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.