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Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Atlantis and Other Places: Stories of Alternate History (audiobook) by Harry Turtledove

Tantor audio
Read by Todd McLaren
14.5 hours

Called a “Master of Alternate History” by Publishers Weekly, Harry Turtledove continues on that track in Atlantis and Other Places with a set of 12 short stories. Topics and eras range from pre-history to the Peloponnesian War to the Byzantine Empire to World War II and two stories set in modern times. All of these stories have appeared in other publications.

This collection begins and ends with two stories about Atlantis, a topic he has explored more deeply in a trilogy. “Audubon in Atlantis” is the first story that Turtledove published about Atlantis. The famed 19th century naturalist John James Audubon has traveled to Atlantis to catalog some of its unique wildlife. Turtledove introduces his alternate world, including basics of the history of Atlantis and he introduces the House of Universal Devotion, a religion that is most analogous to the Mormon Church in regular history. Turtledove’s focus on laying down the ground rules for makes the first half of the story a bit tiresome. It does pick up once Audubon is in the field.

Harry Turtledove
The last story, “The Scarlet Band” is chronologically Turtledove’s last story about Atlantis. In the story, Athelstan Helms and Dr. James Walton, the world famous detective duo (modeled after Holmes and Watson), are summoned to Atlantis to investigate a series of murders of prominent citizens who have been openly critical of the House of Universal Devotion. It is a fine ending to the collection, even if the murder is a bit too easily solved.

As in any collection, the quality varies. “Bedfellows” is a tiresome story once the gimmick is understood in the first minute, but it goes on for another 10 minutes. “News From the Front” is an alternate history of World War II told through headlines and snippets of editorials.  Roosevelt is savaged in the press for failing to foresee the attack on Pearl Harbor and America’s will to fight sags so low that it ends up suing for peace, much like the Japanese Empire had hoped in their original plans for the war in our timeline. The premise is interesting, but the headline/editorial format loses its punch and it tends to drag.

On the other hand, “Catcher in the Rhine” and “Someone is Stealing the Great Throne Rooms of the Galaxy” are both quite fun. “Catcher” is a play on J.D. Salinger’s famed character Holden Caulfield. Caulfield is visiting Germany and he gets caught up in a bit of magical time travel. Turtledove captures Caulfield’s voice perfectly. “Throne Rooms” is a pure comic bit of science fiction (and the only story in the collection that is not alternate history – it is set in the future). A giant sentient hamster is sent by the Star Patrol to investigate a series of thefts of throne rooms (and their accompanying antechambers) providing plenty of laugh out loud moments.

“Farmers’ Law” and “The Genetics Lecture” are middle of the road stories. The former is a straightforward murder mystery set in a rural village in the Byzantine Empire and the latter is a Twilight Zone-esque very short story (about 6 minutes long) that, unfortunately, telegraphed its punch line.

“Uncle Alf” is set in France in 1929. But, in this world, the German Empire has won World War I and a 40-year-old Hitler is part of the German army occupying France. He is dedicated to rooting out socialism and in seducing his 21-year-old half-niece through a series of letters. The story is told through those letters. Although the incestual seduction aspect of the story is based on strong historical supposition, that fact does nothing to ease the creepy feeling that pervades the whole story.

The three strongest stories are all quite different from one another. “The Daimon” is set in the Peloponnesian War and the only difference is that Sokrates decides to participate in the invasion of Syracuse. In history, this campaign turned into a disaster, but Sokrates is able to offer advice to Alkibiades, the mercurial fair-haired young general who led the invasion. This advice causes Athens to win the entire war and, in the process lose their democracy to a tyrannical Alkibiades. Sokrates lives long enough to regret his advice as Alkibiades consolidates the Greek city states under his power in order to launch an invasion of Persia like Alexander the Great did nearly a century later. Those who are familiar with the Peloponnesian War will especially appreciate the ironic comments and situations that arise in this story.

“The Horse of Bronze” is a simple story of centaurs discovering men, but it is so much more. If you are a fan of Aristotle or enjoy thinking about the concepts behind his “Theory of Forms” (Turtledove introduces the theory in the earlier story “Daimon”) you will enjoy this story of the arrival of men in a world filled with Centaurs, Nuggies, Satyrs, Sirens and Sphinxes.

“Occupation Duty” is set in modern day Gaza. The story is about troops going on patrol in an armored personnel carrier in a hostile, conquered territory.  However, this is not about Israel and the Palestinians. Instead it is the “Philistinians” and the Moabites. In this history, Goliath beat David and Israel is nothing but a distant, ancient memory. The fight scenes are first rate and the irony of the same fighting going on in the same territory for the same reasons with different nations is quite good. Throw in a solid description of a world with no monotheistic religions and a tantalizing peek at this new world’s politics and I found myself wishing he had fleshed this story out into a novel.

Todd McLaren’s narration of these stories was exceptional. He delivers a variety of voices and tones – everything from American southern accents to a variety of British accents to Hitler’s German accent. He even catches Alkibiades’ famed lisp and you can hear the treachery in his voice as he crushes his opponents. Very impressive and enjoyable work throughout.

I rate this audiobook 4 stars out of 5.

This audiobook can be found on Amazon.com here: Atlantis and Other Places.

Reviewed March 21, 2011.

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