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Age of Legends by James Lovegrove

Solaris, 2019, 405 p.

 Age of Legends cover

The novel starts with a scene in which parakeets in London are being systematically culled. They are alien, you see. They don’t belong in Britain. At least not in a Britain run by Prime Minister David Drake, head of the Resurrection Party, out to restore the country to “proper” British values and rid it of all undesirables. This last category, of course, includes anyone not born in the UK. Ajia Snell’s mother has been deported “back” to India – a country she had never visited. Bicycle courier Ajia’s father was white British, and therefore she is tolerated. Just. Her dusky skin tends to attract suspicion in certain quarters though. When out on her self-imposed mission to paint graffiti criticising Drake, she is spotted by cops and shot while trying to escape them. This leads to her capture, imprisonment and beating. Her heart stops.

It is of no consequence. The police can do anything they like in this law-and–ordered world. Two cops are delegated to dispose of the body. While they are dumping her in a sewer she wakes up, frightening them off.

Resting on a park bench, she is saved from a further beating at the hands of a vagrant by a man calling himself Smith. He calls her “good fellow” and tells her she is one of a new kind, people who did indeed die but have somehow come back to life with special attributes, attributes drawn from British mythological figures and folk tales. She is Puck, aka Robin Goodfellow, and has the ability to move at incredible speed. Smith is able to rework broken metal and shattered glass into new objects.

Nominative determinism is a central feature of the reincarnations in this book, who are known collectively as eidolons. Their leader is called Auberon LeRoy. A man named Fletcher is extremely handy with a bow and arrow, Daisy Hawthorn has power over growing things, Wee Paul Klein can diminish in size, Neve Winterton has the ability to freeze and unfreeze things. In order to save the soul of Britain they and their like are set to do battle against the armoured cars and Humvees of Drake’s security force, the Paladins.

Interspersed with the story of Ajia Snell (both of whose names mean speed) we are given the experiences of Drake, his wife Harriet, and Security Chief Major Dominic Wynne. In their telling I found these scenes to be reminiscent of the fiction of Harry Turtledove. Before entering politics Drake had been a successful businessman and collector of religious artefacts. He believes himself to be a devout Christian (in his youth a hard row to hoe, in his opinion) but his actions belie any tenets of that faith beyond those of the Old Testament fundamentalist types who seem able to ignore totally any (all?) of the compassionate things that their Messiah is reported to have said and encouraged. Drake’s prize possession is the Holy Grail. Returning to Britain after purchasing it abroad, his helicopter had crashed, with Drake the sole survivor. It is kept under lock and key in a secure building in the grounds of his family home. Not only does he talk to it, it talks back to him in the voice of his companion on that trip, Emrys Sage.

I note there is no mention of the Monarchy in this depiction of a Britain under Fascist rule. An odd omission. Perhaps we are meant to assume it’s been abolished. The implication is that it has been sidelined and of no relevance, certainly no kind of brake on anything.

I suspect Lovegrove intended his tale as a warning of how close the UK is to a future of this sort. Its appeal I suppose lies in the invocation of mythic British heroes and the prospect of the fascist state’s overthrow. However, the treatment suggests that we need to depend on the supernatural to rescue us from such a fate. If that’s the case we’re more lost than I had feared. It’s also depressing that in order to overcome it those heroes have to resort to methods almost indistinguishable from their persecutors. I suppose that was ever the way though.

