johann Klaas, his name is mistakenly given as Braun in one sentence.

Camera Obscura by Lavie Tidhar

Angry Robot, 2011, 379 p.

 Camera Obscura cover

Camera Obscura is the second of Tidhar’s tales of The Bookman Histories. Whether it is desirable I can’t say as I’ve not read the previous volume but familiarity with the first is not necessary as this book did stand alone. Yet how to classify this blend of steampunk, altered history, murder mystery and SF? Best not to, perhaps. Let it all wash over you in an overwhelming wave.

Milady de Winter, once Cleopatra, The Ferocious Dahomey Amazon in Barnum’s Greatest Show on Earth, sometime wife of a late English Lord, now works for the Quiet Council, a group of machines which rules in Paris. Across the channel Queen Victoria is on the throne – but she is a lizard, one of the set of creatures awakened by Amerigo Vespucci when he ventured over the Atlantic to Caliban’s island. As a result, in this universe inhabitants of the New World are referred to as Vespuccians.

As the above perhaps indicates, various homages are made in the course of this tale. We encounter Viktor, a scientist who experiments on dead bodies, Edison players which operate using perforated discs, a representative of the Empire of Chung Kuo, Mycroft Holmes (an agent for British intelligence,) Citizen Sade – who likes to inflict pain, Sitting Bull, Buffalo Bill; the list is almost endless. We hear, too, of a man named Moreau, off to carry on his work on a Pacific island. There was even the sentence, “A man came through the door with a gun,” but that was inserted only to subvert the cliché it implies. Earlier it had reminded me the film of The Maltese Falcon. At a ball Viktor utters a line that reads as if it could have come out of Treasure Island. “The dead don’t dance, and they seldom drink,” begs to be followed with, “Yo, ho, ho, and a bottle of rum.”

The first section of the book is entitled Murder in the Rue Morgue and at this point it looks as if we are going to be reading a steampunk (secret) police procedural. The starting point is misleading though, as the murder story morphs into a different kind of tale. There is the sense that Tidhar is packing too many allusions and references into his novel, at the expense of a tighter story. Not that the journey isn’t enjoyable just that the focus becomes diffuse, though pointers to the resolution are distributed throughout.

It all builds to a climax set four years after the Paris Exposition Universelle, at The World’s Vespuccian Exposition in Chicago – Ferris Wheel and all. Compare The World’s Columbian Exposition (a World’s Fair whose buildings became known as The White City) of which there are some pictures here.

While Tidhar can write there really is too much going on here for the characters to grow and develop – but that is, I’m sure, deliberate. Read it for the adventure story, for the references and allusions. For its brio.

Pedant’s corner: Except for the one occasion where automata appeared the word automatons is used as a plural throughout the book. Milady at one point has “another death on her hand.” (Hand, singular. This was before she lost one of the relevant appendages and it was replaced with a Gatling gun.) “Apart for them” was used for “apart from them,” and in “as if she and the jade have come to some sort of understanding” (have should be had) – plus a “sank” for sunk.

Osama by Lavie Tidhar

Solaris 2012, 302 p

The novel opens in Vientiane, Laos – part of the Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere, a signal that we are not in our time line. Among other differences to our world there are references to Kuomintang China and Chiang Kai-shek. Here credit cards are novel, “The world is safe and healthy Opium comes from Asia, is made into medicine… and eases suffering. The money is taxed, which aids governance,” and cigarettes are smoked openly.

Joe is a private detective who reads the novels of Mike Longshott, extracts from which are reproduced in a typewriter–like font every so often through the novel. These recognisably feature our real Osama bin-Laden, or at least the actions of his followers.

A girl wanders into Joe’s office and asks him to find Longshott. This is only the first of many echoes of films noir or certainly those of Humphrey Bogart. This influence is made explicit when Joe meets in a bar a man called Rick (though Rick Laszlo) and with a couple of nods to the final departure scene in Casablanca.

Joe is puzzled by Longshott’s novels, wondering why the various bombings would take place as they are obviously part of a war of some sort. He muses, “If this was a war, how many dead were on the other side.” In Joe’s world there are Osama conventions – and all sorts of rumours about the reclusive Longshott.

Joe doesn’t know what The World Trade Center is or was, nor Samsung and Sanyo, nor the song Imagine, nor why people have “wires trailing from their ears.” The graffiti 9/11 and 7/7 also mean nothing to him. His world does contain the statue of Anteros in Piccadilly Circus but also WS Gilbert’s Topseyturveydom.

