Alt. History 102 is the second ‘alternative history’ anthology from the same stable as the bestselling Future Chronicles series. Curator Samuel Peralta has compiled a range of stories from twelve speculative fiction authors, inviting them to imagine worlds where our established history travelled along a different path. The results are varied and fascinating!
I was offered an Advance Review Copy of this anthology and was intrigued by the premise. Parallel world stories typically blend the historical and science fiction genres, but there can also be a lot of fun imagining how our present-day society would be if things had gone differently.
Not all of these stories were as satisfying for me as they could have been, but the eclectic range means every reader will find a tale they enjoy. Here are my thoughts on each.
The Most Beautiful Woman by Jennifer Ellis is a strong start to the anthology. Many alternative histories revolve around Adolf Hitler, but this focuses on inventor and actress Hedy Lamarr undertaking a mission to spy on, seduce and ultimately assassinate the Führer. I was drawn in by some very believable writing and characterisation, becoming fascinated by a historical figure I had never heard of before.
Requiem by Will Swardstrom tells of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart staging a daring rescue of Marie Antoinette from the horrors of the French Revolution – surely one of the greatest one-line pitches ever! Structured as musical acts and narrated by the closest thing the eccentric composer has to a friend, this is another exciting adventure that made me want to look closer into real historical events to learn more of the backstory.
Diablo Del Mar by Artie Cabrera takes an equally famous figure, Christopher Columbus, and plunges him into a swashbuckling saga involving secret cults, sea monsters, UFOs and ultimately an alien world. Despite such heady ingredients, this was too dense a mixture for me to digest comfortably. It was also frustratingly open-ended with regard to Columbus’s fate, feeling like the prelude to further adventures rather than a self-contained tale.
Whack Job by Rysa Walker was equally frustating in the sense of clearly being part of an existing book series, making it difficult to follow in places. The sheer volume of historical research into axe murdereress Lizzie Borden was also wearying, and although the characters’ workmanlike approach to time travel felt believable, it also plodded along at times. But fans of temporal twists may find it more engaging.
Drought by J.E. Mac is set in a Los Angeles where fresh water is more valuable than oil, and a father and daughter become entangled with those prepared to murder for it. For some reason it was easy to visualise this as an Eighties sci-fi action movie, complete with crazy nightclubs, handsome traitors, smooth corporate villains and a climactic gun battle resulting in a huge special effect. So all pretty enjoyable if you grew up on those sorts of films, like I did!
The Elissiad by Asha Bardon combines an alternative post-Roman city with a ‘Chariots of the Gods’ storyline, where crashed aliens have restructured society using advanced technology. Told with lots of detail and imagination, there are mythical and romantic qualities to this story, and it’s no surprise that the author has made academic studies of this ancient period.
The Tesla Gate by Drew Avera shows electrical pioneer Nikola Tesla obsessed with creating a time machine using Edwardian technology. He is directly inspired by Mark Twain and aided only by the mysterious lady Alokin, seemingly a figure of his imagination. This fantastic and superbly told premise might have been my favourite story, if not for another open-ended conclusion and a lack of revelation about Alokin’s true nature.
The Black Network by Adam Venezia is a story told with such economical writing, down-to-earth characters and realistic situations that it hardly feels like an alternative world at all, and was a joy to read. The storyline follows how ordinary folks challenge the powers-that-be by secretly building a rival computer network. However, as with others in this collection, for me it was let down by an inconclusive ending and lack of dramatic impact.
The Visitation by Hank Garner has a ‘Man Who Fell To Earth’ vibe, featuring a tale of an unearthly stranger walking among us. The story’s structure, a yarn told in a bar to an inquisitive journalist, works very well and is only let down by becoming a little too heavy-handed as it progresses. But there are lots of nice touches along the way related to the changes that have been made to this timeline, and also a pleasing twist at the end.
The Finest Mask by J.J. Brown is set in a believably disturbing future, blighted by animal extinctions and rampaging diseases. Here, everyone wears a mask to hide their scarred skin, and a genetic engineer is on a quest to find someone whose genes might hold the key to curing future infections. Although a wonderful example of bleak dystopian writing, this is another story that fizzles out without any conclusive pay-off.
The Blackbird Sings by Therin Knite has similarities to Drought in that it involves a post-apocalyptic Los Angeles and has the feel of an action movie. Here, a timeline altered by a Soviet nuclear strike in 1983 is outlined by news headlines, forming the backdrop to a mission by cybernetically enhanced agents. This story’s conclusion is more satisfying and ties neatly into the underlying theme of survival through technology.
The Locked Web by Alex Roddie concludes the anthology on another high point. This parallel present-day UK is still in the grip of the Cold War and computers have never evolved much beyond the early Eighties. The disabled protagonist and his family are very believable and engaging, although sometimes the differences between our timeline and this one are underlined a little bluntly. It’s still more than enough to make you grateful to live in our internet-dependent world!
In summary, this anthology is an excellent example of how varied ‘What if?’ stories can be. There’s no shortage of imagination, enthusiasm and talent amongst each of these authors. Naturally some appealed to me more than others, and in some cases I think more development was needed to ensure plotlines had the big finish they deserved. There is still an enormous amount to enjoy and plenty of food for thought, which is the mark of successful speculative fiction.