Pedant’s corner:- Many instances of “‘time interval’ later” throughout. Otherwise; “‘that there was any unnatural about your speed’” (anything unnatural,) a missing comma before a piece of direct speech, “‘You’re coming with’” (coming with me,) “where an assortment of … were parked” (an assortment … was parked.) “Mr LeRoy helped pored” (helped pour,) “air conditioning kept the temperature steady between 16 and 200C (a 4 degree range is hardly steady,) a pope (a Pope,) “used by the Saint Veronica” (Saints’names are not usually prefixed by the definite article; ‘used by Saint Veronica’,) “there were a number of ikons and Bibles,” (‘there was a number’ or, here, ‘there were numbers of…,) “told you do” (told you to do,) unadvisable (inadvisable,) “that Auberon LeRoy fit the bill” (fitted the bill.) “A trio of Paladins were zeroing in” (A trio … was zeroing in,) “skidded into the life” (into life.) “Mr Le Roy sai without looking round” (Mr LeRoy said..,) “of out both politeness and deference” (out of both,) jpeg (x3, it was a video file, I believe that’s an mpeg, or a gif,) “his his great shoulders” (only one ‘his’ required,) lay low (lie low,) “for another women” (woman.) “The armoured slowed” (armoured truck slowed,) “said to much” (too much,) travelling into the troop-carrier” (in the troop-carrier,) “the tongue-lashing he’d excepted” (expected,) “an elicit thrill” (illicit thrill, this was used correctly later, as was elicit,) “was quite bit older” (quite a bit older,) “all she owned in the way of acreage were two window boxes” (all she owned … was two window boxes,) “‘but all indications is that’” (all indications are that,) “like steel hawser” (like a steel hawser,) “the onyx, jewel-encrusted cup” (the jewel-encrusted onyx cup,) “over a licking flames” (‘over a licking flame’, or, over licking flames’,) “as if unconscionably” (‘unconsciously’ makes more sense in the context. Unconscionably = ‘without conscience’ rather than ‘without thought’,) “an besuited MC took up the microphone on small stage” (a besuited MC took up the microphone on a small stage,) “Drake’s Paladin’s killed them all” (Paladins.) “‘Add your ability own to ours’” (Add your own ability to ours,) behind the fathering “‘and you’d be alerting the bastards the fact’” (and you’d be alerting the bastards to the fact.) “Smith look up at Fletcher” (looked up.) “Lieutenant Noble raised spoke hurriedly into his lapel mic” (raised what?) “Harriet laid on the bed” (Laid? Laid what? ‘Harriet lay on the bed’,) “pointed to see the town far below” (pointed to the town..,) whiskey (x3, whisky.) “They drove onto town” (on to town, or, into town.) At television stood in the corner” (A television,) “‘to contact President Vasilyev on the morning’” (‘in the morning’ is more usual.) “‘The flashed up a fucking mugshot of me, didn’t they?’” (They flashed up..,) “on Wolfson arm” (Wolfson’s arm,) “raring like a demon” (roaring makes more sense,) “‘the method of murder in Bradford suggest the same perpetrator’” (the method … suggests,) “towards an door” (a door,) “a strong of high-pitched gibberish” (a string,) “and hugged hers shins” (her shins,) “or rather where its head has been” (had been.) “‘On you way.’” (On your way,) “a newsagents” (newsagent’s,) “the creature shrieked and rage” (in rage.) Edward Winterton opened her eyes and smiled sat her” (opened his eyes and smiled at her,) “that had rang out” (that had rung out,) parliament (Parliament,) “in ones and two” (ones and twos,) “aptitude with the weapons” (it’s usually aptitude for, not with, something,) “icy and other creepers” (ivy,) “until such a time” (usually ‘until such time’,) “at the top of their voices” (‘tops of their voices’ is more grammatical,) “the line of a ha-ha diving it from sloping lawns” (dividing it,) “jersey cows” (Jersey cows,) “a small force of Russian insurgents have crossed the border” (a small force … has crossed,) a missing full stop (x2,) “more Paladin” (Paladins,) “opened fire of the castle’s defenders” (on the castle’s defenders.) “The reply was hard to make out about the rattle of gunfire” (above the rattle.) “The study door open and an voice” (door opened and a voice,) “You will seek to form a coalition with Labour and the Liberal Democrats” (Labour and the Liberal Democrats are still around in this scenario? They’ve not been banned?)

Roads Not Taken edited by Gardner Dozois and Stanley Schmidt

Tales of Alternate History, Del Rey, 1998, 332 p plus iv p What is Alternate History? by Shelly Shapiro.

