Size / / /
Other Worlds, Better Lives cover

Sometimes, what everyone knows is true. Howard Waldrop's body of fantastic fiction is uniquely fascinating and rewarding, and he deserves all the plaudits he's received for it. Even though there have been other fine writers doing similar things—one thinks especially of Andy Duncan or, in an earlier generation, Avram Davidson—the flavour of Waldrop's work and mind are unique. This book, like its predecessor Things Will Never Be The same: Selected Short Fiction 1980-2005 (2007), deserves to be read by any reader seriously interested in speculative fiction.

It has to be admitted, though, that there's a complicated problem at the root of any understanding of Waldrop's work. Further, I think the problem's got more pronounced over the years. Here's Waldrop, describing it from his perspective, in a story note for "The Lions Are Asleep Tonight" (1986), collected in Strange Things in Close Up (UK 1989):

I sent [the story] to Ellen Datlow at Omni.

She wanted it, but she also wanted some revisions to make it clearer to the reader what was going on.

"Remember," she said in the letter, "Everyone doesn't know as much history as you do, Howard."

Yow! I began to question a lot of stuff I'd written. "Ike at the Mike"! "The World, As We Know't."! "Custer's Last Jump" (with Steve Utley)! Them Bones! All alternate histories!

If nobody knows any history, what am I doing writing about alternate ones, parallel worlds where things turned out differently? Who cares?


A few moments' reflection brought me back to earth (this one). She was right. I'd wanted to write a subtle story. What I'd written was a rarefied one. (292)

I haven't read everything by Waldrop, but I've read a lot, and everything I have read falls into the category of fantasies of history. That is, Waldrop stories take premises from known history or popular culture and come up with new juxtapositions, almost always ones that we know can't "really" have happened. The alternate histories he describes above are only a subset of the whole. So the initial problem—the problem Datlow evidently had—is, what if you aren't familiar with the premises Waldrop is using? If you don't know the themes he's riffing on, are you (as it were) going to get the joke? Reviewing Strange Things in Close Up in Interzone 33 (1990), Kim Newman said, "In 'All About Strange Monsters of the Recent Past,' [Waldrop includes] more movie monsters from the 50s than even I can deal with. (Those people, and I agree with them, who complain that my own work has too many obscure movie jokes, should note that Waldrop has seen and can do a gag about Phantom From Space, which is beyond even my viewing experience—I had to use a reference book to understand it)." When you've done a movie joke too obscure for Kim Newman, you have to admit there's an issue.

Other Worlds, Better Lives collects seven of Waldrop's longer pieces of work, starting off with A Dozen Tough Jobs, originally published as a standalone novella by Mark Ziesing in 1989. The premise is simple: the twelve labours of Hercules are reeenacted by a man called Houlka Lee in the Deep South in 1926. On the face of it, there's no reason it should work as miraculously well as it does—although the Coen Brothers mined the same seam in O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000). I read it without much more than a half-remembered residue of school-years information about the Hercules story, and somehow it all clicked into place: Oh right, that's the Augean stables, that's the Hydra, and so on. Moreover, the parallels Waldrop was drawing, between the slave society of ancient Greece and the world of the Deep South, came to the surface without disrupting the flow of the story.

The second piece here, "Fin de Cyclé" (1991) is, to my mind, even finer. It's set in late nineteenth-century France, albeit a France where the soldiers ride about on giant bicycles. The Dreyfus case still takes place, and has much the same impact on society. But, in Waldrop's story, a motley assembly of talents—Méliès, Jarry, Satie, Rousseau, Proust, and the young Picasso—assemble to do something about it, eventually resulting in a film exposing the injustice. Zola replaces his famous article "J'Accuse" with a review of the movie; France wakes up to the corruption of its armed forces and moves forward. Waldrop's inventions and interpolations somehow render the history clearer. He doesn't need to tell us that this world is about to fall apart, or how the Bicycle Infantry will fare in the mud of the Somme. Nor does he need to say that, in reality, events weren't this story-shaped. He just leaves us with the poignancy of what could have been.

