October 2003
© 2003 Ernest Lilley / SFRevu
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One Lamp by Gordon Van Gelder, ed.
Four Walls Eight Windows;Trade ISBN:1568582765 PubDate:September 2003
434 pages;  List $15.95
Review by Rob Archer


Some collections of alternate history stories seem to be based on the drawing power of the authors whose works are involved, while others are based on particular themes such as The Best Military Science Fiction Stories of the 20th Century, or The Best Alternate History Stories of the 20th Century (a shameless plug for the reviewer’s favorite Harry Turtledove!).   However, One Lamp, a collection of previously published short stories culled from the pages of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction draws on a broader social fabric than many other collections I’ve read in the past.  It seems as though the gist of the tales contained within this book take the time to deal in greater depth with the emotions and the changes in lifestyle that are a part of divergent streams of time rather than dealing with the nuts and bolts of the historical changes.  In fact, one of the repetitive aspects of the stories told in One Lamp is the act of time travel and how it can be used to change existence in the future.

Where the lion’s share of alternate histories I’ve come across in the past take an event in history, usually the Civil War or the Second World War, and through a momentous change bring about an entirely different dynamic world that the characters live in, the stories in this collection seem to focus on the reflective nature of an individual who has seen the two possible outcomes and must come to grips with the changes.  This results in the authors exploring the different ways in which past events could reflect upon current and future society.  While some of the regular turning points are used, they are explored in a different manner or reached through varying means.

One of the stories that deals explicitly with the acts of humans traveling through time to alter the past comes from Poul Anderon’s “Delenda Est”.  This was of special interest to me in that as far as I was concerned, Poul Anderson has always been the author whose work defined the boundary on the bookstore shelf where Piers Anthony’s books started.  This was my sole interaction with Anderson up to this point (I know, I should be ashamed!) but now I might have to go back and revisit some of those shelves starting about one foot west of my earlier starting point.  This is one of his earlier stories, written in 1955 but it doesn’t show much in the way of aging and it stood out to me as one of the better tales I came across.

“Two Dooms” by C.M. Kornbluth does a very interesting job of examining a lost World War Two with the Axis powers sharing control over the continental United States.  It is well done and pulls you into the life of Dr. Royland (WARNING!!!  Spoiler alert in the final paragraph!!!).  Sticking closer to the established alternate history path is James Morrow’s “Auspicious Eggs” which has an interesting and humorous (though I would admit to having a rather twisted sense of humor) take on religion as practiced by the denizens of the Boston Isle.  Both Harry Turtledove and Robert Silverberg contribute their usual strong character development to two stories that are based within empires/reichs slightly larger and longer lasting than the ones that actually came to pass.  Both of these worlds help set up the tales of men striving to make their mark on the world they find themselves inhabiting.

Ultimately it seems as to me that several of the tales within One Lamp are alternate histories only in the sense that they take place in an altered time frame.  In truth, many of them seem to be morality plays in which the change in timeline serves as more of a hook to interest the reader then truly necessary to the message being told.  “The Lincoln Train” by Maureen McHugh is told in an entertaining and ironic manner, but it could be done without having the change in events that the story are based.  C.M. Kornbluth’s tale seems to have been little more than a drug induced dream, but still the spectre of ‘What if….” hangs in the air and keeps it within the fuzzy borders of alternate history.  I found that this collection was a bit different than what I usually go for in an anthology of works within this genre, but editor Gordon Van Gelder has assembled a thought provoking set of tales that I’d wholeheartedly recommend to anybody looking for a good speculative read.

© 2003 Ernest Lilley / SFRevu
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