Print Magazine

Classic, Cutting-edge, Essential.
Asimov's award-winning stories delivered directly to your door!

Shop Print Magazine

Digital Newsstand

Start Reading.
Available for your tablet, Reader, Smart Phone, PC, and Mac! 

Shop Digital Newsstand

On Books

Alternate Realities

by Norman Spinrad
 

OR EVEN EAGLE FLEW
by Harry Turtledove
Prince of Cats Literary Productions $6.99

AND THE LAST TRUMP SHALL SOUND
by Harry Turtledove, James Morrow, Cat Rambo
CAEZIK SF & Fantasy $9.99

UNFINISHED LAND
by Greg Bear
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt $26

SPECULATIVE LOS ANGELES
Akashic Books $13.09

 

What do I mean by alternate realities? It’s easy enough to say that speculative fiction is anything set in a future that does not violate the known rules of mass and energy, a/k/a “science fiction,” and fantasy is fiction that deliberately violates them. But what about all fiction that is speculative, but does not violate the known physical rules of mass and energy?

It can be set in a literary future. It can be set in a literary past. It can even be set in a literary present. All fictions that are imaginary speculations that do not violate any known limit of mass and energy. The speculative fiction of “What If?”

What if that asteroid collision that did in the dinosaurs didn’t happen? What if the Confederacy won the American Civil War? What if Jesus Christ lived to a ripe old age? What if the Nazis won World War II? What if Hitler became a successful artist? What if the Soviet Union didn’t fragment? What if there was an alien civilization on Mars?

The literature of what ifs, the speculative fiction set in such alternate realities, is potentially literally limitless. And science fiction of any kind is only part of it.

So much for the theoretical definitions. But in the alternate reality in which I am writing this and y’all are reading it, such fictions evolved out of science fiction, and not the other way around.

It may even be possible to trace the beginning of it to a single novel, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, by Mark Twain.

Twain did not exactly invent science fiction in general, nor did he exactly invent literary speculation per se. But what he did invent was both the time travel story and the speculative what-if story as alternate history in the same novel, told not merely as science fiction, but as hard science fiction.

The title of the novel tells what it is. Twain’s Yankee is a sophisticated mechanic well up to date in the nuts and bolts tech of the era in which Twain wrote the novel, as well as the nuts and bolts of American democracy. He is dropped back into the court of King Arthur with no explanation, thus inventing the historical what-if speculative alternate reality and the hardest science fiction imaginable.

This being written by Mark Twain, when the mechanic starts to turn feudal politics into American democracy, things eventually go wrong. Twain then arbitrarily plops the mechanic back into his own time line and that of the reader, where none of the events have happened. Twain thus avoids the time travel paradoxes of later science fiction to this very day by simply ignoring them.

Tor Books once published A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court as a genre SF paperback with the usual SF genre cover and blurb without saying anything about Mark Twain, as a joke. Or so it seemed, when sci-fi fans tried to honor it as the year’s best first novel, and this Twain guy as best new science fiction novelist.

I am not making this up. Long before then, hard science fiction, softer science fiction, speculative science without hard science fiction elements, alternate reality fiction, altered history fiction, were all gobbled up by SF genre publications, and so was even much of out and out fantasy.

And then came Harry Turtledove.

Turtledove has now had a long and successful career centered on writing what might be called hard alternate history fiction, indeed almost inventing it. Unlike Twain, Turtledove doesn’t bother much with either time travel or the concept of multiplex realities à la Philip K. Dick. He simply goes back to a moment in our history as it was and what-ifs from there, and dominantly chooses changes in the era or eras of World War II.

This requires not so much scientific and technological speculation as political and military speculation based on deep and complex historical knowledge, of which Turtledove is an acknowledged master, if not the acknowledged master.

Mostly Turtledove has been an alternate historian zeroing in on a key change that will alter his history on a grand scale—but now, with Or Even Eagle Flew, he has turned it around. This is a short novel or a long novella whose central viewpoint character is the famous aviator Amelia Earhart. In our reality disappeared in a crash somewhere and her plane or body has never been found. But in Turtledove’s what-if other reality, she lived to become the first female fighter pilot in the RAF in World War II.

As far as I can tell without being as knowledgeable as Turtledove, this story takes place in our historical World War II. In the so-called Battle of Britain, in the aerial war between the Luftwaffe and the Royal Air Force and, later, units of the American Army Airforce, in utter historical and hard technological detail of the fighter planes and exciting but realistic descriptions of the dogfighting from the point of view of “AE.”