Roads Not Taken cover

The question in that What is Alternate History? introduction is surely superfluous to anyone with an interest in buying this book.

As someone with an interest in both history and SF I’m obviously a pushover for counterfactual histories like the ones collected here. None of the stories (which are all by men I note) here deal with the big what-ifs like different outcomes to the US Civil War or Second World War but instead examine smaller turning points with subtler ramifications. The quality of the writing is variable but all hold the attention.
Must and Shall1 by Harry Turtledove sees Lincoln shot in a Confederate attack on Washington DC so that many years later the former Confederate States are still ruled by a much resented military occupation and aching to rebel.
An Outpost of the Empire2 is one of Robert Silverberg’s Roma Eterna stories. Here a new Roman pro-consul comes to Venetia – once of the recently defeated Byzantine Empire. The Byzantine Greek aristocrat Eudoxia despises him yet has to be accommodating. The plot could be described as Pride and Prejudice in togas even though Silverberg undercuts it with his last sentence.
In We Could Do Worse by Gregory Benford we are under Joe McCarthy’s Presidency as Nixon had delivered the 1950 California Republican Primary delegates to Taft who in turn nominated McCarthy as Vice-President. Taft died. The story illustrates the resulting authoritarianism and bending of rules to ensure McCarthy’s re-election, all in the name of anti-Communism. Sadly this strikes all too resonant a chord now than it would when it was first published in 1989.
Mike Resnick’s Over There3 sees Teddy Roosevelt make a nuisance of himself during the Great War by reconstituting his Rough Riders and taking them over to France where Pershing is under orders to keep him well away from the front.
Ink From the New Moon by A A Attanasio is narrated by a Chinese visitor to the New World – colonised from Asia much earlier than it was by Europeans in our time – and encounters Columbus.
Southpaw by Bruce McAllister follows Fidel Castro after his acceptance of the invitation to become a professional baseball player with the New York Giants. The story concerns his glancing contact with Cuban dissidents.
Greg Costikyan’s The West is Red4 has an impoverished capitalist USA has voting in a Communist President to implement the more efficient economics of centralist planning. Background events in the story bear some resemblance to Boris Yeltsin’s frustration of the old guard’s coup d’état in our world.
The longest story in the book, The Forest of Time5 by Michael J Flynn, examines the fate of a parallel worlds Jumper who is marooned in a North America where the thirteen original colonies never united and focuses on the responses of those who encounter him.
In Aristotle and the Gun6 by L Sprague de Camp a time traveller goes back to try to persuade Aristotle of the benefits of the Scientific Method, with, to him, unexpected results.
How I Lost the Second World War and Helped Turn Back the German Invasion by Gene Wolfe is not as apocalyptic as it sounds. The Second World War is a board game and the German invasion is by the “People’s Car”, a device outperformed due to Churchill’s knowledge of the properties of transistors.

Pedant’s corner:- 1Michaels’ (Michaels’s,) Morrie Harris’ (Morrie Harris’s,) New Orleans’ (New Orleans’s,) “gaping at naked women” (it’s usually gawping at,) Colquit Reynolds’ (Colquit Reynolds’s) 2In the introduction “Shadrack in the Furnace” (Shadrach.) 3”Bullets and cannonballs flew to the right and left” (cannonballs? In World War 1?) 4”would have own the Cold War” (would have won.) 5mowed down (mown.) “The argument in the cell reached a crescendo.” (No. It reached a climax,) Oschenfuss’ (Oschenfuss’s.) 6Nearchos’ (Nearchos’s,) Alexandros’ (Alexandros’s,) Zandras’ (Zandras’s,) Attalos’ (Attalos’s,) Herodotos’ (Herodotos’s.)

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.

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.

In The Presence Of Mine Enemies by Harry Turtledove

New American Library, 2003, 454 p.

Germany won the Second World War and twenty years later a Third. In 2009, the US, like most of Europe, is a vassal state, paying reparations to avoid the panzers rolling out from their bases in US cities. The British Union of Fascists holds sway in a Britain also in thrall to Germany.

