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The Alternate Worlds of Science Fiction - a combined review of:

Irrational Fears

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.)

Ribofunk

by Paul Di Filippo

(Four Walls Eight Windows, 294 pages, April 1996.)

Review by Claude Lalumière

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 cover scanPhilip 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 cover scanbooks falling under that category--e.g. 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.

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 cover scanhistory 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 cover scanwould 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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