Indeed, the story would be possibly the best actual historical fiction ever written about the time and place of this theater of World War II in the air—were it not made into an alternate other reality by using it as the background to what amounts to an imaginary biography of his imaginary Amelia Earhart, who lived to become the first woman to fly a fighter into battle and become a five-killer ace.

Here there is really no scientific, historical, or technological what-if at all, but only the personal story of his alternate Amelia Earhart. And indeed, though his AE is a fully drawn character, including imaginary sexual affairs with both a man and a woman, Harry Turtledove uses the novel for rather openly feminist political means.

And yet Or Even Eagle Flew, like almost all of Harry Turtledove’s alternate historical fiction, was published as more or less “SF,” by something called Prince of Cats Literary Productions, which may or may not be a screen for a self-production by Turtledove himself.

The alternate times, they are a’changing!

And now we also have And the Last Trump Shall Sound, also published openly by Caezik SF & Fantasy as SF. This is something different involving Harry Turtledove, something even more different—a collection of three novellas by Harry Turtledove, James Morrow, and Cat Rambo, in that linear order, which is also a communal novel.

This book had to have been written before Donald Trump failed to win a second term as president. The cover itself calls it “Future history of America.” But by the time it was published it had already become an alternate history—something like what happened to my novel Russian Spring, which was a speculative future history of the Soviet Union when I wrote it but became an alternate history by the time it was published in English.

With one big difference. I had been trying to predict a future, but And the Last Trump Shall Sound was openly meant to help prevent a possible dystopian future from happening, with the political attempt as up front as 1984, and then some.

I am guessing. But it would seem that Harry Turtledove was the instigator, since his novella, The Breaking of Nations, opens the novel like a serious speculative political novel of how Donald Trump is reelected and Mike Pence follows him as president, and California, Oregon, and Washington succeed in seceding from a fascist United States and become the nation of Pacifica.

This is something like vintage Turtledove, well written, in the mode of his alternate histories, but once again inside out, only differently—a dystopian political speculation that reads like one of his alternate histories, enough to give his detailed screed of his Trumpified future the same aura of verisimilitude.

This is nakedly and passionately political, an all out attempt to save the USA from Trump, Pence, and MAGA. It is not humorous at all, but a vicious trashing, and, indeed, a well worked out revolutionary plan that could actually work.

Far be it from the writer and singer of “Donald Trump Agent of Satan” or the writer of this review to disagree with this politically. But of course it cannot be denied that in our reality Trump lost the election for a second term after this book was written, but before it was published. Rendering And the Last Trump Shall Sound out of date and, to some extent, superfluous politically.

But perhaps not entirely.

For while in our reality Trump is not going to be president for two terms and then turn the presidency over to Mike Pence, the deep divide of America between the West and East Coasts and Middle America is certainly already with us. And it doesn’t need Trump and/or Pence to make it worse, to break the United States of America into the Disunited States of America.

Cat Rambo’s Because It Is Bitter closes the overall communal novel story of And the Last Trump Shall Sound into a future where this has long since happened, and bitter it is indeed. There is a remnant nation of America, a West Coastal nation of Pacifica, and a few East Coast wannabes, something a bit like Europe in between its two World Wars, something a bit like the former Soviet Union and its vassals.

The remnant USA and Pacifica more or less acknowledge each other as the nation states and political enemies. They are internally, culturally, legally, and politically drastically at loggerheads, something like the Soviet Union and the United States during the Cold War, something like the North and South before and after their Civil War.

The borders are militarily guarded and can’t be crossed without visas, or sometimes even with them. Both infiltrate each other with spies, secret agents, and worse. The USA is the stronger military power and would take back Pacifica if it could, but doesn’t do it because while Pacifica may live up to its democratic name as best it can, it is not a military pushover.

But Hollywood is still in California, and as I have said before, it still outranks Washington, at least when it comes to popular culture. And even though, or indeed perhaps because, what is left of America is still Turtledove’s fascist Magaland, and such a fascist state is inevitably culturally boring, Pacifica productions rule the Nielsens even there.

