The connection of the mystery genre with alternate history, usually considered a subgenre of science fiction, seems natural and felicitous. In alternate histories, we're often put into a situation we're unsure of, and we must piece together, from clues in the setting and story, where we are, what is different in this timeline from our own, what the effects are of that change, and what all that has to do with the tale being told. In effect, we're set down in a mystery and must apply the clues given, and our own knowledge of history, to figure out what's going on.
In his introduction to Sideways in Crime, Anders quotes Robert Sawyer on the connection between mystery and science fiction: "'SF and mystery ... both prize rational thinking and both require the reader to pick up artfully salted clues about what is really going on ... since no one really is familiar with [the science fiction story's] milieu ... the dropping of clues and hints is crucial, and, just as in a mystery, they have to be inserted so transparently, without drawing attention to themselves, that the reader doesn't even consciously notice them" (p. 11).
Anders notes that, like science fiction, historical fiction also sets stories in another time and place, and he calls alternate history "the most obvious intersection of science fiction and historical fiction."
There is, simply, a (similar) intellectual enjoyment to be found in mystery, alternate history, and science fiction proper that some readers find compellingly pleasant, and certainly some of the stories in Sideways in Crime are pleasing. Several are fun to read; the best are intriguing, amusing, even charming in the conceits they put forward, the speculations they arouse. But the devil is in the details, and none of these stories is flawless, a few of them fail, and a couple of them are shoddy.
Unfortunately, to discuss the counterfactual elements in some alternate history stories is tantamount to giving away too much about the solution to a mystery, but it's almost impossible to say anything about them without noting the basic situation, at least. For those who consider that to be a "spoiler"—and one well might—please be warned.
For ease of discussion, I'd like to group these stories into a few general categories that may also be suggestive or illuminating.
To my mind, the most pleasing and productive sort of alternate history story gives us a world in which there has been a significant historical disjunction some time in the fairly distant past, so that we find ourselves in a political and cultural reality much different from our own. The stories themselves tend to (but don't have to) occur some time after the hinge event, and also in the "past," relative to our own time. This gives entrée to elements of historical fiction, steampunk, and even an occasional touch of Ruritanian romance (since we're dealing with "historical" times in made-up, or altered, nations).
Sideways in Crime includes a number of stories of this type, of which "Sacrifice," by Mary Rosenblum, presents the most intriguing situation. It takes place in Tenochtitlan, capital of the Aztec Empire, in the equivalent of the early 19th century, at the time of the introduction of railroads. We get to imagine all the cultures that might have flourished in the Americas if the Europeans hadn't plowed them under. Of course, a different set of diplomatic and power relationships applies; key here is the relationship of China with the Aztecs the Aztecs with China.
The mystery is at least adequate, with a twist that makes it more interesting and thematically resonant. However, there is a glaring flaw in the relationship of Rosenblum's fictional world with some of the story elements that bear on the mystery. The story's thematic point is that a quasi-colonial nation (in relation to the Chinese) like the Aztecs, and its culture, is to be respected. But the story's protagonist, the one man who can solve the mystery, is an outsider, some sort of Anglo, presumably from one of the cultures that, in our world, trod the American cultures down. Not that we need to get worked up about politically incorrect condescension, in a fiction, to a culture that doesn't exist; but within the story this arrangement sets up a thematic contradiction and introduces a strong element of implausibility. The crime involves Chinese diplomats and the highest level of the Aztec government, but this old, sophisticated, and capable culture (as the Aztecs are presented) does not have or, at least, employ its own investigators. This isn't even a case of an amateur beating the usual law enforcement personnel at their own game. The Aztec ruler sets a foreign tutor to solve the crime, and no law enforcement personnel are involved until a hint at the end that some force or other will come in and do the clean-up. It's a telling flaw in an otherwise nicely-done story, in a setting that could support a much longer fiction, or many.
