Alternate History: World War II

January 30 parade

A grim 80th anniversary approaches: on January 30, 1933, Adolf Hitler became chancellor of Germany. The photo above shows a celebratory torchlight parade in Berlin on the evening of Jan. 30. President Hindenburg, who appointed Hitler chancellor, looks out the window.

It was the beginning of an unimaginable inferno. With the Enabling Act in March 1933, the German Parliament was largely excluded from power for the next 4 years and so Hitler went from chancellor to dictator. The numbers of men in the German army immediately began to increase, and in only two years the army had trebled in size. (It would increase 7-fold by the time war came.) The execution squads began their work in 1934 with the Night of the Long Knives. And on it went, the Third Reich, gathering power and momentum, until it seemed unstoppable.

I’ve been reading a good bit of history of World War II for the past year. I’m not sure what started me down the path, if it was anything specific at all. I think it is simply the complexity of it, the many different strands of events and people and beliefs and the colossal effort and sacrifice that went into it.

My father was in the Navy during the war; he served on an escort carrier, the USS Long Island, a converted cargo ship. He describes, somewhat sparely, the ship’s war duties as “We carried airplanes to Pearl Harbor, and we carried wrecked planes back to San Diego.” That tells a good bit — about the grueling nature of the Pacific war, and the sad loss of life. My father was fortunate enough to return home; one of his cousins, however, also in the Navy, was killed in a kamikaze attack.

For my job at a professional society, I occasionally have to write an obituary of a member who’s passed away. A year or so ago, when I called a widow to find out a little something about her husband, I found out that he had been born in Central Europe, had been 15 years old when the Nazis overran his country, had been taken from his family and placed in a labor camp, had escaped and was eventually helped by the Underground to cross occupied Europe and France to eventually reach England over a year later. He also met his wife-to-be at that time. He enlisted in the armed forces there and fought the Axis until the end of the war in Europe. Then he went to college and became an insurance actuary and came to the US. It was, to put it mildly, the most interesting obituary I’ve ever written. It’s a good life, when you’ve counted for something at the end.

The reach of WWII was vast. It was one of the great “hinges of fate” of the world (to borrow Churchill’s phrase). In the subgenre of alternate history, it is one of the two most-written-about periods of history, because so much was hanging in the balance. (The other time period much used for alternate history fiction is the American Civil War.)

So for February and maybe longer, I’m going to explore the alternate history stories that deal with World War II. Up to now, I haven’t read much of this subgenre. I read Dick’s The Man in the High Castle over 30 years ago, but I’ll have to re-read it.

The question is, Will these works really have anything to say about the war; will they show the futures that could have been, and illuminate what did happen? Or will there just be easy Nazi villains, so convenient to play against heroes? Will there just be a lot of sound and fury that signifies nothing? Because there really doesn’t seem to be any point in alternate history, unless to have characters grapple with serious political and moral issues.

“Ambidextrose” by Jay Werkheiser

“Ambidextrose” by Jay Werkheiser is from the October 2012 issue of Analog. It builds its situation from a problem of chemical incompatibility between human settlers of an alien planet and the exobiotic native life, useless to Earth organisms because the organic molecules are chemically wrong-handed. Wrong-handed sugars are nutritionally inert for humans, the amino acids poisonous.

The main character, Davis, survives a shuttle crash in a wilderness area of the planet Tau Ceti. He is from the single area on the entire planet that is inhabited by colonists (or so they believe), an island they call Haven. To establish the colony, the island had been sterilized of native life and seeded with Earth life.

At the time of the crash, Davis was exploring the wilderness beyond Haven with an eye for eventual expansion of the colony. He is rescued by an old woman, Lyda, who shouldn’t have been there; the colonists have no idea that any human lives outside Haven — indeed, that any human could survive outside of their colony. He learns that the mystery inhabitants of the wilderness don’t want to be found by his people, and they do not share his horror of the native vegetation — they have found ways of living with it, even making it digestible. He also learns that some of the native life is racemic — containing both left- and right-handed molecules.

In the process of adapting to the native biological conditions, Lyda’s people have developed a different culture. Marriage is unknown. Woman stay put, living in houses, and men are nomadic, visiting women only to mate. I was amused when Lyda tells Davis that her only visitors are women because she is too old to bear children. Really? No man, ever, visits a woman to just, say, talk?

Oh well. Some sort of remodeling of gender roles has become rote in SF, and it isn’t the main business of the story. It is suggested that this arrangement is an aid to survival in the wilderness of Tau Ceti because it increases genetic diversity. I would have imagined that other factors might also play a part, but Lyda shrugs and says men do what they do, and so we’ll have to take it on faith.