The main character, Ernst, is a kind of boring nine to fiver in Pacifica show biz with a secret project to find a vague something or other that will somehow bring more empathy into the world. He seems to be something of a lummox when it comes to women and falls in love, or at least sexual lust, with the mysterious Natalie, but is getting nowhere in that direction. When she disappears across the border and into Magaland, he finagles a visa to search for her and also the vague empathy, whatever it is.

This opening of the story is rather boring, because Ernst is presented as a naive Pacifican. That is to say, it has to be rather boring, because he crosses the border into Magaland as a naïf. The rest of the story picks up dystopian energy as he staggers through Cat Rambo’s more realistically cultural version of Turtledove’s shriller political version years later.

And then . . .

And then I should go no further. Because the end of Cat Rambo’s novella, which is also the climax of the communal novel, was a total surprise when I read it, darker, more cynically realistic, than what I imagine Harry Turtledove imagined when he wrote his opening novella.

You may have noticed that I have skipped over James Morrow’s middle novella, The Purloined Republic. There is a good reason for this. Plotwise, Morrow did faithfully bridge Turtledove’s opening and Rambo’s finale. But his middle act is in another reality, or really realities, as if co-written by Lenny Bruce, Gore Vidal à la Live From Golgotha, S. Clay Wilson, and Sasha Baron Cohen on LSD.

Morrow’s take on Donald Trump and Mike Pence makes Turtledove’s version seem like homage, and actually had me laughing aloud. As Mad Magazine had it, humor in a jugular vein.

Trump is dead and more or less worshiped, Pence is still president for life of Magaland, which has gone even more fascistic but hilariously bug-fuck. Pacifica is still the hero nation, but likewise with a few screws loose. The first person narrator is a more or less retired wise-mouth female porn star who is hired to go into drag by Pacifican agents as Pence’s evangelical preacher and political adviser in order to discredit him by what is going to happen at a huge phony reenactment of the Alamo, where the two of them are to play the parts of Texican heroes who were killed there by the triumphant Mexican army.

But in this Disney state fair version, the Mexican army will be played by Mexican immigrants from the border concentration camps, who are supposed to be mowed down and play dead so that the Texans triumph at the battle of the Alamo.

On the way to this, Morrow actually tells the real historical story of the Alamo and its band of less than virtuous and heroic cowboys with an accurate but razor-sharp tongue in cheek.

Nothing goes exactly as planned when some agents of something or other playing riflemen open up with real bullets. . . .

As a supposed counter to the resulting political debacle for President Pence, he is persuaded by his porn star in drag as his preacher to personally bring the godly Donald Trump back from the dead live in front of a mass audience. But only for less than an hour, and the corpse in what used to be Grant’s Tomb is secretly replaced by an audioanimatronic version.

All the world does see Mike Pence triumphantly bring Donald Trump back from the dead, but the robot goes crazy and runs through the live on-site audience screaming and gibbering before collapsing. . . .

I am not making this up, and I seriously doubt this is what Harry Turtledove exactly intended to be the bridge between his dead serious political screed and Cat Rambo’s grim if likewise sarcastic finale. But maybe, just maybe, he enjoyed it. As Mad Magazine declared it was publishing humor with a jugular vein, the terrifying Joseph McCarthy, who was even feared by President Eisenhower, was laid low by a comedy record and a couple of comic cartoons. First as history, back as farce, or maybe sometimes the other way around. Hard to imagine that anyone who loathed Trump and Pence could not enjoy the Morrow version.

Turtledove’s novella is politically sophisticated, but coldly furious at what our real life reality America has become, to the point where the secession of Pacifica from what Trump’s America has become, is not only applauded, but all but fomented. Cat Rambo’s novella takes it further into a future America similar to the situation in the Balkans between the Serbs and Croats when Yugoslavia broke apart. Even the James Morrow version assumes that the United States of America must split in at least two tribes of extreme assholes, each regarding the other as the hated and deplorable.

And the Last Trump Shall Sound? This communal novel may have become a politically superfluous alternate reality now that Trump is almost certainly going to be out of the picture in ours. But has the last word of “Trumpism” really been sounded, or indeed has it not always been there under other names?

The North versus the South. The Yankees versus Dixie. The Native Americans versus the European imperialists. The descendants of slaves and the descendants of slavers. Those who marched thirteen colonies across the continent propelled by the “manifest destiny” that their descendants still believe is their heritage as the “real” Americans in charge of their Melting Pot versus just about all later immigrants, who should gratefully drop themselves into it.

