alternate history

Oppressive regimes in recent SFF

In Vox by Christina Dalcher, America has been taken over by fundamentalist right-wing Christians: a woman’s place is once more in the home. Only this time, she’s only allowed to speak 100 words a day. The Dark Gifts trilogy by Vic James is set in contemporary Britain with an alternative history, where only people with magic in their blood are full citizens with acknowledged human rights. Quite different styles and settings, but both give well-crafted and thought-provoking portrayals of oppressive regimes and how people react to them.

Vox has been on prominent display in three for two offers and the like at WHSmith and Waterstones on and off for months. It’s been in bestseller lists, and praised as a new Handmaid’s Tale left, right and centre. Which is why I’d delayed reading it, even though Christina is one of the flash fiction crowd I chat to on Twitter and I’d been so excited when she first announced her novel was going to be A Real Thing. Sci-fi that appeals to people who don’t read sci-fi is rarely satisfactory to those that do, in my experience (see my review of The Bees). I’m so glad that Vox turned out to be chilling, thrilling, near-future sociological SF with a healthy dose of science in it, and I can honestly say I really enjoyed it.

It’s hard to say much about Vox without giving away plot-twists. I thought the idea of the slippery slope was handled brilliantly, the glimpses of the path they’d gone down to get to the current state. At what point does behaviour cross a line between being the preserve of a weird minority it’s safe to ignore, and prominent enough that right-minded liberals (as the phrase would probably go, in the USA) should react against it? Can a person look back and pinpoint the moment they should have stood up for their (or someone else’s) rights, their last chance to change the course of society? What about if someone you love edges step by step along a path you abhor, following one seemingly reasonable (in isolation) argument after another? Then there’s the science element, laced with ambition and ethics. It’s all biology/medicine so I have no idea how real or plausible any of it is, but it did make me think about the way lots of scientific research can be used for good or ill, and all we can do is trust that it won’t be weaponised.

My one reservation is the epilogue; I personally would have preferred the book to end after the climax and do away with the hindsight summarising. However, I have similar views on the Jeff Vandermeer novel Borne, but that didn’t stop me loving the novel and recommending it. I’m happy to recommend Vox too.

I’ve only read the first two of the Dark Gifts trilogy so far (Gilded Cage and Tarnished City), though the third is lurking on my Kobo ready for me to dive into when I’ve finished the book I’m reading just now (Christmas-themed, therefore timebound). The main characters are the children of two very different families, ranging in age from ten to mid-twenties, with much of the action revolving around two boys in their late teens who end up bonded by circumstance in a fascinating (and not at all friendly) way.

Britain is powered by slaves; every non-magical person must do a ten-year stretch. Meanwhile the magical aristocracy (the ‘Equals’) live on their country estates in luxury, and the country is ruled by the heads of these powerful families. A mixture of propaganda and the silence of the traumatised ensures that the wider public never hear about, or simply don’t believe, the treatment of slaves in some parts of the country. When the Hadleys opt to do their slave-days as a family, on an aristocratic estate, their belief in the basic fairness of the system and the inevitability of slavery begins to wobble. Of course, even within the Equal society, some are more equal than others, and the tensions between and within families play out on a large scale.

Gilded Cage is very good on how ordinary people either turn a blind eye or simply miss the hints that all is not well – with busy lives and faith in basic decency they don’t want to rock the boat and assume the nastiest rumours are trouble-causing nonsense. It also portrays complexity and grey areas well, and the way that individuals don’t necessarily align with the group you expect them to. There are some fabulous characters in the trilogy, Silyen Jardine in particular keeps wrong-footing me and revealing yet another facet. Tarnished City kept the pace and tension and developed some of the characters in interesting ways, I’m looking forward to reading Bright Ruin, the final instalment.

Two Hundred and Twenty-one Baker Streets

Cover of Two Hundred and Twenty One Baker Streets

If you, like me, are lucky enough to find Two Hundred and Twenty-one Baker Streets in your local library, grab it and run to the issue desk. Edited by David Thomas Moore, it’s an anthology of fourteen reimaginings of Holmes and Watson across time, space and gender, and it’s almost entirely brilliant.

I came to Sherlock Holmes in the eighties via my dad and Jeremy Brett but I’m not precious about the characters so a ‘based on’ or a ‘reworking of’ is fine by me as long as it’s done well. In this collection there are stories set in America, England, Australia, even a high fantasy universe (courtesy of Adrian Tchaikovsky). There’s a female Watson with a male Holmes, and vice versa, there are pre-Victorian stories, present-day stories, one set in the future, even a couple of stories where the main characters are not called John Watson and Sherlock Holmes. And yet in each one the essence is there, some riff on the famous partnership, a recognisably Holmesian character who always puts facts before feelings. There is also, naturally, Mrs Hudson.

I only recognised one of the names on the author list and I’d never even read any of his work – I borrowed this book on the strength of its Sherlock Holmes connection. I’m glad I did, as I’ve now found a few new names to look out for. Two-thirds of the way through the book, as I finished another story and declared how much I loved it, OneMonkey pointed out that I’d said that after every one so far. Some work better than others in terms of mystery or solving a puzzle, but there’s plenty in the collection for any Sherlock Holmes fan with a predilection for alternative history or SF.