In his investigations – which take him as far as Paris and London – he encounters a girl who fades away unless she drinks alcohol and agents of the Committee on the Present Danger who are trying to prevent him contacting Longshott. The CPD questions him about iPods, flash mobs, DRM, Asian fusion, Star Wars, modems, James Bond, smart cars, Al-Jazeera, how cell phones work, what Area 51 is etc. It is very anxious indeed that none of the troubles of our world intrude into its, where the Cairo Conference of 1921 didn’t divide up the Middle East for the British; there was no Hashemite king in Iraq and no revolution in the 1950s, no US involvement in Vietnam and the British lost their African colonies after WW2.

As the book progresses ghosts increasingly flicker at the corners of Joe’s eyes. These are dubbed fuzzy-wuzzies. In their meeting at last Longshott talks about a woman who waxed and waned with the Moon. The CPD is desperate to prevent the fuzzy-wuzzies manifesting properly.
Perhaps because Tidhar is an Israeli the text has frequent USian touches (dove, off of, cell phone, curb, airplane) but there are also British usages.

I noticed an overfondness for the phrase “went past,” epicentre is used to mean point of balance and we had a “shrunk,” plus the text was littered with typos like “dusty shops selling stationary,” “snails … leaving their rails behind them,” “ the books did not seem particularly conductive for airplane flights,” “There was something her voice,” “he couldn’t… been explain.”

Some of the typos teetered on the edge of genius. “One woman was trapped under the rabble,” “the depilated building,” “baskets imprisoning the singing of live frogs,” “they were gone, fleeting from the edges of his cell like ghosts.” The last might not even have been a typo while “the depilated building” is positively Ballardian.

Despite the presence of these small irritants Osama is a well-written, gripping novel, casting a sly sidewise eye at our poor troubled world.

Black Opera by Mary Gentle

Gollancz, 2012, 680 p.

The book starts atmospherically with a prologue scene set around the eruption of the Indonesian volcano of Tambora in 1815, which provided the loudest sound in recorded history – an explosion so great that 1200 miles away it was thought to be artillery and threw so much ash into the atmosphere it resulted in “the Year without a Summer” in 1816. Perhaps the first sign that this is not a straight historical novel is that a party of “The Prince’s Men” is on hand – on an ocean-going steamboat.

The novel proper focuses on Conrad Scalese, a rationalist atheist who writes libretti for a living. His latest work has had a triumphant premier but lightning has struck the theatre where it was performed. The local (Neapolitan) Inquisition interprets this as a sign of God’s anger at the opera’s blasphemy and arrives to take him in for questioning. He is saved by the local police chief who conveys him to a meeting with the King of the Two Sicilies who assesses Conrad’s suitability to write the libretto for an opera which the King desires in order to counter a Black Opera which The Prince’s Men plan to perform in a few months’ time. The Black Opera is the secular equivalent of a black mass. Not only will it cause the eruption of Vesuvius, Stromboli, Ætna and other volcanic regions in between, thus devastating the Two Sicilies, it will summon up Il Principe, the God whom the creator God left in charge of Earth. Other intrusions of the supernatural into the narrative have Conrad’s father appearing as a ghost and people known as the Returned Dead – not zombies but fully functioning humans except for lacking the need to breathe.

The premise – that volcanic eruptions can be triggered by singing – is of course unremittingly silly but must be accepted for purposes of story. Invocation of gods or devils by incantation is time-honoured in fiction so their summoning by singing is not too much further of a stretch (but still too much for me.)

Gentle’s characterisation and plotting are excellent, though. The web of relationships around Conrad and the betrayals inherent in the set-up – the Prince’s Men are even more dangerous than the Cammora of Naples or the società onorata of Sicily – are finely detailed. Gentle’s knowledge of, or research on, opera seems solidly based to a non-buff. The collaborative nature of a first production, not only composer and librettist but also the singers, was well depicted.

As befits an altered history of the nineteenth century, the victor of Austerlitz and Borodino, the Emperor of the North, also makes two passing appearances.

Conrad’s sweet-bitterness towards his former love is pithily expressed, “It’s as easy to fall in love with a rich man as a poor man,” and the perennial complaint, “why a sister and a sweetheart will invariably combine their forces to persecute the relevant male,” is aired.

Despite any negativity above Black Opera is never less than readable; even the supernatural stuff.

Pedants’ complaints:- “Sung” count: 1. Livestock is a singular noun. Plus we had a who’s for whose, lay for lie, a beaus for beaux and one, “I can’t explained.” Despite her Italian setting and liberal use of Italian phrases, Gentle employed librettos and palazzos as plurals rather than the Italian libretti/palazzi. (Both forms are, though, acceptable in English.)

