What Might Have Been?, edited by Gregory Benford and Martin H. Greenburg, New York: Bantam Books, 291 pages, $5.50 trade/$4.50 paper
One of the most powerful themes in literature is if only. It is the beginning of all fantasy and science fiction. Writers of many styles and persuasions have been tempted to ask what the world would look like if some historical event occurred differently. Some recurring themes are: What would have happened if Germany had won World War II? How would the world look if the Confederacy had won the Civil War? What if Jesus had not lived? Perhaps the best recent example of alternate history is Brad Linaweaver's Moon of Ice, which explores a world in which Germany won the Second World War.
Alternate histories are usually considered the province of modern-day fantasists, but the genre is a very old one. In 1836 Louis-Napoleon Geoffroy-Chateau wrote Napoleon and the Conquest of the World, 1812–1823, a nationalist vision that had Napoleon conquering Russia and eventually establishing a worldwide empire. Over the years, writers as diverse as Winston Churchill, G. K. Chesterton, and Hillaire Belloc have published alternate histories.
Now, Gregory Benford and Martin Greenburg have put together What Might Have Been?, the first in a series of collections of new alternate histories. Any collection of stories by different writers bound only by a common theme is certain to have works of varying quality; some stories will be better than others. But Benford and Greenburg have cobbled together a collection of 12 wildly uneven stories. Some of the stories are as good as fantasy gets. The rest are just plain awful.
The always reliable Poul Anderson gets the book off to a good start with "In the House of Sorrows." At first, the story seems to be just a well-written sword-and-sorcery tale, not exactly an alternate history. But a surprise ending reveals why the story is alternate history.
Unfortunately, Anderson's piece is followed by Kim Stanley Robinson's "Remaking History." Robinson offers a world in which Jimmy Carter was a successful president, John Lennon lived to win the Nobel Peace Prize, and Mikhail Gorbachev is an idealistic democratic reformer. This isn't fantasy; it's more like some peacenik's drug-induced hallucination. John Lennon a Nobel Prize winner? Hah! The man never even got a Grammy.
But "Remaking History" is an exercise in thoughtful extrapolation compared to James Morrow's "Bible Stories for Adults, No. 31: The Covenant." (Incidentally, I think a good rule of thumb in fantasy would be "The Longer the Title, the Worse the Story.") Morrow wonders what the world would look like if God had not forgiven the Israelites and given them a second copy of the Ten Commandments after Moses destroyed the stone tablets containing the first one. Strangely enough, it looks pretty similar to the one we live in now. The Jews survived as a people, Jesus lived and was crucified, his followers established Christianity, Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence, and the United States was formed. The only difference is that Joshua gathered the pieces of the tablets, and for 3,000 years rabbis try to put the pieces together and divine God's will. Pretty imaginative, huh?
In all fairness to Morrow, he did have an interesting concept; he should have run with it. Without the law of God, the Jews almost certainly would not have survived as a distinct people. Without Judaism, Christianity and Islam would not exist. Today, we could well be worshipping Zeus or Mithra or Odin. At the very least, Charlton Heston's career would have been quite different.
What Might Have Been? does contain a couple of real gems. James P. Hogan's "Leapfrog" is, to my knowledge, the only story ever to use the Austrian theory of the business cycle as a key plot element. Set in the next century, "Leapfrog" is the story of how the Soviet Union colonized outer space and who killed the American space program.
The space program also plays a part in Larry Niven's "The Return of William Proxmire." An homage to the late Robert Heinlein, Niven's story contains all the elements of great science fiction: time machines, spacecraft, deceit, trickery, and a United States senator. To say anything more would spoil it for the reader, but take my word for it, "The Return of William Proxmire" makes up for the bad stories in this collection. It alone is worth the price of the book.
Assistant Editor Charles Oliver has been known to attend science fiction conventions.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "If Only.…".