The Alternate Worlds of Science Fiction - a combined
by William Browning Spencer
(White Wolf Games Studio, 233 pages, August 1998.)
Roads Not Taken: Tales of Alternate History
edited by Gardner Dozois and Stanley Schmidt
(Del Rey, 322 pages, July 1998.)
Judgement of Tears: Anno Dracula 1959
by Kim Newman
(Carroll & Graf, 291 pages, November 1998.)
by Paul Di Filippo
(Four Walls Eight Windows, 294 pages, April 1996.)
Fantasy and science fiction easily lend themselves to questioning reality
and our perceptions of it, or twisting it this way and that to illuminate
the world we inhabit and how we relate to it. The writings of the late
K. Dick, for example, are steeped in such preoccupations. Characters
with tenuous grasps on reality, besieged by conspiracies as often imagined
than not, people his tales. William Browning Spencer is a newer author
who delves into a similar landscape, in a voice all his own, and haunted
by his own set of obsessions.
In his fourth novel, Irrational Fears, Spencer further explores
the terrain he had started to map out in his previous books: substance
abuse, therapy, conspiracies, romantic comedy, drugs that warp (or liberate)
reality, weird monsters invading the Earth, and dysfunctional eccentrics
caught in situations in which their already feeble grasp on reality
is often strained beyond the breaking point. In this novel, a ragtag
team of alcoholics attempts to foil the plans of The Clear--a religious
cult bent on discrediting and destroying Alcoholics Anonymous and repopulating
the Earth with giant tentacled space gods. Perhaps all of this is only
happening in the protagonist's mind; in Spencer's novels, reality is
unreliable. Although the author often juggles with similar elements,
each new work, like Irrational Fears, is fresh and exciting--never
a dull rehash, but always a challenging and entertaining journey into
the author's bizarre imagination.
Currently, the most fashionable type of reality-warping is the sub-genre
of science fiction known as alternate history--in which the worlds of
what might have been had history taken a different path are explored.
In recent years, a few Guns of the South by Harry
Turtledove and Fatherland by Robert Harris--have achieved critical
and commercial success in the mainstream and publishers have latched
onto the notion that by labelling such books "alternate history" instead
of "science fiction" they might reach a wider audience. Indeed, alternate
history novels and anthologies are now found on the mainstream fiction
shelves of many bookstores. One recent release is the retrospective
anthology Roads Not Taken: Tales of Alternate History. Given
the wealth of excellent stories to draw from, the selection here is
disappointing. Nevertheless, there are some noteworthy inclusions. The
contributions by Mike Resnick, Greg Costikyan, and Michael Flynn stand
out. My favourite is Gene Wolfe's amusing "How I Lost the Second World
War and Helped Turn Back the German Invasion.", in which Winston Churchill
challenges Hitler's government to an obstacle race pitting British automobiles
against German cars.
falling under that category--e.g.
Roads Not Taken presents a very American picture of the alternate
history scene, giving the false impression that it is an inherently
formulaic type of fiction. British writers (there are none in this anthology)
such as Michael Moorcock, Tanith Lee, Christopher Evans, and Kim Newman
take a more adventurous approach.
Mr. Newman's Judgement of Tears is the concluding volume in
the erudite genre-bending trilogy that began with Anno Dracula.
Here, the author commits an act not of alternate history
per se but of alternate literary history. He postulates a world where
humanity did not overcome Dracula (as in Bram Stoker's novel). In events
preceding the first volume, Dracula has become consort to Queen Victoria
and a vampire elite has risen to prominence in Great Britain. Anno
Dracula introduces Charles Beauregard, "a man who [tries] always
to do the right thing even when there [are] no right things to do."
Newman's protagonist is charming and intelligent, tender and courageous,
driven and compassionate--a hero's hero. In the first novel--a stylistic
blend of Bram Stoker, Robert Louis Stevenson, and Arthur Conan Doyle--vampire
prostitutes are being slain by Jack the Ripper. The reader is led into
an elaborate maze of investigation and political turmoil. The sequel,
The Bloody Red Baron, tells of the alliance between Dracula and
the Kaiser during the First World War amidst a flurry of aerial combat.
The concluding volume, set in the Rome of 1959, meshes Roman mythology
with the spy-thriller suspense of Ian Fleming and the flashy violence
of Italian crime movies. In it, both Dracula and Charles Beauregard
meet their final fate. The vast cast of characters includes, as in the
previous books, celebrities both historical and fictional in more or
less transformed guises. James Bond, Orson Welles, Superman, Charles
de Gaulle, John Huston, and many more rub elbows within the pages of
Judgment of Tears. It is recommended to read the previous two books
before tackling this one; many of its pleasures would
be muted otherwise.
Paul Di Filippo, like Kim Newman, is an author who delights in peppering
his work with pop culture references. Ribofunk is the first of
his books to be reprinted in a mass-market edition. It's a rich, heady
collection of stories sharing the same hyper-dense cyberpunk setting
filled with bizarre characters who are not at all bizarre to their surroundings.
The book chronicles a bio-engineered, nanotech future our consciousness
is not yet equipped to process, but whose potential is latent in our
current consensus reality.
Make no mistake, no matter how outwardly exotic fiction appears, deep
down it's always about the reality of the culture from which it sprang.
Originally published, in substantially different form, in The National
Post, Saturday 19 Dec 1998.
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