In Berlin, the Gimpel family lets its eldest daughter into a secret. They are Jews, and must keep their origins hidden, speaking of it only to those in their immediate circle. Meanwhile the old Führer, a character whose real world model is only thinly disguised by the name Kurt Haldweim, has died and the new one, Heinz Buckliger, starts to loosen the strings of dictatorship. This strand of the plot hinges on textual differences between the first and subsequent editions of Mein Kampf, a subject on which I have to take Turtledove on trust.

Parallels with our world are one of the delights of altered histories. Nice touches here are a stage production featuring the baddies Churchill and Stalin which is so awful that it’s a smash hit and a delegation from the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia, asking for autonomy for the region, being led by a grey-haired Czech playwright.

(Slight spoiler alert:-

The thousand year Reich (had it survived World War II) would no doubt have collapsed under its internal contradictions at some point long before a millennium had passed but perhaps not quite so quickly and easily as portrayed here. The parallel with the Soviet Union of our own world which Turtledove implicitly outlines by having the Gauleiter of Berlin face down SS tanks in front of his residence does not really hold. In the world of the novel there was no Cold War to sap and counter its ideology – Japan is not presented as too great a rival to Germany – and hence any decay would likely have been much slower.)

This may be the story Turtledove always wanted to tell – Jewishness has unsurprisingly featured prominently in his altered worlds and this is the ultimate scenario to deploy in order to explore it. I’m afraid his writing does not do this particular theme justice, though. It has his usual multiple viewpoints, but all are Jewish here. Other familiar traits are too prevalent; the tendency to reiterate characters’ thoughts or peccadilloes, to labour a point, and here he doesn’t so much foreshadow future events as telegraph them. Plus he is too kind to his viewpoint characters and the book’s Nazis are cardboard – all the really evil deeds are in the novel’s past – which is a shame because this could have been a powerful indictment of man’s inhumanity to man.

The idea for In The Presence Of Mine Enemies worked much better at the short story length in which it first appeared in 1992.

End Of The Beginning by Harry Turtledove

ROC, 2005. 519p

A Churchill reference for the title this time rather than a Roosevelt one but it remains the same Turtledove.

The inhabitants of Hawaii are still coming to terms with the Japanese occupation which occurred in Days Of Infamy. Food is scarce, much of Hawaii’s land is now given over to growing rice, but for the US POWs it is less than scarce; plus they are being worked to death. Despite the harassment by submarine of the supply shipping from their home islands – at one point Turtledove alludes to the US breaking of Japanese codes which makes this easier – the Japanese forces are confident of holding off any further US attempts to retake the islands. On all sides, Japanese, native Hawaiians and US citizens alike, there is a sense of marking time – or holding on – until the inevitable renewed US attack. Meanwhile in the US there is a steely determination to regain the islands.

The lack of jeopardy to the characters which seemed to pervade Days Of Infamy is more than made up for here. In retrospect that may have been because the former book was an exercise in setting up this one, characters needed to be in place. End Of The Beginning explores the earlier book’s ramifications, one of which is that the fate you always felt Turtledove had in store for Jane Armitage (which was not so much foreshadowed as put up in lights) indeed comes to pass.

The US onslaught, when it comes, is of course overwhelming. (Admiral Yamamoto’s knowledge – and fear – of US industrial might and Japan’s relative lack of preparedness to withstand it is discussed more than once.)

The naval battle scenes are reasonably convincing and seem to pass quickly. The treatment of the Japanese resistance on Oahu feels a bit perfunctory, though. We hear about it but don’t witness much of it.

SPOILER ALERT.
Turtledove is undoubtedly correct in not ignoring the Japanese enslavement of “comfort women.” Also reflecting the nineteen forties there is an element of misogyny – and maybe racism too – in the post-liberation treatment of the woman of Chinese origin who kept house in their brothel in Wahiawa. While two males suspected of being guilty of collaboration escape relatively freely, she does not.