“America, America, God shed His Grace on Thee, and Crown Thy Good with Brotherhood from sea to shining sea . . .”

Has that ever really been true? Not in our historical reality. Is it true now? Hardly. Could it ever be true? Quién sabe?

Donald Trump did not create what is now called Trumpism. It’s been there all along, and the last note has certainly not been sounded.

Do we even wish American exceptionalism to be true?

Even in other realities of speculative fiction?

But is it not better to light a single candle than to curse the darkness?

I would certainly want to be able to praise such alternate realities, or at least read them. But alas, they now seem hard to find. When it comes to fictional explorations of positive futures of America, they seem to be scarce; you always get the other kind.

As in the macrocosm, so in the microcosm. For an example of that, consider Speculative Los Angeles, a collection of original stories edited by Denise Hamilton, and published by Akashic Books in Brooklyn, New York.

Personal admission: I was born and grew up in New York City and now live in Paris, but spent decades of my life bouncing back and forth between the Big Apple and LA, so you can imagine I was eager to read such a thing, like a New York Yankee fan club publishing the history of the Boston Red Sox.

Living too long in New York made me long for LA. Living too long in Los Angeles made me miss New York. But as an American living now in Paris, I am as much a Californian as a New Yorker, and I became who I am in LA, and do have my fond memories.

There are fourteen stories in Speculative Los Angeles—mostly, it seems, by writers who have published little or no actual speculative fiction previously, of varying literary quality, as one would expect. This is not necessarily a bad thing, most of them have published other sorts of fiction in venues not connected to genre SF. More of them than not write well on the prose level, and contemporary speculative fiction could certainly benefit from writers who write well on that level outside the genre traditions.

But what I didn’t expect was that none of them presented a speculation of any positive future of LA. And most of them had little understanding of what speculative fiction really is structurally, and therefore dramatically.

“Antonia and the Stranger Who Came to Rancho Los Feliz” by Lisa Morton, for example, begins in another past Los Angeles that remained more or less Latino and countrified and pacific until an intruder from the future of yet another time line, of a Los Angeles that has gone very wrong, arrives, and the story ends with its fleeing masses smashing through to wreak gringo havoc.

“Peak TV,” by Ben H. Winters, is maybe the best story of the book. It is set in what an Angeleno would recognize as the LA of our own near future, a show biz speculative Hollywood to the very end, where, alas, the denouement becomes straight fantasy.

“Where There Are Cities, These Dissolve Too,” by S. Qiouyi Lu, is an excellent hard core science fiction love story between two or maybe three robotosized gladiators. But like almost every story in the book, its future Los Angeles, as the title puts it, is the standard urban disasterland.

“Love, Rocket Science, and the Mother of Abominations,” by Stephen Blackmoore, presents the same sort of future Los Angeles as the venue of a hard-core science fiction action story, but ends with a literal deus ex machina.

“Jaguar’s Breath,” by Luis J. Rodriguez, is the best of the several stories of righteous Chicano revolutionaries against yet another evil gringo urban LA.

And so forth.

No one here seems to have heard Randy Newman’s “I Love LA!”

Doesn’t anyone here have any hope, or even any wish, for better days than these? For the City of Angels? For California? For urban America? For the presently disunited United States of America itself?

As in the microcosm, so in the macrocosm. And, if nothing else, Los Angeles has always been the microcosm of the future of California. And California, for better or worse, via the La La Land of Hollywood, is still the speculative microcosm of the multiplex possible alternate macrocosms of the United States.

Does this book really contain a fair set of alternate Speculative LAs?

And even if it did, which it doesn’t, how many of their creators understand that if you end an otherwise genuinely speculative story, playing within the laws of mass and energy, by pulling a fantasy denouement out of a rabbit’s hat, then even without the speculative question, this is a dramatic deus ex machina.

Upon occasion, certain classical Greek plays would end with an actor playing a god being dropped onto the stage by a rope as the finale. But the more sophisticated classical Greek dramatists understood that if you end a story, any story, with a “God from the Machine”—that is, by concluding it by dropping in someone or something from a reality other than the one you have been building toward the epiphany—you do not have a true and dramatic epiphany. You have cheated the audience or readership.