My problems start at the third story here, "You Could Go Home Again" (1993). It follows the writer Thomas Wolfe, travelling back to the US by zeppelin from the Tokyo Olympics in 1940. In our world, the Olympics were moved to Helsinki and then cancelled because of the outbreak of World War II; and Wolfe died of tuberculosis of the brain in 1938. In the story, he's been saved by an operation, but is a somewhat diminished figure; the bulk of the narrative shows him having a kind of epiphany on the airship as he listens to the jazz of Fats Waller. My first objection to the story is that this is something Waldrop's done before: "Ike at the Mike" (1982) sees Senator Elvis Presley having an epiphany as he watches the jazz band led by Dwight Eisenhower and Louis Armstrong play—all against the backdrop of a movingly transformed America. "Ike at the Mike," though, is more concise, less a prisoner of its research. "You Could Go Home Again" feels more static, and more dedicated to showing off the cool stuff Waldrop has discovered. There's a two-page vignette of Wolfe being approached by a wannabe writer, now the zeppelin's social director. This "Jerry," it becomes clear, is the future J. D. Salinger. As Waldrop says in his afterword, it's a delightful irony that this most reclusive writer did at one point work as the social director on a cruise liner. But the cameo diminishes the forward pull of the story—which, as I've already hinted, isn't that strong. One senses that stories, for Waldrop, aren't so much narratives directed from start to finish as accretions, strata of research laid down meticulously around the grit of an idea. I don't deny that this often produces pearls. But the later one gets in his career, the greater the density of research evident in the stories, and the less open they end up being.

There's a sense in which this problem, the increasing density of Waldrop stories, is amplified by his style. In his afterword to A Dozen Tough Jobs in Night of the Cooters (UK, 1989), Waldrop has a few sharp words to say about critics who accuse him of writing "thin"—pointing, with justification, to the sheer number of events covered in the novella. What's unarguably true, though, is that he writes terse, and he writes dense. A sample, from the end of "You Could Go Home Again":

Wolfe lay naked on the bunk, orange in the glow from the nightlight. He smoked a last tired cigarette, stubbed it out in the weighted conical ashtray he'd taken off the desk and placed on the floor. There was a dull, not unpleasant throb on the deck. He put his hand up against the wall; it was there too. It must be there air, the time, the tension of their passage through the air, the smooth vibration of the engines against the structure of the ship. It was a calming thing. (p. 143)

Even at a moment of emotional importance like this, it's amazing how much Waldrop does not do. That last sentence, completing the argument of the paragraph, doesn't amplify "calming" with "immensely" or anything else. Indeed, we don't get told anything directly about Wolfe's emotional state until that last sentence. In a style like this, it amounts to a major flourish to have "tired" applying to the cigarette, not to Wolfe. Elsewhere, Waldrop's descriptions are as stripped down as they could be, and he frequently uses that riskiest of tactics, the one-sentence paragraph. In "Fin de Cyclé," for instance, there's a scene consisting simply of the sentence "Pablo continued to paint, eating a sandwich, drinking wine" (p. 103). Waldrop is trusting that we as readers will do the imaginative work of seeing that scene, realising its importance, and pausing with that image before moving on. His style, which seems so straightforward on the surface, is in fact a gamble whose stakes are increased the more he packs into his stories.

In this context, "Flatfeet!" (1996) is something of an oddity; as Waldrop says in his afterword, it's a piece in which the story's subtext is deliberately on the surface. Los Angeles cops in the early years of the movie business, bearing a striking resemblance to the Keystone Cops, have to deal with a series of weird disturbances in a set of vignettes mapping onto the course of civilisations charted in Spengler's The Decline of the West (1922). It ought not to work but it does, perhaps because the structure he has created makes Waldrop display his cards so openly. I'm less keen on "Major Spacer in the 21st Century" (2001), which asks how the SF dreams of the 50s would cope in our messy present. It's partly that a number of other stories have done the same, and partly that it falls victim to some sentimentality in its depiction of the past's innocent bravery.