The Separation by Christopher Priest

Gollancz, 2004, 405 p

This is an altered history of a superior sort which won the BSFA Award for 2002 and the Clarke Award in 2003. It focuses on the lives of twin brothers, Jack and Joe Sawyer, who both have the same middle initial and so can be easily confused for one another. The twins won a bronze medal in the coxswainless pairs at the Berlin Olympics. Their medals were presented to them by Deputy Führer Rudolf Hess, who plays a large part in the novel. Both Joe’s and Jack’s written (or transcribed) memories carry the burden of the narrative.

While in Berlin the twins stay at the home of some Jews their parents were friendly with. When they leave they smuggle the couple’s daughter, Birgit, out of Germany in the boot of their car. She soon marries Joe. After war comes in 1939 Jack joins the RAF and subsequently pilots bombing raids over Germany, while Joe is a conscientious objector and undertakes work for the Red Cross. Given the attitudes they presented while in Germany both these developments are surprising.

There is a framing device (which is not returned to so it’s more like a set-up device) where Stuart Gratton, a historian searching for his next subject, has happened upon the twins’ existence. This is a curious sort of prelude as it serves to unbalance the narrative somewhat. It is set in a world where the British war with Germany ended on May 10th 1941 (the day in our world when Hess landed in Scotland and was taken prisoner). An untrammelled Germany then overpowers the USSR, the USA is embroiled in a war in China – where it defeats Mao – and there is a subsequent Cold War with Germany. Yet the notebooks Gratton receives from Jack Sawyer’s daughter describe memories from our world. In these notes Jack is asked by Churchill to meet the imprisoned Hess and concludes the prisoner is a look-alike. That within the body of the novel The Separation Gratton does not comment on these discrepancies compared to the history of his world struck me as odd. That there may be a possible connection between Gratton and the twins is something we have to infer for ourselves.

Possibly due to his conscientious objection Joe is set upon and suffers head injuries. Thereafter he experiences “lucid imaginings” – premonitions, hallucinations, experiences from other realities – which provide a rationale of sorts for the altered history. The hint of unreliability hangs heavy over all of this though.

There is not one separation here but several. A possibility, not of one altered reality, but quite a few. Whether the real Hess took off for Britain (claims that the Hess tried at Nuremberg and held in Spandau Prison was not real have been refuted) whether he was shot down by his own side, the twins’ estrangement due to them both loving Birgit, the peace talks and armistice, Joe’s “imaginings,” Gratton’s from the twins.

I’m not entirely sure that in the end the novel as a whole coheres but Priest’s writing is always enough to make the journey through one of his books worthwhile.

More Awards News

Great to see that Ian Sales’s BSFA Award winning Adrift on the Sea of Rains has made it to another awards short list, this time the Sidewise Awards; which are for Altered History (or Alternate History as they affect to call it.)

Hitler’€™s War by Harry Turtledove

Hodder, 2010, 496 p.

The usual fare from Turtledove. This time the altered history is that World War 2 starts in 1938 – though the actual Jonbar Point seems to be when Spanish General Sanjurjo survives his aeroplane flight from Portugal to Burgos to head up the Nationalist army in the Spanish Civil War which continues long after it did in our history as, after a failure of the talks in Munich two years later Hitler declares war on and invades Czechoslovakia. Major differences are that Poland then becomes a German ally, the invasion of France is not swift enough (apparently due to the early German panzers not being quite as effective as their later 1940 counterparts would be) and Japan eventually attacks the already war-embroiled USSR in Siberia.

The viewpoints are many, but hardly varied as the characters are as cardboard (or as functional) as always, or there simply to outline the war’€™s progress. The writing is as annoying as ever with its repetitions of information we already know. Particularly irritating was the observation that someone or other didn’t like some aspect of warfare “one bit” occurring again and again.

The reading is easy though; something I felt I needed after Gardens of the Sun. I don’t think I’€™ll be following the rest of The War That Came Early series though. There’€™s now another four of the beggars!

Weaver by Stephen Baxter

Gollancz, 2008, 321 p.

Unlike the previous volumes in Baxter’s “Time’s Tapestry” series which were spread over several centuries and as a result had a disjointed feel, the action in this one is spread over only a few years in the late 1930s and early 1940s. The tale is tighter and more cohesive as a consequence.

The prologue features an Irishman called O’Malley who at MIT has invented a machine he calls a “loom” with which – with the contribution of the dreams of an Austrian Jew called Ben Kamen – he has managed to send a message back to pre-Roman Britain. It isn’t long before both the loom and Kamen have been snatched by the Nazis and incorporated into their greater plan of altering history to ensure the triumph of the Reich.