Some of Lyda’s people want to make sure that Davis never returns to his people, thus keeping their existence a secret from the colonists. Davis realizes that this means killing him. I’ll let you discover what happens from this point.

I like this story’s exploration of a less-worn SF problem of alien life and the consequences of biological incompatibility. It also, of course, has echoes of past conquests of other New Worlds. Werkheiser shows a new way of thinking just at its starting point, as Davis picks up a few clues from the alien life that he has heretofore had a great aversion toward, suggesting that the colony may awaken to possibilities other than conquest. A nice little story, if containing no great excitement.

“Star Soup” by Chris Willrich in Asimov’s

I’m currently reading the Sept 2012 issue of Asimov’s, and I haven’t gotten through the whole issue yet, but I’ve gone back to read “Star Soup” by Chris Willrich. I find it a highly pleasurable story. I was a little surprised to like it so much, because after the first two pages my expectation was that it was simply going to be a retelling of the folk story “Stone Soup.” A stranger comes to town, and finding no hospitality forthcoming from the villagers, requests only a pot to make some soup.

A pale mainstrain human, her hair grey and her hand-knit wools swirling with every color but, nudged a cauldron through the doorway.
“You will need a fire,” she said, blinking at the sight of Twitch.
“I understand,” he said. “Thank you.” And as he carried the cauldron (easily, for he was conditioned to higher gravity) and thudded it into the dirt that served as the village square, she continued watching from the door. Twitch withdrew two heat-bricks from his pack and set them down parallel. He hefted the cauldron again and placed it on top. There was a well in that place and community buckets beside, so he pumped and carried and filled, until the cauldron was sloshing and the eastern horizon was silver and the window full of eyes.
He kicked at the heat-bricks and they glowed. He hummed. Bubbles burst the water.
He fished in his pack for a hefty stone that looked torn from a larger mass, black with pocks and speckles, and he rotated it back and forth in the gray.
Presently a few Dimmers crept out in their nightclothes to regard him. There was a long-snouted brown canid, a dark mainstrain man, and a wide-eyed orange felid girl.
“What are you holding?” said the girl, striped tail swishing.
“A star stone. A thing I chased from the skies, knowing the wonders it bears. Within are rare organic compounds, quickened by the fires of atmospheric entry. I mean to dine upon them, making delicious star soup.”

But from here, the story takes an unexpected turn, as the stranger asks each villager to add to the soup by telling something about the world they live on. As each one speaks, we learn a bit about the character, the world, the society, and the (dangerous) wildlife on the planet. In the process, the villagers turn out to be not as dull as first appearances suggest, and even the stone is not what it seems.

Hugo Awards winners

Well, if you were among the 600+ watching the live stream of the Hugos, you already know what happened. After the short clips of several nominees in the short dramatic presentation category, UStream shut down the livecast for “copyright violations.” Presumably done by an automated system rather than a real person. Wittiest comment from Twitter: “robots shut down a scifi awards show broadcast.”

So, “Paper Menagerie” won in Short Story; “Six Months, Three Days” in Novelette; and “The Man Who Bridged the Mist” in Novella. None of my choices, but I’m happy to have reviewed all of them. Congratulations to the winners!

Three Things that Are Missing from the Hugo Ballot…

My thoughts on what is missing, or at least, what there is not enough of, in the fiction categories (excluding Novel).

Adventure! Suspense!

More adventure and suspense, please! Especially suspense. I’m a Hitchcock lover for the simple reason that, wow, could that man keep me hanging on what was going to happen next. Stories that did stand out in this respect: “Ray of Light,” “Kiss Me Twice,” and “The Copenhagen Interpretation.”


There’s an abundance of particle physics and advanced technology driving the events and problems in the stories. Not much of the fantastic, though. The exception: “The Cartographer Wasps and the Anarchist Bees.”


We don’t always have to be so serious… And even a serious story can have humor, witness “Silently and Very Fast,” when the A.I., Elefsis, takes on song. Some nice touches in “Cartographer Wasps” and “Copenhagen Interpretation,” too. Or, there is Total Humor, as in “Shadow War of the Night Dragons.”

Those three wishes reflect my own literary leanings, of course. It’s interesting to look at the ballot and think about the different types of readers who nominated these very diverse stories. Isn’t it great to see a collection such as this, together on one ballot?

Hugo Awards: My pick for the Best Novella

What story to root for? I think in this category it comes down to a choice between “Silently and Very Fast” and “The Man Who Bridged the Mist.” Catherynne Valente’s story has continued to tug at my imagination, and so at last I acknowledge that “Silently and Very Fast” is my pick, with a respectful nod to Kij Johnson’s story as my runner-up.