The alternate world in Kage Baker's "Running the Snake" is also intriguing, a Britain ruled by The Living Boudicca, a "Twdwr" (in real history, the name that became "Tudor," ruling house of England from the ascension of Henry VII in 1485 to the death of Elizabeth I, the analogue in our world to The Living Boudicca, in 1603). A royal personage dies while observing a religious flimflam operation at the "temple of Glycon," run in part by writer and showman Will Shaxpur, whom the Queen sets to solve the mystery (which is a bit more believable than in the Rosenblum story). The mystery isn't especially compelling, but the story as a whole is entertaining enough. A passing reference to a line from Blake is acceptable, but a reference to "lip-syncing" is jarring. The story's closing line makes a sly connection to our time line, giving a wink to those who think someone else wrote Shakespeare's plays.
Stephen Baxter's "Fate and the Fire-Lance" implies, from the title on, that even in an alternate world or time-line, certain conjunctions of fate are unavoidable. In 1914 the son of the Roman Emperor—a Serbian, ruling from Constantinople—is assassinated in London, and the entire fragile balance of powers teeters on the brink of world war. It's not just a wink to the knowledgeable reader, but part of Baxter's theme, that the assassinated son of the Serbian Caesar, Nedjedko XXVI Princip, is named Gavrilo.
Baxter's heroine, Imogen Brodsworth, another royal tutor, is a translator, not a professional detective. Of course, the line of skilled amateur detectives in fiction is long and celebrated. But the way she's included in the investigation is implausible, as are her discovery of evidence overlooked by professionals and the real detective's deference to her (even if he's infatuated). The story's feint at romance is unconvincing and forced. Baxter's presentation of the alternate history overwhelms the story. There's not only a lot of exposition in the dialogue, there's plenty that comes direct from the narrator, unanchored in character. There's no real attempt at the artful or oblique introduction of information—although the fact that large expository lumps commonly occur in published stories would surprise only someone who knew the field exclusively from writing classes, workshops, and the writing of critics. Baxter's story is sacrificed, to an extent, to its alternate history and mystery elements.
Like Mary Rosenbaum's story, Tobias Buckell's "The People's Machine" takes place in a North America split among several nations and cultures. His hero is an Aztec, however, an investigator from Tenochtitlan named Ixtli, not an outsider—but here, he's called to investigate in New Amsterdam (i.e., New York).
This story reads like an early draft, from its ungrammatical commencement to its confusing and ungrammatical end. The writing is generally awkward, with some sentences beyond the pale: "'Is it coincidence that the very same urchin following us now, and that the previous time I saw him, seemed to have one of these punch cards on his person?'" (p. 331). Buckell forgets that one character is handcuffed when the "ropes" binding him are cut (pp. 334, 337-8). He tries to make a connection between the working of a programmed machine and a constitutional republic that fails as an analogy, depending as it does on considering human beings, in their interpretation of instructions or their application of laws, as machines, a sort of begging the question. A key point at the end seems to depend on Ixtli having information before his trip to New Amsterdam that he does not actually obtain until well into his investigations, and seems implausible to the point of nonsensicality; either that, or something was fatally unclear. It is the kind of slipshod story that makes a reviewer wonder, "Did anyone look at this after it was first typed? At all?"
Paul Park's "The Blood of Peter Francisco" gives us a world at the onset of WWI in which two American revolutions have failed, the one in the 1770s and another, the glorious cause, in the 1860s (reminding us that Southerners saw the Civil War as analogous to the American Revolution). An assassination attempt in a New York theatre, concocted by revolutionaries, goes awry when the assassin, the immensely large and strong Dandridge Spotswood, ignores several enemies of the revolution to kill a woman, Madame Katarina Rothschild. One of his fellow conspirators, Anton, seeks him out, thinking to kill him. It's possible that Spotswood has taken the occasion to kill his ex-wife, who abandoned him.
There is a great deal of fact, if obscure fact, behind this. Peter Francisco was an abandoned child, possibly Portuguese, a hero of the American Revolution, of enormous size and strength, and was an ancestor of a Dandridge Spotswood who, in 1911, was divorced in Paris from Katherine von Wolff, of Austrian descent.