Overall the book is curiously readable. Whether it was more familiarity with the characters and scenario or due to more incident it seemed to flow more freely than Days Of Infamy. But both books are marshmallow reading, very little thought is required.

Days Of Infamy by Harry Turtledove

Roc, 2005. 520p

Once more from the sublime (Lavinia) to the ridiculous. This book covers what might be termed the natural twentieth century US Altered History scenario but which I don’t believe anyone else has tackled. What if Japan had not just raided Pearl Harbor but actually invaded and taken Hawaii?

Days Of Infamy has the usual Turtledove modus operandi familiar from his Great War, American Empire, Settling Accounts, World War and Colonisation series which all had multi-stranded narratives, each thread from a different viewpoint character. The twist this time is we get a few Japanese to follow.

The format has the usual faults, too. The cuts between viewpoints make the flow jumpy, some characters are merely irritating and others appear solely in order to push the story on. Some of them indeed are more or less the same cardboard people from those other series (Fletch Armitage for instance is only a transplanted Sam Carsten) and too often they repeat thoughts they’ve had previously.

Offstage, the Japanese still over-run Malaya and Burma – though surely that would have been a serious overstretch (which arguably was the case in reality, even without Hawaii) – but Turtledove has of course rearranged some things to suit his narrative. Here, for example, General Yamashita is on Hawaii and not at Singapore. He gets to say similar things at the US surrender of Hawaii as he did in the real 1942, though. There is too, a nice twist on the Doolittle Raid, now launched on Hawaii and not the Japanese home islands.

Most of the viewpoint characters are actually rather uninteresting but the beach surfer type is an unusual choice of voice. In the Great War series I remember Turtledove killing off at least one of his narrators. A major fault with Days Of Infamy is you never feel any of the narrators are in real jeopardy. Only incidental characters die.

There’s only one more in this series though.

At least so far.

Departures by Harry Turtledove

Del Rey, 1993. 352p.

This is a collection of short stories varying considerably in length. All are divertissements, some much more light-heartedly intended than others.

While some are future based SF, many are historically rooted (in the counterfactual sense) but some are fantasy rather than SF – one features a werewolf, another the Devil. Two have scenarios involving baseball; one of these – a Ring Lardner pastiche apparently – is almost incomprehensible to someone not au fait with the game’s idiosyncrasies, or indeed Ring Lardner’s oeuvre.

The most intriguing premise has a certain religion’s main prophet becoming instead a Christian monk and (whisper it) Islam failing to be born. This was a universe Turtledove mined extensively for his Agent Of Byzantium stories the seventh of which, Pillar Of Cloud, Pillar Of Fire (otherwise uncollected?) appears here.

In passing it’s nice to know that the Lizards from Turtledove’s World War:Balance and Colonisation books were actually inspired by ancient Persians (see Potsherds, the first story in this book.)

Departures is light reading only – which I need at this time of year.

Homeward Bound by Harry Turtledove

Hodder and Stoughton, 2005, 597p.

This is really Colonisation:4. Many of the “characters” from the Colonisation series reappear here.

This is the book, though, where we finally get to see the Lizards’ original world, Home. A US starship, with the aid of cold sleep technology adapted from that of the Lizards’ has been sent there to try to negotiate a basis of equality with them.

There are some sly asides about the US Ambassador to Home, referred to solely as the Doctor, who can only be meant to be Henry Kissinger. Unfortunately he does not wake up from the cold sleep necessary for the transit so one of our previous Colonisation acquaintances is pitched into the ambassadorial role. Also a character named Nicole Nichols is surely a nod to the communications officer of the original Star Trek.

There was one typo I thought was brilliant. “Buildings gradually got farther and father apart.”

Homeward Bound is an effortless, light read. Turtledove’s narrative goes down smoothly, as it always does, but the characterisation is still weak and repetition of information and attitudes far too frequent. He leaves open the possibility of yet more sequels.

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