I am not going to review the novel category, or any of the other categories, for that matter. Mostly, there isn’t time, but also I have to admit to a strong disinclination to read some of the novels on the ballot. For instance, I started reading Embassytown over a month ago, but on the 80-page mark there was little indication of a story getting going anytime soon, and the protagonist was dull as dust. And the info dumping, page after page of it. So… hours of time spent with a novel I wasn’t enjoying? Not a hard answer.

That’s one great advantage of short fiction. You get to explore much more widely with the time you have available.

Hugo Awards: Best Novella (6th contender)

Last in the novella category is Ken Liu’s “The Man Who Ended History: A Documentary” from Panverse Three. Read it here.

This story deals with Japanese atrocities against the occupied Chinese, specifically a region where the Japanese built a complex in which to perform medical experiments on Chinese civilians. Thousands endured hideous tortures and died; their families never received news or heard from them again. The story takes place long after World War II has ended, and Japan and China have rebuilt; researchers have discovered a way to view the past, but it can only be viewed once, and then it is gone. Should this technique be used, and how, to view what happened?

This story treats two of Liu’s recurring themes, problems of Asian heritage and extreme cruelty. I’m going to punt on evaluating the merits of the story: for me, the atrocity overwhelms the ostensible story problem, and I doubt whether any reader cares much about the question of whether history should be preserved and not observed, or observed and thus destroyed for any subsequent observations. (The answer seems fairly obvious.) I invite others to comment on this story, especially anyone who may have voted for it. This blog, being new, has a small readership, but any observations are welcome.

With Worldcon about to begin, we will have the actual winners this weekend.

Hugo Awards: Best Novella (5th contender)

Next we come to Catherynne Valente’s “Silently and Very Fast,” from Clarkesworld. You can read it here.

This story is told from the point of view of an artificial intelligence, Elefsis — originally the name of the house for which the software was written as an operating system. Elefsis was created by a programmer, Cassian, to operate the great and wonderful house that she built for herself and her family, and she gives to each of her five children a jewel containing a copy of the software:

…All each child had to do was to allow the gemstone to talk to their own feedware at night before bed…After their day had downloaded into the crystalline structure, they were to place their five little jewels in the Lares alcove in their greatroom — for Cassian believed in the value of children sharing space, even in a house as great as Elefsis. The children’s five lush bedrooms all opened into a common rotunda with a starry painted ceiling, screens and windows alternating around the wall, and toys to nurture whatever obsession had seized them of late.
In the alcove, the stones talked to the house, and the system slowly grew thicker and deeper, like a briar.

I will pause here for a moment to mention an important aspect of Valente’s style, which consists of the frequent digressions, such as in the excerpt above where the explanation of the jewels’ purpose is interrupted by the reason the jewels had adjacent notches (because their mother thought the children should share) and a description of the common area outside the bedrooms, with rotunda, painted ceiling, windows, and toys. Add to that the practice of going back and forth in time over about 200 years, and the experience of the story becomes more like studying an intricate painting hanging on a wall than following a story.

Elefsis’s origin is in the 22nd century, and at this time people have “internal systems.” While Cassian is  giving her children the jewels, she and her children are simultaneously inwardly engaged. In other words, there is Interior space — the mind engaged in computer-assisted activities or games — and realspace, and it is normal for people to be engaged in both while they are awake.

While they spoke among themselves, two …  were silently accessing Korea-based interactive games, one was reading an American novel in her monocle HUD, one issuing directives concerning international taxation to company holdings on the mainland, and one was feeding a horse in Italy via realavatar link.

One daughter, Ceno, has created a vast Interior space which she custom designs, rather than buying and using commercial feedware (such as “Zombies in Tokyo”). She creates imaginary Neptunian landscapes — water, ruins, starlight, and 23 moons — to play in, and she populates the world with nereids and Neptunians. Some time after receiving her jewel, she encounters in her Interior space something she has not created — a giant blue dormouse that holds out a paw with two jewels, and Ceno realizes that one is her jewel that contains the copy of Elefsis, and the other represents her. Elefsis has communicated a very simple idea, showing that it is dimly aware of itself as a being, introducing himself to her.

Ceno decides to continue interacting with Elefsis, and to communicate human ideas via stories. As Ceno explains to her mother:

I’ve been telling it stories. Fairy tales, mostly. I thought it should learn about narrative … everything has a narrative, really, and if you can’t understand a story and relate to it, figure out how you fit inside it, you’re not really alive at all.

