Other Worlds, Better Lives
by Howard Waldrop
Review by Judy Newton
Old Earth Books Paperback ISBN/ITEM#: 9781882968381
Date: 01 September 2008 List Price $15.00 Amazon US / Amazon UK / Show Official Info /
Following hard on the heels of the previous Old Earth Waldrop collection (Things Will Never Be The Same), Other Worlds, Better Lives presents seven novella-length stories told by the manic (maniac?) bard of Texas. As before, it's a roller-coaster ride through the mind of one very strange individual; a mind not quite deranged, but rather re-arranged.
And re-arrange he does – reality, history, the reader's perceptions – nothing is sacred. From the retelling of the labors of Hercules ("A Dozen Tough Jobs") set in the Old South to what happens when television sitcom and movie characters get conflated with the Cuban Missile Crisis ("The Other Real World").
As in the previous book, the endnotes are essential to getting the most out of your reading if you haven't time or inclination for the extensive research Howard does for each story. He does leave some gems for us to discover, like the lines from the "Internationale" used as chapter headings to "A Better World's In Birth!" in which Wagner got slightly sidetracked before he composed the Ring cycle and became the leader of a revolution instead. That one's in the form of a detective story. The narrator investigates reports of spectres haunting Europe (literally) but uncovers something even darker.
In an alternate world of luxury-liner zeppelins, Thomas Wolfe survived the illness that killed him too young, Fats Waller played all night, and Technocracy ruled America (a now-obscure theory of government popular in the Thirties). Throw in sneaky cameos by other famous writers and you have "You Could Go Home Again," a mood indigo kind of story.
Howard, like that other master storyteller Neil Gaiman, never tells the same yarn twice. This perforce leads to a sparse output but one worth waiting for. I find that in Howard's case, the shorter the story, the crisper the writing and more dazzling ideas per volume, and for this reason alone I prefer the earlier collection. This personal opinion, however, should not deter you from making up your own mind by reading both. They will repay your investment with hours of enjoyment.