A scene between Anton and his sister Marta seems to have no other purpose than to incorporate, in their dialogue, which is partially in Ladino (the Spanish dialect of Sephardic Jews), lines from a poem about the Holocaust called "Escutcha mi hermano" ("Listen, My Brother"), by Itzhak Ben Ruby (1962), collected in And the World Stood Silent: Sephardic Poetry of the Holocaust, edited by Isaac Jack Lévy (1999). Marta works at the Triangle Factory, where a disastrous fire, also in 1911, caused the deaths of 146 women immigrants. We are perhaps to understand that she will die there.
The upshot of Anton's confrontation of Spotswood is bifurcated, if only in his imagination. He gives us two outcomes, though one is weighted as truth, and says of the first outcome, "No, but that's what I imagined in my other history, my other memory of that first winter of the war. I imagined it, but then I kept the story to myself—the world can split apart at any moment, what we've done, what we might have done."
This may seem to be giving the story a significance it hasn't earned. But Park's a learned, intelligent, and subtle writer, so I hesitate to assume that, or that he's using a Sephardic poem about the Holocaust merely to provide Ladino dialogue. Still, I have to admit that the significance of all this eludes me, after two readings, an hour of Internet research, and considerable thought. Is Park implying that Francisco, who did so much to aid the American victory in the Revolution, was a Sephardic Jew? Is there an irony in his descendent killing the wife of a "Jewish financier?" Is the Triangle Shirtwaist fire a miniature precursor of the Holocaust? Or is this simply a very clever use of some fascinating, but obscure, history?
I suspect that any inner meanings here, as well as the history involved, will elude the majority of readers. The usefulness or validity of such hidden detail and allusions, especially in something that at least gives the appearance of popular fiction (this is not, after all, an adjunct to Ulysses) is an interesting and difficult question. I'm left considering this an example of what the Turkey City Lexicon calls "Card Tricks in the Dark": "Elaborately contrived plot which arrives at (a) the punch line of a private joke no reader will get or (b) the display of some bit of learned trivia relevant only to the author. This stunt may be intensely ingenious, and very gratifying to the author, but it serves no visible fictional purpose."
A category of stories similar to the first, but with a quite different feel, includes those in which the world has diverged only recently from the one we know, and the story occurs in the recent past, the present, or a fairly near future.
S.M. Stirling's "A Murder in Eddsford" takes place a bit more than fifty years after "the Change": after March 17, 1998, one couldn't get "a useful amount of mechanical work out of heat" (p. 285). Electricity, gunpowder, steam engines, internal combustion all stopped working (for the most part—steam engines work under low pressure), a great deal of the world's population died off, and the rest rearranged itself. This is the background for a number of Stirling's novels, as well.
The story is enjoyable, with a Holmesian detective, a satisfying resolution, and a twist to top it off. However, "the Change" is utterly unbelievable. To have physical laws change from one day to the next and only in some places (this may be restricted to Earth) or to a certain degree is worse than old-time science fiction stories postulating a "new element" without noting that there are no free spaces in the periodic table, except for very heavy, unstable elements. If he wanted his alternate history to be pure fantasy—for example, introducing dragons into the Napoleonic Wars—he should simply present it as a fantasy, not with a (pseudo-) scientific framework. But even in a fantasy, steam engines—or spells, or demonic invocations—that work or don't work at the author's whim or convenience result in nonsense or authorial bad faith.
Almost as bad as that crushing implausibility is a certain sense of archaizing smugness. The world seems so much better with most of the people dead and the remainder using ploughs and swords; no one seems to mind "the change." It's fun, after all, to use swords and armor! There's no sense of the real poverty and destitution that so many people who lived in this kind of world suffered. The people have some reality, but the setting is a Thomas Kinkade world, unreal and irresponsible wish fulfillment, and it feels like it.
John Meaney's "Via Vortex" pulls a switch on the familiar "if the Nazis won WWII" by having the Nazis be both Germans and Americans (or Amerikans). The Allies—England and France, it seems—won somehow by the use of vortices of energy which persist in place, one on Ellis Island, for instance. This seems to recall the destructive atomic vortices of E. E. Doc Smith's The Vortex Blasters, although it's not clear that Meaney intends the same thing or even means to invoke Smith's concept.
