Alt. Hist. #2 -- June 2011

Monday, 27 June 2011 10:43 Steven H Silver
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Alt. Hist. #2, June 2011

"Long Nights in Languedoc" by Andrew Knighton
“The Apollo Mission” by David X. Wiggin
“Son of Flanders” by William Knight
“In Cappadocia” by Ashley Rose Sullivan
“The Orchid Hunters” by Priya Sharma
“Death in Theatre” by Jessica Wilson
“The Scarab of Thutmose” by Anna Sykora
“The Watchmaker of Filigree Street” by N.K. Pulley

Reviewed by Steven H Silver

There is a certain formula to medieval chronicles and Andrew Knighton plays with it in “Long Nights in Languedoc,” about the adventures of Sir Richard de Motley in France. Between brief excerpts from the Chronicle of Sir Richard de Motley, Knighton provides a narrative of what his adventures really entailed, depicting a reality which is fantastic as he and his companions fight their own battles, meet strange, inexplicable creatures, and learn the true power of faith and religion. The differences between the details of the story and the relatively innocuous chronicle entries provide a nice counterpoint to each other and Knighton provides the true story behind the official one.

“The Apollo Mission” has David X. Wiggin creating a potential Roman space program through the internal dialogue of the first legionnaire scheduled to ride a rocket. Lacking any real plot, the piece almost reads like a slice of life essay in which the character comes to grips not only with the potential that he is doing something new and great, but also with his own mortality. Unfortunately, there is little to distinguish the character and connect the character to the reader, nor does Wiggin provide a plausible explanation for the massive technological advancement his Romans have made to put them on the cusp of the described mission.

In “Son of Flanders,” William Knight sets up an investigation into a suicide in the trenches of Flanders during World War I. Unfortunately, for the story, his erstwhile and reluctant detective, Captain Gurner, solves the mystery by simply asking the right people the right questions at the right time, often by happenstance. Gurner does not show any sort of deductive reasoning, nor does the story make full use of the setting, which is a pity, because the idea of a detective solving mysteries in the middle of World War I is a rather appealing scenario.

Ashley Rose Sullivan provides a look at paranoia and fear of the foreign in “In Cappadocia,” about an unknown potter-turned-soldier entering enemy territory and not knowing what to expect. The short contemplation is a mood piece which offers only its setting and a couple of small details about the time in which the story is set. It is clear the soldier's fears, if not paranoia, are all legitimate. As with Wiggin’s piece, Sullivan provides less of a story than a quick glimpse into another time.

“The Orchid Hunters” is a strong look at class prejudices by Priya Sharma. Set in the 1890s as two Englishman make their way through darkest Africa in search of an elusive orchid, Philip is hoping that his retrieval of the bloom will clear his way to marry Kitty Huntley, whose father is an avid botanist. Philip’s partner on the journey is Marcus, the son of their family’s long-time servant, and Philip’s opinion of Marcus is clearly at odds with the reality of what is happening, clearing demonstrating the way class consciousness effects Philip’s perceptions of the world around him. By placing the two men in Africa instead of in London, Sharma also allows herself to present a strong correlation between Philip’s class prejudice and his racial prejudices, making the character highly unlikeable, but in a very memorable story.

“Death in Theatre” is Jessica Wilson’s look at Abraham Lincoln’s assassination from John Wilkes Booth’s point of view. Rather than focus on the political aspects, Wilson looks at the murder in a very matter-of-fact way with a dose of self aggrandizement for Booth. The story is almost an attempt to make Booth’s actions and eventual death sympathetic, although it doesn’t succeed on that level, possibly requiring more time and space than Wilson allowed herself.

Anna Sykora creates a Pharaoh Seti in “The Scarab of Thutmose” whose only relationship to the historical figure seems to be in name only as succession and ages for the historical Setis do not match. The story tells of the search for an amulet held by the long-dead Thutmose, which Seti’s scribe, Amenhotep, believes will turn the callow young Pharaoh into the ruler Egypt needs to stand up against the encroachment of the priestly caste without seeking outside assistance from the Hyksos. Sykora’s Amenhotep is a eunuch who may be both more and less than what he appears to be, along with the sexual ambiguity and stigma attached to eunuchs. Herihor, the high priest of Amun-Ra, questions Amenhotep’s very manhood on the basis of Amenhotep being a eunuch. Sykora further comments on gender roles by portraying the seventeen-year-old Seti as wanting to “dance like a lovely maiden…” It is this questioning of gender that is really the focus of the piece, although the portrayal of gender roles in Egypt doesn’t come across as entirely accurate, though given the ambiguity of when the story is set, that is difficult to confirm.

N.K. Pulley’s Victorian story of potential Irish bombmakers, “The Watchmaker of Filigree Street” offers an interesting look at attitudes towards immigrants in London in the 1880s. Civil Servant Thaniel Steepleton finds himself in need of a new housing arrangement and has a choice between a woman who cares more for cats than her boarders, a literary figure whose eccentricities are too much for him, and a foreigner, who is immediately suspect of any and all negative thoughts Steepleton can have. When his new roommate, Keita Mori, loans him a watch that seems to be set to help him through a difficult and dangerous day, Steepleton’s suspicions get the better of him. Pulley manages to get a lot of atmosphere into her short story and begins to address the issue of subtle racism, but the story suffers from a looseness of narrative, especially as Steepleton is overcome by his reservations about Mr. Mori.