This doesn’t just apply to science fiction, hard or soft—it applies to fantasy, too. In a proper fantasy, you create a fictional reality known to be scientifically impossible, but the rules you have chosen to create should be internally consistent. If you don’t adhere to the reality you have created yourself, you lose dramatic coherence. If anything can happen, then nothing dramatic or emotionally satisfying can.

There is a lot of this in the stories in “Speculative Los Angeles,” And there is a lot of it these days in so-called “science fiction,” “SF,” and even fantasy, such dramatic failures even tending to dominate Hugos and Nebulas.

Why?

I think it has to do with the negative combination of not enough paper published science fiction or fantasy magazines and Amazon allowing anyone at all to self-publish anything. The result of this is not enough good editing, so that even writers who are excellent don’t learn what the Greek dramatists understood millennia ago, and don’t want to deal with editors who can teach.

Robert Heinlein once told me that a writer should not pay attention to anyone who can’t write a check. Maybe a bad attitude, maybe not. But from personal experience, I know that I learned much from others, particularly the great David Hartwell. What I told Bob Heinlein was that I believed that the better a writer you are, the more you gain from good editing.

For example, take The Unfinished Land, by Greg Bear. Whether Bear is a great speculative novelist may be arguable, but he is surely one of the best and most versitile of the last few decades.

But The Unfinished Land is self-proclaimed fantasy, as Bear quotes from Cocteau: “A legend is entitled to be beyond time and place.”

Fair enough, but is a legend entitled to be beyond its own time and place?

This novel begins in what seems to be the sixteenth century in the history of our own reality, during the war between England and France. The place is the high Northern Atlantic sea, where the central charter, Renard Shotwood, a young Englishman, is adrift in a wreck of a boat.

But when he reaches shore, he finds himself on an island that does not exist in that time and place. Fair enough for a fantasy. But as the story evolves, it seems to exist, à la the title of the novel, The Unfinished Land, before there was even any time as Renard, or the reader knows it. But the island seems somehow destined to create time and space as we know it—but the island is also where Renard has already come from.

Okay. Philip K. Dick has almost written things such as this—multiplex realities affecting each other, if not creating each other, in such a circular Ouroboros time zone chasing its own tail. And this is fantasy, not speculative fiction, existing as pure literary fiction, so Bear is entitled to create the rules of any imaginative reality or even multirealities and concepts of time he pleases in order to please the reader.

Or is he?

This Unfinished Land is quite fascinating. Baroque landscapes, beautiful and/or horrifying. Many fabulous creatures and beings, human and otherwise, magical and otherwise, levels of gods evil and otherwise, fighting with each other, allied to each other, even perhaps creating each other, a Hieronymus Bosch Garden of more than Earthly Delights and horrors.

Greg Bear, as always, is likewise a master of painting sights and beings with words and portraying other than human entities with other than human consciousness. And here he writes with a somewhat overdone pallette of English dialects, obnoxious at first, but then drawing you into his fantasy reality.

Well worth reading for all that. But the problem is the story.

Basically, Renard is the key to the ultimate fate of the Unfinished Land. He is somehow to finish it, and so create the reality that he came from. Renard himself doesn’t really know much more than that. The last half or more of the novel is the long tale of Renard and various allies fighting their way through this landscape, this rising level of magical realities, of beings of many levels of power and consciousness, to reach the ultimate creator, to reveal to the reader and to Renard himself who he really is, what is his destiny, why and how the Unfinished Island must be finished and dissolved in order to create the reality he came from, namely ours.

Quite a setup for a great literary epiphany!

The problem is it never really happens.

The Unfinished Island is finished and dissolved into whatever it came from. Our reality comes into existence. And, like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, Renard is returned to where and when he came from.

That is the end of a story’s plot.

That is not a real epiphany of a drama.

The lesson being that whether science fiction, speculative fiction, fantasy, alternate reality, short story, novel, film, play, whatever, a story cannot help being a drama. And however enchanting the first and second acts may be, the dramatic epiphany must be the revelatory coming together of what has gone before.

Which is not only the problem of one novel in these days of dominant novel series—it is the inherent problem with novel series themselves. A novel in an ongoing series has to fudge any dramatic ending with a cliffhanger, not an epiphany.

And drama without an epiphany is at best sex without an orgasm.

Copyright © 2021 Norman Spinrad

Website design and development by Americaneagle.com, Inc.

Close this window
Close this window

Sign up for special offers, information on
upcoming issues and more!


Signup Now No, Thanks