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August 2003
2003 Ernest Lilley / SFRevu
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A Better World's in Birth by Howard Waldrop
Golden Gryphon Press Trade: ISBN None PubDate: 07/01/03
Review by Victoria McManus
51 pgs. List price $ 15.95
Buy this book at: Golden Gryphon Press

"The smart ones always end up in our jail." --Comrade Rienzi

A Better World's In Birth! is a treat for fans of Howard Waldrop despite its hefty price tag, and a wonderful introduction to his work for fans of alternate history or of history in general. The five hundred signed and numbered copies are bound to become collector's items, but that isn't the only reason to seek this one out. A Better World's In Birth! is a deeply interesting ramble through obscure corners and strange connections of history, which is always stranger than fiction; there are subtle echoes of utopian novels like Edward Bellamy's Looking Backward as well. Have your reference material handy, because after you've read it once, you'll want to make sure of what was real and what wasn't.

The story takes place approximately a quarter-century after a successful Communist revolution (based on real events in 1848) was led in Europe by Marx, Engels, and Richard Wagner (yes, the composer), all of whom were executed shortly after. The alternate Wagner, therefore, never wrote some of his most famous operas, but his early interest in Beethoven forms one of the story's themes.

Wagner threw a last grenade at the hindmost of the Saxon army stragglers, from his nest in the bell tower of the Kreuzkirche, and yelled, "Good riddance, running dogs of the bourgeois lickspittles!"

In 1876, the Peoples' Federated States of Europe are being ruled by Comrade Leader Eisenmann, formerly Emil Gaspard, son of a French baker. All seems stable in Dresden, Germany, until spectres of the martyred revolutionary leaders begin to appear to officials of the People's government who knew the men in life. Officer Rienzi (no relation to the opera!) of the People's Department for Security, is assigned to investigate.

"The Peoples' Federated States of Europe does not believe in ghosts or goblins! It believes in the innate perfectibility of Man! There's your Hegelian dialectic in a nutshell. We no longer have the Church's Heaven and Hell, we have the Worker's Heaven on Earth!"

Details of the historical differences between our world and that of the story are uncovered for the reader in the course of Rienzi's investigations, as he visits libraries and archives. Most amusing is Rienzi's visit to "Comrade King" at the People's Department on the Former Monarchy, who seems to be a descendent of Friedrich August II of Saxony. Rienzi is also aided by Victoria Woodhull, who in our own history became the first woman to run for U.S. President, in 1872; however, in this story it's her earlier experiments with spiritualism that affect the plot.

"Do you feel the charge of the spirits?" she asked.
"No. Of course not."
"Do you see the pendant ectoplasm trying to form over our heads?"
"No."
"Do you have a sense of expectation, of breakthrough and release from your dreads?"
"No."

The 10,000 word story is accompanied by an explanatory afterword by Waldrop, who began his notes for the story in 1983 and researched it exhaustively, all because the world needed a Communist ghost story. It's wacky. It's intellectual. It makes your brain hurt. It's Waldrop. Give him a try.

2003 Ernest Lilley / SFRevu
columns - events - features - booksmedia                    home  /  subscribe