The Yiddish Policemen’s Union by Michael Chabon

Yiddish Policemen's Union

Imagine a world where Israel didn’t become a state in 1948, and where the largest Jewish community is a North American backwater tolerated (mostly) by the local Tlingit people on the understanding that it’s purely a temporary measure. Now imagine an unidentified Jewish junkie is found dead in his room in the same fleapit hotel that the area’s premier homicide detective currently calls home, on the eve of mass eviction. You have the beginnings of The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, an unusual novel that I enjoyed a great deal.

Sitka, in Michael Chabon’s world, is a small Yiddish-speaking homeland in the heart of Alaska on a 60-year lease starting in 1948. It’s now autumn 2007, 2 months from Reversion when the population of displaced European Jews and their descendents will be displaced again, this time by their American landlords. The novel apparently comes from the author having found a Yiddish travellers’ phrase-book from the 1950s and imagined what kind of place it might be useful, and heard about a failed 1940s plan to resettle displaced European Jews in Alaska. Laced with ornately mournful humour, the book was reminiscent of Malcolm Pryce’s Aberystwyth noir  in its alternate history and almost surreal setting, though it seemed less tongue in cheek (then again, I’ve never been to Alaska or a Jewish enclave, so I could have missed the overtly silly parts).

Meyer Landsman, a middle-aged alcoholic detective who’s falling apart at the seams, is nevertheless a sympathetic main character. I was rooting for him, I warmed to him, and I felt for him. First and foremost he is a policeman, and when Reversion comes the Sitka police force will be disbanded. What then? And what will happen to his neighbours, friends and family? There is an interesting theme of chess throughout the story – the ritual of playing it, the shame of not enjoying it when everyone else does, its puzzles as an allegory of life.

Chabon has written such lyrical prose that despite the relatively short chapters and the tension of the murder investigation (not to mention the headlong flight towards Reversion), I found myself putting the novel aside frequently to savour the images. At one point he described Landsman as walking ‘with a kink in his back and an ache in his head and a sharp throbbing pain in his dignity’. It was a book that deserved to be read slowly.

Fans of the hard-boiled detective story might need to be patient with this novel, it’s probably not as spare as they’re used to. If you’re not a detective fan, don’t be put off – like the rugby in This Sporting Life it’s a key part of the setting but not the only point to the story. I would recommend this widely to lovers of lyrical literature of wide open country, like The Shipping News by E Annie Proulx.

Did you miss me?

Technical problems have kept me away for a while but now I’m back I can share my thoughts on the Sideways in Crime anthology of 15 ‘alternate history mystery’ stories, edited by Lou Anders (Solaris, 2008). Interestingly it was filed under crime fiction in my local library (I was looking for Robert B Parker novels when it caught my eye) but I can’t imagine anyone who wouldn’t also browse the sci-fi/fantasy shelves taking a chance on it (there are a couple of uses of ‘twins’ in the form of clones or alternate universe duplicates that wouldn’t go down well). A couple of the stories struck me as being a bit more alternate universe than alternate history, though in a sense they could be seen as the same thing – what I mean is, those stories overtly used the existence of more than one universe, whereas the others all implied that this was our universe but one key moment had been different. It was a varied collection, but maybe not varied enough: 5 set in the UK, 8 in the USA (one isn’t actually specified but names, slang etc point to it), one in Aztec-ruled territory and one in a kind of inter-universe buffer (from a very quick web-search it looks like 11 were written by US authors, 3 British, 1 Caribbean). Featured empires include Roman, British, and Aztec.

The stand-out story for me was G-Men by Kristine Kathryn Rusch, which was also probably the only story I could see a hardened mystery fan approaching without trepidation; it was closer to the kind of political thriller you might get in the mainstream, asking one big what-if but leaving pretty much everything else alone. It was gripping, well-written, and very different from the only book of hers I’ve ever read (The Fey: Changeling), which was also enjoyable but far-removed in style.

Another worth mentioning is Murder in Geektopia by Paul Di Filippo, where a pacifist newspaper proprietor enlisted the ‘funny papers’ to his cause at the turn of the 20th century, and by 1975 geeks dominate the world, with live-action role-playing the sport of choice. It was a fun story, full of in-jokes for comic-loving geeks but if you scratch the surface you do start asking questions like ‘would that film have been made, or that comic character created if the cold war/world wars hadn’t happened?’.

Via Vortex by John Meaney was an interesting one, thought-provoking and not what it first seems, it also sends you in the wrong direction along the way about a couple of aspects (or it did me, at least).

A Murder in Eddsford by SM Stirling felt like part of a larger work, if only because one of the key points (the Change, followed by the Resettlement) was never really explained. That said, I did enjoy it, set in a southern England which is an interesting re-emergent rural idyll which has kept some of its 20th century innovations.

This is the one of the few anthologies in the last year that I’ve read from start to finish (though I did only skim-read Conspiracies: A Very Condensed 937-Page Novel by Mike Resnick and Eric Flint) so that must say something good about it – it helps that I like both speculative fiction and detective stories. I think lovers of steampunk, alternate universe and urban/contemporary fantasy will each find something to interest them here as well as those who enjoy their speculative fiction in mixed sub-genre magazines/anthologies.