Instantaneous travel by vortex resonance is possible, but for many, morally repugnant; it recalls vaguely the magic trick in the film of The Prestige. There are many other science fictional ideas, such as "psychophysics," which vaguely recalls Asimov's "psychohistory," and a fundamentalist cult that worships the sun, the "vortex patterns" of which reveal it to be self-aware.
Too much is shoehorned into this story, and it becomes muddied. To quote once more from the Turkey City Lexicon, it's a "The Kitchen-Sink Story": "A story overwhelmed by the inclusion of any and every new idea that occurs to the author in the process of writing it.." Meanwhile, the mystery is muscled aside. The motive for the story's murders is mentioned vaguely in passing and dropped. There's a lot of expository conversation, though perhaps not more than fans can stand.
More telling is that the alternate history is unnecessary and irrelevant to the story. A truism of science fiction criticism is that, if the story can be told without the science fictional setting or idea, it isn't really science fiction. This story could just as easily have been set in our future. The alternate history aspect is so loosely attached to the story, the reader can feel it flapping about in the breeze.
"Murder in Geektopia" by Paul Di Filippo is one of two humorous stories in the book. For anyone who shares geeky characteristics (and if you don't, why are you interested in alternate history mysteries?), Di Filippo's story, which reads like a longer and even denser version of his "Plumage from Pegasus" column in Fantasy and Science Fiction, will be a stand-out. Geeks run the world because of some historical changes around the end of the 19th century, starting with the marriage of William Randolph Hearst and E. Nesbit. The story is laden with references to books, magazines, comics, and, providing some of the funniest lines, movies that, in our world, could never have been made. I won't ruin the fun by mentioning a lot of them, but will give my favorite as a sample of their flavor: "Elke Sommer in The Left Hand of Darkness" (p. 196). The mystery, however, is negligible, even anticlimactic, and the romance is flimsy. The story's real interest lies in the non-stop play of geeky pop-culture references; its setting is its raison d'etre. It's clear that, wherever the rest of us live, Di Filippo lives in Geektopia.
The other humorous story is "Conspiracies: A Very Condensed 937-Page Novel," by Mike Resnick and Eric Flint, which I think is not an alternate history, but rather a "secret history". We get Jimmy Hoffa abducted by aliens, up to his old union-organizing and ultimately shady ways. Where Di Filippo's humor is whimsical and sharp, Resnick and Flint's is mostly labored. I'm as willing as anyone to be amused by funny alien names, but theirs aren't funny and there are too many of them. There are occasional grins to be had (which I won't spoil), but not enough.
Kristine Kathryn Rusch's "G-Men" stands alone in its own category: the crime around which the mystery revolves—the killing of two top-level Washington insiders in 1964—provides the hinge moment that will result in an alternate history from this point on. It's sketching out that history—in a confrontation between two of the most powerful men in the nation—that interests Rusch most. The story is well-told and quick, but the actual mystery is easily solved, almost a throwaway, compared to the story's political and (anticipatory) historical elements.
A few stories in this collection, like "Conspiracies," are not alternate histories, though they deal with alternate realities. Jon Courtenay Grimwood's unsympathetic "Chicago," which gives us an Al Capone who lives in a world of cloning and memory wipes, has only a passing mention of a possible historical connection.
Pat Cadigan's "Worlds of Possibilities" is a many-worlds police procedural, pleasant enough, but devolving, at the end, into handwaving when dealing with leakages from other realities into ours.