The last two stories here, "The Other Real World" (2001) and "A Better World's in Birth!" (2003) mark the apogee so far of Waldrop's density-in-fiction. The former asks what would happen to the kids of the SF movies of the 50s if they survived into the 1960s, in particular into the Cuban Missile Crisis. It's sufficiently full of references that Waldrop appends a four-page, 81-entry set of footnotes unpacking it. The latter is a skewed look at the 1848/9 revolutions in Europe: what would have happened if Richard Wagner had been a political activist then and they had generated (on a different time-scale) a kind of communism? As with all of Waldrop's work, there's a serious thought at the root of this, and a set of ideas about art and history that probably couldn't be expressed in any other way. But Waldrop has to spend so much time explaining the bases of his imaginary world (and wants to do so with characteristic terseness) that at times the story seems almost verbless—and is sometimes literally so, as in the rundown of Wagner's alternate-world career on p. 234.

To be clear: I have no axiomatic argument with "difficulty" in fiction, including difficulty of the Waldrop kind: a density and obscurity of reference that is sometimes dazzling and sometimes baffling. Any writer is free to do whatever they want; but any choice they make will have a cost. The choices Waldrop has made, especially recently, seem to privilege research at the cost of story, nouns at the cost of verbs. He wants to show us the amazing stuff he's discovered, and the stories in which these gems are embedded feel like pretexts. At times, the affect of Waldrop's work seems like a willed exile. The imaginary countries he has created—almost all imaginary Americas—are so much more the shape they should be than the real world outside the door. How could you not want to be aboard the zeppelin listening to Fats Waller, or in Paris watching Proust make his movie? The issue with the later stories is that they seem turned away—from the forward tug of narrative, and from any desire that readers might have to see more than a tableau of brilliantly altered facts. If you lose your bearings in a Waldrop story, it's hard to escape the sense that you're being told a joke that you'll never get. To repeat myself: I hope this book and its predecessor will be successful enough to demonstrate that Waldrop has thousands of attentive readers. We are listening; we hope he'll have more stories that speak to us.

Graham Sleight lives in London, U.K. He is editor of Foundation, and writes for The New York Review of Science Fiction, Locus, and Science Fiction Studies.

Current Issue
24 Jan 2022

Piece of my essence, accept my sorry.
Some people, right? We’ll fold you into sparrows, help you disappear—I’m so glad we found you alive
By: Katy Bond
By: Averi Kurth
Podcast read by: Ciro Faienza
Podcast read by: Katy Bond
In this episode of the Strange Horizons podcast, editor Ciro Faienza presents the poetry of the 24 January issue.
Hope without action behind it is only a recipe for deeper heartache.
I love flash fiction for a lot of reasons. There’s the instant gratification of reading a complete work of fiction in just a few minutes. And there’s the way flash lends itself to playful, inventive experimentation with form, prose, style, voice, and subject. I also love the way a flash story can be honed and sharpened as everything extraneous is eliminated, and the way it can capture and convey the essence of something—an emotion, a world, a situation, a possibility, an idea, even a joke!—in brilliant brevity.
Wednesday: I am the Tiger by John Ajvide Lindqvist, translated by Marlaine Delargy 
Friday: The Tangleroot Palace Stories by Marjorie Lu 
Issue 17 Jan 2022
Issue 10 Jan 2022
Issue 3 Jan 2022
Strange Horizons
By: Antonio Funches
By: Lev Mirov
Podcast read by: Ciro Faienza
Issue 20 Dec 2021
By: Merie Kirby
Podcast read by: Ciro Faienza
Issue 13 Dec 2021
By: Freydís Moon
Podcast read by: Ciro Faienza
Issue 6 Dec 2021
By: C. S. E. Cooney
Podcast read by: Ciro Faienza
Podcast read by: C. S. E. Cooney
Issue 29 Nov 2021
Issue 22 Nov 2021
Issue 15 Nov 2021
By: Madeline Grigg
Podcast read by: Ciro Faienza
Issue 8 Nov 2021
By: Allison Parrish
Podcast read by: Ciro Faienza
Load More
%d bloggers like this: