Posts Tagged ‘alternate history’

Genres: , ,

Escape Pod 661: A Fine Night for Tea and Bludgeoning


A Fine Night for Tea and Bludgeoning

By Beth Cato

Summer 1901

Upon my arrival at the Durham’s dance, it was quickly apparent to me that their daughter’s new purebred fiancé was not the evening’s star as gossip had foretold. Instead, a dashing green-skinned gentleman had garnered a pack of giggling admirers.

I had never encountered a person of such fascinatingly verdant coloration before, and yet I immediately had an odd pressure upon me to accept this man and not question his visage.

How peculiar.

I retreated to a far wall. My brow furrowed in thought; the motion hurt. My face was caked with powder adequate to make an elephant sneeze, all to obscure the final, yellowed vestiges of what had been a black eye.

Such a blemish would have been abhorrent to the flibbertigibbets filling the room, but then, they also had the mental acumen of chocolate éclairs. They prowled these parties for husband material the way big game hunters stalked moose, each seeking to bag something brag-worthy and best kept stuffed in a parlor. This green-skinned man was fresh meat, though it seemed no one else had noticed his greenness at all. (Continue Reading…)

EP473: Soft Currency


Soft Currency

by Seth Gordon

When Cassie Levine was nine years old, her family lived in the center of Boston, Lyndon B. Johnson was President, and Cassie learned that her mother was a criminal.

The two of them sat in a parked car on Blue Hill Avenue, outside Ethel Glick’s grocery store. While Cassie ate an ice-cream sandwich, her mother smoked a cigarette. The sandwich, the cigarettes, and three bags of groceries had come from Mrs. Glick’s store. When the ice cream sandwich was half gone, Cassie asked, “Why did you change Dad’s money at Mrs. Glick’s? Why not go to the bank?”

Cassie’s mother had passed Mrs. Glick a twenty-dollar bill; the older woman had tucked the bill under the counter and handed back a stack of coupons; then, her mother had used some of those coupons to pay Mrs. Glick. Each twenty-coupon note showed a picture of Margaret Mitchell, holding a copy of Gone With the Wind. Cassie’s little brother called coupons “cootie money,” because only women and girls could use them.

“The exchange rate at the banks is twenty-seven coupons for a dollar,” Cassie’s mother said, “and Mrs. Glick is paying thirty-one.”

“Why don’t the banks pay thirty-one?”

“The government won’t let them.”

“Does the government let Mrs. Glick?”

Cassie’s mother drew on her cigarette and exhaled out the half-open window into the drizzle. Cassie licked vanilla ice cream all around the edge of her sandwich, feeling smug and virtuous and full of sugar. “You’re doing something il-le-gal,” she said, stretching out the last word.

“Don’t tell your father about this.”

Cassie raised her eyebrows. Her mother’s expression was solemn. Through the blur of rain over the windshield, Cassie could see the delicatessen on the opposite corner; the G&G sign was suspended over the sidewalk, round and vertical like a ketchup bottle. Some nights, Cassie’s father would take the family out to dinner there.

“He’s an idealist, and I love him for that, but… he doesn’t understand how much things cost.”

“Is it really illegal, changing money at Mrs. Glick’s? Could you get arrested for it?”

Her mother shook her head. “It’s like jaywalking, honey. It doesn’t hurt anyone, and the police have better things to do than go after it.”

(Continue Reading…)

EP466: Checkmate


Checkmate

by Brian Trent

The black steamrotor chugged noisily beneath the maze of damp brick arches, cutting a frothy wake in the underground canal.  Edward Oakshott stood rigidly at the bow, leaning against his silver cane. The dank stink of London’s forgotten netherworld perspirated over the vessel’s wood, the humidity visibly beading like a spate of glassy insect eyes on the many green lamplights they passed.  Edward drummed his fingers against one clammy hand.  His sense of direction, precise as his fashionable gold pocketwatch, reckoned they must be passing directly below the evening crowd at Charing Cross’ Hungerford Market.

Yet he wondered at their boatman’s skill in navigating these dark, labyrinthine channels.  How often were customers ferried to Thoth’s subterranean bazaar?  Edward grinned in nervous anticipation and peered from beneath the rim of his hat at the constellation of green lamps marking the canal’s many twists and turns.

“We shall be late if this continues,” Sophia Westbury said behind him.  Her folded parasol looked like a pale sword against her shoulder. “Really, Edward, was there no earlier date you could meet him?  It had to wait until the very eve of war?”

“The party shall wait for me.”

“It will be a scandal,” Sophia said, though her bell-like voice belied the smile on her lips.  Edward was already the scandal of the decade. Chessmen were synonymous with shadowy, secret shufflings in the night; living legends who could be your banker, teacher, butcher, parent, or carriage driver during times of peace.  Edward’s public antics had shocked Europe into a buzzing hive.

Sophia sighed and looped her arm round his.  “What do you know about this Thoth?  Any man who dwells like a spider beneath London, spinning mechanical webs beyond the Ministry’s sight…”  She shivered.  “I feel like Faustus!”

“Henry sent a Bishop here last autumn, darling, the one who defended Cornwall.  If Henry says Thoth is trustworthy, that is good enough for me.”

At these words, the boat banked sharply through a new arch, throwing up a huge wake.  Edward steadied himself with pressure to his cane, but cast a ghastly glare at their boatman in the ship’s small cabin.

“Edward!”   (Continue Reading…)

EP417: Southpaw


Southpaw

by Bruce McAllister

Eventually New York Giants’ scout Alex Pompez got the authorization from their front office to offer Castro a contact. After several days of deliberation with friends, family, and some of his professors, Castro turned down the offer. The Giants’ officials were stunned. “No one had ever turned us down from Latin America before,” recalled Pompez. “Castro said no, but in his very polite way. He was really a very nice kid. . . .”—J. David Truby, Sports History, November 1988

Fidel stands on the pitcher’s mound, dazed. For an instant he doesn’t know where he is. It is a pitcher’s mound. It is a baseball diamond, and there is a woman—the woman he loves—out there in the stands with her beautiful blonde hair and her very American name waving to him, because she loves him, too. It is July. He is sure of this. It is ’51 or ’52. He cannot remember which. But the crowd is as big as ever and he can smell the leather of his glove, and he knows he is playing baseball—the way, as a child in the sugarcane fields of Oriente Province, he always dreamed he might.


His fastball is a problem, but he throws one anyway, it breaks wide and the ump calls the ball. He throws a curve this time, a fine one, and it’s a strike—the third. He grins at Westrum, his catcher, his friend. The next batter’s up. Fidel feels an itching on his face and reaches up to scratch it. It feels like the beginning of a beard, but that can’t be. You keep a clean face in baseball. He tried to tell his father that, in Oriente, the last time he went home, but the old man, as always, had just argued.

He delivers another curve—with great control—and smiles when the ball drops off the table and Sterling swings like an idiot. He muscles up on the pitch, blows the batter down with a heater, but Williams gets a double off the next slider, Miller clears the bases with a triple, and they bring Wilhelm in to relieve him at last. The final score is 9 to 4, just like the oddsmakers predicted, and that great centerfielder Mays still won’t look at him in the lockers.


Nancy—her name is Nancy—is waiting for him at the back entrance when he’s in his street clothes again, the flowered shirt and the white ducks he likes best, and she looks wonderful. She’s chewing gum, which drives him crazy, but her skin is like a dream—like moonlight on the Mulano—and he kisses her hard, feeling her tongue between his lips. When they pull away she says: “I really like the way you walked that Negro in the fifth.”

He smiles at her. He loves her so much it hurts. She doesn’t know a damn thing about the game and nothing about Cuba, but she’s doing her best and she loves him, too. “I do it for you, chica,” he tells her. “I always do it for you.”