Another many-worlds story, Chris Roberson's "Death on the Crosstime Express," takes place in a multiverse he calls "the Myriad," in which, it seems, nearly every varying world that can exist, does, and can be visited by ship. Like "The People's Machine," this story reads like a draft. There are infodumps galore, including awkward, amateurish character descriptions: "Rumored to be in the employ of one of the wealthier Texican gas-mining concerns, Starkweather was said to be journeying to Helium to negotiate an extremely lucrative trade agreement, but no one knew for certain" (p. 344). We don't know who is thinking this; it is anchored to no one in the story. In fact, it's simply the author, but this description is not transparent enough for us to swallow it from an anonymous narrator, and he never sets himself up as the kind of Trollopian omniscient narrator that can comment directly to the reader. It seems like he loses track of, or even control of, the point of view.
The Myriad and all that is involved with it is simply and flatly unbelievable, even as a science-fictional or fantasy construct. Even fantasy needs a certain discipline, a certain core of principles that are self-consistent and that have some resemblance to life as we know it, in the aspects of the story that are non-fantastic. If anything can happen, nothing is interesting. This is the kind of fantasy world twelve-year-olds make up when they tell one another stories.
An important aspect of the story is a slap at racism and Euro- (even Anglo-) centrism—the "strange notions" that "white skin was better than dark, that Britain was where the best white skin could be found" (p. 362). Most of the passengers, or those commanding the ship, are dark-skinned; the whites are mostly service personnel. Roberson gives us the racial and ethnic background of every character he presents, no matter how unimportant, in detail, and they are always characterized by that background. But the cumulative effect is the opposite of what he seems to intend, or what would serve the story. The story becomes racist, not in the sense of judging one race better than another, but in the sense of being very, very conscious of race. And that becomes discomfiting, even a little creepy. Moreover, the ultimate heroes (Starkweather and Carmody) are pretty Waspy.
The stories in this book have a built-in advantage, a multiple appeal on the reader: the alternate history (or alternate world) setting; the mystery; the interest of other story elements, of the various characters, etc.; and, at times, other science fictional elements, besides the existence of an alternative to our own reality. But in their advantage lies a common problem, the sacrifice of one aspect or another of the story to its exposition. With all of those elements to cover—alternate history, mystery elements, characters, description (and sometimes science fictional elements as well) in a short space, the stories can feel rushed and exposition-laden, and even the mysteries are sometimes negligible or incidental. In his introduction, Anders, echoing Sawyer, says that in both science fiction and historical fiction, the "artful salting" of exposition "takes a certain skill to do." Judging by these stories, it's nearly impossible to do well in the short form, though there is certainly a variety in the skill level, from considerable to, in the cases of, especially, Roberson, and Theodore Judson's "The Sultan's Emissary," no apparent effort even to attempt it.
Alternate histories, early on, tended to be essays or essay-like fictions, where the intellectual game involved was their salient, or only, raison d'etre. A classic example is If, or History Rewritten, which includes "esstories" by G.K. Chesterton, Andre Maurois, Hillaire Belloc, and Winston Churchill, among others. (American edition, 1931; original British edition If It Had Happened Otherwise, 1931, with slightly different contents. Information, bibliographic and otherwise, on alternate histories can be found at the rich and thorough Uchronia site, www.uchronia.com, which everyone interested in alternate history should know, and which, if it hasn't already won an award, should.) Judging by this book, it's difficult to get away from that model, and perhaps that's too much to expect, or more than readers need, or even want.
But readers determinedly interested in this particular "flavor" of mystery/alternate history might try some works at a greater length, where there's more room for all the elements, such as two "if the Nazis had won" novels: Fatherland, by Robert Harris, a compelling if somewhat dour mystery set in a triumphant Nazi empire (1992), and SS GB by Len Deighton (1978), set in a conquered England shortly after the war. Or, more recently, Michael Chabon's Nebula-winning The Yiddish Policeman's Union (2007), set in an alternate present in a refuge for Jews, the Federal District of Sitka, Alaska. Anders' collection, though often enjoyable, is dragged down somewhat by the dross, and is impossible to recommend wholeheartedly.
Bill Mingin, a graduate of Clarion West, has published seventeen short stories, with more forthcoming, and more than two hundred nonfiction pieces, including reviews in Publishers Weekly. He currently reviews audiobooks for AudioFile Magazine. He's married and lives in central New Jersey, where he runs a small book-export business.