Monday, July 31, 2006

Alternate Generals

I'll be the first to admit, I'm a sucker for counterfactual history. This is history with a twist, where a learned (or not so learned) writer takes "the way things were" and throws in a major "What If?" factor that sets everything on its head.

My favorite counterfactual author by far is Harry Turtledove. Mr. Turtledove is perhaps the master of the genre. I've read a number of his books, most of them set in an alternate history where the South won the Civil War. He's made it up to World War II now and I keep tracking down his books to see what happens.

Jill, my wife, knows that I love reading Turtledove books, so one day she came home from the library with Alternate Generals, edited by Harry Turtledove. She found it on the library's free bookshelf, where anyone in the community can leave books they're done with so someone else can take them. She thought I might enjoy it.

I have to say, I was a bit hesitant at first. The back cover copy made me roll my eyes:

At Gaugemela the Macedonians had Alexander and the Persians had -- Darius. Result: world conquest. But what if the Persians had -- Erwin Rommel. Or what if George S. Patton had commanded Southern forces at Bull Run, and Lincoln had become a Confederate prisoner?

When I saw that, I feared the worst. Were they simply going to transpose major historical figures into battles they weren't connected to?

Thankfully, that wasn't the case. This is a pretty good collection of counterfactual short stories, all revolving around famous battles and wars. Some of them are very well done. Some of them aren't.

Part of the problem is with me, I suspect. In some cases, the author picked a battle obscure enough that I didn't know what the original outcome was, which then made it difficult to revel in the cleverness of the counterfactual proposal. In one case, I didn't enjoy the style. But there were some great tales in here:

  • The Test of Gold by Lillian Stewart Carl - The tale of the Romans conquering the British Isles. Very well done and, as the first story in the collection, whetted my appetite for more.
  • The Charge of Lee's Brigade by S. M. Stirling - What if America never gained its independence and a General Robert E. Lee went to the Crimean War as part of the British Army?
  • The Craft of War by Lois Tilton - Written as a Socratic dialogue, Sokrates discusses how an exile from the East helped the Persians win their battles against the Greeks. The exile's name, in Greek, was Sontseus. Can you guess who he was?
  • Billy Mitchell's Overt Act by William Sanders - By far, the best story of the bunch. What if the Americans had intercepted the Japanese fleet before they could strike Pearl Harbor? What if the Americans fired the first shot in World War II? Great, great stuff.
  • A Hard Day for Mother by William R. Fortchen - This one was just very well done. It involves the Battle of Gettysburg.
  • Bloodstained Ground by Brian M. Thomsen - A has-been, washed out Samuel Clemens is sent on assignment to cover the funeral of President George Custer.
  • Vati by R. M. Meluch - What if the Nazis had jets before D-Day? Sound weird? This is a great story too.

There were other stories in here but I just didn't enjoy them. Some were so bad that I simply skipped over them. I guess I did learn one thing about myself: I don't enjoy naval stories.

Oh well. This one was good, but not good enough to keep. It's going to be released on Book Crossing eventually.

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