That night he dreams he’s in the mountains of the Sierra Maestra, at a place called La Playa. He has no idea why he’s here. He’s never dreamt this dream before. He’s lying on the ground with a rifle in his hand. He’s wearing the fatigues a soldier wears, and doesn’t understand why—who the two men lying beside him are, what it means. The clothes he’s wearing are rough. His face itches like hell.

When he wakes, she is beside him. The sheet has fallen away from her back, which is to him, and her ass—which is so beautiful, which any man would find beautiful—is there for him and him alone to see. How can anything be more real than this? How can I be dreaming of such things? He can hear a song fading but does not know it. There is a bay—a bay with Naval ships—and the song is fading away.

Guantanamera . . . the voice was singing.

Yo soy un hombre sincero, it sang.

I am a truthful man.

Why, Fidel wonders, was it singing this?

(Continue Reading…)

Book Review: The Mirage by Matt Ruff


Alternate history, by its very nature, is one of the most easily-ploughable fields in genre fiction because literally all one must do is change a single historical event and then logically extrapolate the repercussions. Harry Turtledove has made a career out of doing this.

Sometimes, though, alternate history doesn’t require telling the reader what the crisis point was that got changed. Sometimes, the reader just needs to know things are different. And that’s where The Mirage by Matt Ruff begins.

(Continue Reading…)

Book Review: “11/22/63” by Stephen King


I think most people can agree that the assassination of JFK on November 22, 1963 was a watershed event in human history. It led to Vietnam, the Civil Rights movement, and possibly a prolonged Cold War*. Had he not been shot in Dallas on that day, perhaps Vietnam might not have happened, or at least been smaller in scope. Perhaps the Civil Rights movement might have unfolded differently. Perhaps the Cold War would’ve escalated into a full-blown nuclear conflict between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R.

There’s really no way to know what would’ve happened, other than via alternate historical fiction. Which is exactly what Stephen King’s latest novel, 11/22/63, is all about.

11/22/63 takes place in both 2011 and the late 50s/early 60s. In 2011, high school English teacher (and all-around tall dude) Jake Epping is contacted by his friend, diner owner Al Templeton. Al knows he’s in the end stages of cancer, but he doesn’t want to die before showing Jake the secret of his diner: a rabbit hole in his stockroom that leads to September 9, 1958. Jake takes a quick trip, enjoys a root beer, and then returns to Al’s diner. Only two minutes have passed in the real world — only two minutes ever pass in the real world, no matter how long someone stays down the rabbit hole.

That’s when Al drops the bomb on him: for the past four years, he’s been living in the hole, trying to stop Lee Harvey Oswald from killing President Kennedy on November 22, 1963. He’s amassed a notebook full of research, one that he can no longer use because he knows he has very little time left. So Al implores Jake to take on the mission.

Jake, meanwhile, has plans of his own for the rabbit hole. On October 31, 1958, the father of one of his adult education students back in 2011 murdered an entire family, and Jake wants to set it right. That’s when he learns that the past is obdurate — it doesn’t want to be changed. It’ll throw up obstacles to try and stop anyone who does. And if it’s this hard to save one family — a minor part of the tapestry of history — how hard is it going to be to save the leader of the free world five years later?

In general, I’ve enjoyed what Stephen King novels I’ve read, with the exception of The Regulators and Desperation, which I think I may have been too young (at the time) to get the full experience out of. King has written the only book I’m too scared to read again — The Sun Dog, about a Polaroid camera that takes photos of a dog about to attack, and nothing else — and, clearly, he knows his craft well enough to keep putting out bestsellers that are later adapted into TV shows and films. I did enjoy 11/22/63, despite its slow start; clearly the novel was exhaustively researched, and although it does have the requisite Maine scenes, there are a lot of other set-pieces across the eastern half of the U.S. as well. In the past, Jake travels to two towns in Maine, along the eastern seaboard, southwest Florida, and finally to Texas where Oswald is going to shoot Kennedy.

But the book isn’t just about that. Even if Jake does have a mission which will end on November 22, 1963, when he — he hopes — stops Oswald from committing murder, he can’t spend the entire intervening time just doing nothing. I mean, I get bored on a Sunday afternoon if there’s no football on TV, and that’s in 2011 when there’s plenty of other things to do. Eventually, after setting right some wrongs, Jake settles in a small town in Texas — the first truly-friendly place he’s found since coming to the past — and takes up his old mantle as an English teacher.

That, I think, is where the story starts to get good. It more-or-less ceases to be about Oswald and starts being about Jake, and how he conducts his life in the past. And what he learns is that, be it 1961 or 2011, life still goes on. People go to school, go to work, and fall in love, just like in his own time.

On Star Trek, time travel is often used to right a wrong or fix a mistake, or even just to do research into the past. The thing about Star Trek is that, at the end of the episode (or movie), everything wraps up in a neat little bow. Lieutenant Christopher is returned to his fighter jet, the whales save earth, Captain Sisko isn’t killed in an engineering accident, and Harry doesn’t miscalculate and kill the entire Voyager crew. 11/22/63 shows us that that’s not exactly the case — which, I suppose, is what happens with a lot of alternate history and time travel fiction. King reminds us often that the past does not want to be changed, and it will fight any way it can.

And it fights Jake pretty hard, even going so far as to exact revenge upon him for what he does.

I found 11/22/63 to be somewhat of a departure from the King fiction I’ve read in the past — there are no monsters, no supernatural forces, no blood-showers at prom**. Just a rabbit hole in the stock-room of a diner that, when you walk through it, takes you to September 9, 1958 and allows you to change history. The rest of the novel is almost pure historical fiction — a man of today experiencing the past first-hand. It speaks to King’s exhaustive research on the subject, as well as his storytelling skill, that someone like me (whose favorite era of American history is 1875-1930) can pick it up and become immersed in it almost immediately — it’s believable, relatable, and damn interesting.

According to Wikipedia, 11/22/63 was released at the beginning of November 2011 and quickly became a bestseller. I can certainly see why. It’s a doorstop all right, but it’s a doorstop you won’t want to put down. I definitely recommend it.

#

Note to Parents: This is a Stephen King novel. It contains explicit sex and explicit violence, as well as adult language. I don’t think the sex is anything today’s older teens can’t handle, but as for the violence… just remember that King has been doing this for a long time and, unlike in an R-rated film with a fight sequence, King is fond of taking away all hope a character has of escaping unscathed… and then having someone beat the crap out of him. Keep that in mind. Of course, you should use your own discretion when it comes to your children.

#

* I wasn’t a history major, but according to the book, JFK was trying to end the Cold War.

** That’s what happens in Carrie, right? I’ve never read it, or seen the film. Sorry.

Science Future: Alternate Actual


Science fiction inspires the world around us. It inspires us to create our future. So we look to the future of science to find our next fiction. We look to Science Future. The Science Future series presents the bleeding edge of scientific discovery from the viewpoint of the science fiction reader, discussing the influences science and science fiction have upon each other.

Alternate Actual

Possibilities sometimes dazzle us. Possibility is what makes gambling so exciting (or excruciatingly painful). We think of the future as a sea of possibilities and the past as a list of choices with possibilities discarded. Only, in the realm of science fiction, the past does not have to be so stagnant. In science fiction we have two words: alternate realities.

Photo of a hologram from MIT's Hologram Gallery

The idea of alternative realities is a common theme  in science fiction. The act of writing fiction, is in some ways, creating an alternative to reality, but are alternate realities truly science fiction? The answer may lie in black holes. Not that black holes are gateways to other universes but in the study of black holes. Theoretical studies on the quantum properties of black holes over the last thirty years have led to proposal that the reality we perceive is nothing but a hologram of another. The proposal works on the theory that information (used in the loosest definition of the word) related to the surrounding physics of an area can be stored on the surface area of a black hole, rather than inside it, and that the resulting three dimensional reality that surrounds it is in fact a projection of this two dimensional information. Black holes have been used in science fiction to create alternate realities before, such as in Tom the Universe by Larry Hodges.