The meat of the book is set in and after the invasion of Southern England by German forces once the BEF had been destroyed on the shore at Dunkirk. A hasty (and to my mind unlikely) deal by Churchill with the US sees them given military bases – US sovereign territory – south of London. As Hitler is seeking to avoid war with the US the German advance halts when they encounter these. This struck me as more of a sop to possible US readers of the book than something that would have occurred in such a scenario. The presence of a female US newspaper correspondent and her son in the cast of characters also points in this direction. A demarcation line cutting off South-East England is where the war situation settles down.

Off-stage Churchill falls as Prime Minister, to be succeeded by Lord Halifax who nevertheless continues the war – which goes on more or less as in our timeline; Barbarossa, Pearl Harbor, Stalingrad, El Alamein all get a mention, Japan’s invasion of Australia is new though. Again it may be more likely that Halifax would have sued for peace, but perhaps that would have been unthinkable with a substantial part of the UK – not just the Channel Islands – under German rule.

While Weaver can be read as a one-off with no detriment to the reading experience there are several nice touches where Baxter has his characters travel to locations which appeared in earlier books in the series; places like Birdoswald on Hadrian’s Wall and Richborough in Kent (Roman Rutupiae.)

This is the sort of thing that Harry Turtledove essays so frequently. Baxter’s characters are more rounded than Turtledove’s generally are and the extra twist of the loom makes for an added commentary on the contingency of historical events.

The Eye With Which the Universe Beholds Itself by Ian Sales

Whippleshield Books, 2013, 80p.

This is the second in the Apollo Quartet, the first of which, Adrift on the Sea of Rains, has just won the BSFA Award.

Once again we have an Altered History. Here, Alexei Leonov was the first man on the Moon but the Russians quickly gave up going there to concentrate on Space Stations. Our hero, Brigadier General Bradley Elliott, USAF, though, was the first – and only – man on Mars, in 1979. What he found there drives the plot as he is recalled to NASA twenty years later to undertake a faster than light trip to Gliese 376 to investigate what has happened to the colony there.

As in Adrift, there are two strands interleaved with each other (which is not unusual) and tricks with typography but again the Glossary which follows rounds out the tale – even if one part of it appears to contradict a piece of dialogue in the text. That latter could have been a deliberate misdirection, though and a Coda explaining the central conception and the FTL drive is a less successful addition to the formula.

With his utilisation of the glossary Sales seems to have found a new way to tell the space exploration story. It is of course a species of info dumping but he has arguably turned the necessity into a strength.

He is very good on the nuts and bolts of space travel, especially if you can thole the alphabet soup of NASA terminology. A list of abbreviations is given to help with this. Elliott is a complex enough figure though the other characters are less fleshed out; but in an 80 page book only 47 of which are actual story it could hardly be otherwise.

Navigator by Stephen Baxter

Time’s Tapestry Book 3.

Navigator is set between the years 1066 and 1492, with some scenes in England and the Jerusalem of the Crusader Outremer but the action occurs mostly in al-Andalus, the region of Spain then still ruled by the Moors. This book spans the gradual and piecemeal destruction of Islamic Western Europe. (Baxter notes the harshness and crudities of its replacement.) This necessarily highlights the contest between the Christian West and Islam which at the book’s start has been going on for 500 years, to its inhabitants seems unending, and is of obvious relevance today. Baxter carefully reminds us that it was the Muslim Arabs who preserved (and extended) the knowledge of Greece and Rome and manages to throw in a list of English words – still in use today – that are derived from Arabic.

The disruptions of history involved in this volume of Baxter’s “Time’s Tapestry” series are various. One is an interpolation from a future where the Muslim army was not defeated by the Franks at Poitiers and they went on to rule all Europe. Another is the development of war machines known as the Engines of God and a new agent of destruction which a parchment calls Incendium Dei, and turns out to be gunpowder. The main thrust of the prophecies in which the two families the story follows are entwined is the contest between looking west and Columbus’s voyages to the Americas or to turn east to combat the remaining forces of Islam.

The three main sections of the book – set in the years 1085, 1242-1248 and 1472-1491 respectively – have stories which, though they are connected loosely, do not really overlap which can make the reading a disjointed experience as it is not always the case that they occur at natural times to lay the book down.

The attractions of tales such as these lie in seeing what changes, if any, to our history are unfolded and what historical people pop up perhaps unexpectedly. (Roger Bacon in this instance.) A lot of history – arguably mostly all but forgotten in the West, except in Spain – is run through here, relatively painlessly, though occasionally the necessity for characters to talk about events holds back the action. The nature of the Weaver of Time, or his/her (I feel almost sure it will turn out to be his) possible adversary, the Witness, has still not been revealed. But there is always Volume 4; which, given the 500 year or so time span each volume of Time’s Tapestry encompasses, will take us up to the present, or nearly.

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