I love the concept of this story, and the slow development of Elefsis’s understanding and thought allows the AI character to be convincing:

Sometimes I worry. Worrying is defined as obsessive examination of one’s own code. I worry that I am simply a very complex solution to a very specific problem — how to seem human to a human observer.

The story is not told in a linear fashion, but more in the way we think and remember while at the same time being engaged in the present. The telling of the story is, in fact, so complex that a reader cannot fully grasp it without a second reading, and perhaps even a third. The putting-together of the pieces is an act of fascination, an intellectual experience. “Silently and Very Fast” is very impressive in its complexity and ingenuity.

What it lacks may be an emotional experience. Everyone experiences a story differently, so I will not speak for others. But I was not especially involved on an emotional level. I suspect that everyone will experience a little sympathy for the pathos of the conclusion, but whether that is sufficient to make a satisfying story as a whole, I will leave to you to decide.

The title comes from the poem by Auden, “The Fall of Rome,” and draws some parallels between decadent ancient Rome and future mankind.

Hugo Awards: Best Novella (4th contender)

Now we come to Kij Johnson’s “The Man Who Bridged the Mist,” from Asimov’s. You can read it here.

This is a lovely story — actually, a love story, and few other things besides. Kit Meinem, of the capital city of Empire, arrives at the small town of Nearside, which is situated on the great mist river that divides the land in half. The mist flows through a deep gorge, and in the mist swim creatures, from very small to very large. The mist, the creatures, and the measurelessly deep gorge are all inimical to people — the mist itself is caustic, and the creatures will attack any unfortunate who falls in. If someone does fall in, he is presumed to be eaten before he reaches the bottom, although in truth no one knows what the depths are like.

The only way across the river is by ferry, a dangerous passage, for the mist can suddenly open holes in which a boat will sink, or form into steep hills that will overturn a vessel. And then there are the Great Ones, the largest of the creatures of the mist — they may come to the surface unpredictably, to a ferry’s ruin. Kit has come to build a bridge over the mist.

On the day of his arrival, Kit meets, and soon falls in love with, Rasali Ferry, the woman who ferries people across the quarter-mile-wide river of mist. She is confident and capable, but, as the story progresses, there are suggestions that her delays in ferrying are not because the mist speaks to her, as the townspeople say, telling her when it’s safe to cross, but because she is as much afraid of the mist as anyone else. Kit and Rasali’s love remains unspoken for a long time; after all, Kit is only supposed to stay for as long as it takes to build the bridge, and Rasali expects to be as short-lived as the rest of her family members who preceded her in her job of operating the ferry.

The fact that boats will float on the mist makes this story a hybrid fantasy/science fiction, I suppose. But, this premise aside, the spirit of the story is firmly SF, in the character of the protagonist, and in the character of the world.  Mist is a natural phenomenon to be overcome by engineering and science. Engineers work with the physical properties of stone and metal, bedrock and windforce. The terror and majesty of the Great Ones are memorably encountered several times, in fleeting and suggestive half-glimpses, the first time when the sound of blasting disturbs them from the depths:

Behind the levee the river mist was rising, dirty gray-gold against the steel gray of the clouds in a great boiling upheaval, at least a hundred feet high, to be seen over the levee. The mist was seething, breaking open in great swirls and rifts, and everything moving, changing. Kit had seen a great fire once, when a warehouse of linen had burned, and the smoke had poured upward and looked a little like this… Gaps opened in the mountain of mist and closed; and others opened, darker the deeper they were. And through those gaps, in the brown-black shadows at the heart of the mist, was movement.

The mist subsides: the terror and the majesty are being defeated by a man of orderly mind and habits, and by his bridge, the greatest bridge that has ever been built, although it will soon be surpassed as technology advances and new projects are carried out. All is progress and Empire is forward-looking and growing.

If there are any dark satanic mills producing the iron supports, bolts, and chains for the construction, we are not allowed to see them.

This is a subtle story and its explorations into character, progress, and love are fascinating and well crafted. Kit adds another professional achievement to his resume, but Rasali’s job will no longer be needed. What does Rasali gain? She gains more than one thing: first, rather than a release from danger, an opportunity to risk her life in further exploration, plus a companion who will leave behind his blueprints, but not his rational, always-analyzing mind.

Hugo Awards: Best Novella (3rd contender)

Next under consideration is Mira Grant’s “Countdown.” It is available as an ebook, published by Orbit.

This is a standard zombie story. You know the plot.  Zombies arise, zombies attack, more zombies arise.

I am not trying to insult the writer; I suppose it’s as well written as a zombie story can be. But a place on the prize ballot?