It is a hard concept to wrap your mind around, which is why it has taken thirty years for scientist to even propose it. That and the slow advances of science as it iterates and recurses upon itself to better improve our understanding of the universe we can directly perceive. For example science has declared a change in the fundamental constants used in physics. The National Institute of Standards and Technology has announced revised numbers, leading to the electromagnetic force has growing a little stronger, gravity becoming a little weaker, and the size of the smallest “quantum” of energy is now being known a little better. But only a little. The changes were small, of course, but will no doubt lead to changes in the complex equations used to model the universe, throwing physicists into a frenzy. I doubt they would be frazzled worse if they met their own evil twin with appropriately alternative hair and/or clothing styles.

xkcd: 683: Science Montage

Evil twins originate from anti-matter universes, of course, so we know that they’ll weight just as much as you do, according to the scientists at Max Planck Institute of Quantum Optics. They measured the mass of an antiproton to the best of their capability and they have announced that matter-antimatter symmetry has now been confirmed, meaning that the mass of a proton and antiproton is the same. This doesn’t explain how you might one day find a ’76 Goldwater Dime such as the one John Medaille wrote about but we can rest assured that if an alternate universe existed made purely out of anti-matter, it would not different too much on the scales.

Alternate realities will continue to remain a common device used in science fiction mostly to explore the idea of having not spilled coffee on yourself during that last date as well as exploring other aspects of the human condition. Science isn’t close to any particular breakthroughs regarding where your evil twin is hiding but in the mean time scientists will do their best to find them for you.

Reality is merely an illusion, albeit a very persistent one. – Albert Einstein

EP286 The ’76 Goldwater Dime

Show Notes

Show Notes:

  • Feedback for Episode 278
  • Next week… a taste of time.

The ’76 Goldwater Dime

By John Medaille

I started in 1962, that’s when I became a numismatist. You know what that is? It’s the study of….well, it’s not the study of anything. It’s coin collecting, is what it is.

I was ten in 1962, and Christmas I got my first coin album. I didn’t actually get it. My father gave it to my brother. It was, you know, you’ve seen them, a sturdy cardboard folder with slots punched out that you put the coins in. Behind the slots, the empties, it had a backing of blue felt, I remember that. My dad gave it to my brother, I guess maybe thinking it would straighten him out. But coins, you know, they don’t really have that power. He wasn’t interested. He gave it to me. Me, I was interested.

The album was for Lincoln pennies, 1909 to 1959. I had five cents in the world then and each of the five fit in the slot. It only took me five more days to get the other forty-five. I would do anything for those pennies and slot it in its slot. Anything, anything. When I got my last penny, wow. It was a 1943 steel mint penny, a ‘steelie.’ They had to use steel instead of copper that year cause they needed the copper for all the bombs. I was so proud.

(Continue Reading…)

EP251: Unexpected Outcomes

Show Notes

Show Notes:

  • Tim Pratt is serializing a Marla Mason novel, Broken Mirrors at his website. His first anthology is out this summer from Night Shade Books, Sympathy for the Devil.
  • Tom Rockwell’s work can be found at his personal music website, Devo Spice, The Funny Music Project, and his comedy troupe, Cirque du So What?
  • Incidentally, Tom Rockwell, myself, and many other Escape Artist writers and narrators will be at NASFiC next week, so check us out if you’re in the Raleigh, NC area!

Next week… Rescue in deep space. And guitar ballads.


Unexpected Outcomes

By Tim Pratt

But the plane just stopped, and hung there, nose tipped at a slight angle, mere feet from the building.

And that’s when the figure — the one people call the Ambassador, or the Doctor, or the Outsider, or the Professor, or a hundred other names — appeared. Just a middle-aged man in a white lab coat, with steel-rimmed glasses and graying hair. His image filled the air above the jetliner, like the dome of the sky had been transformed into an IMAX movie screen.

He said, “People of Earth, I have a message for you.”