The Best of Harry Turtledove, Harry Turtledove (Subterranean 978-1645240228, 584pp, $45.00) April 2021.
There was once a filksong dedicated to Gordon Dickson’s reputation for partying. I seem to recall the refrain went like this:
Gordy Dickson, Gordy Dickson, Gordy Dickson, he’s the one.
Science fiction is his hobby, but his main job’s having fun!
I’d like to repurpose that tune for Harry Turtledove. I am not aware of any reputation Turtledove might possess as a hedonist, bacchant, or Goodtime Charlie. Instead, I have only his storytelling in mind.
Harry Tee-Dove, Harry Tee-Dove, Harry Tee-Dove, he’s the one.
Science fiction’s all so bleak now, while his stuff’s still so fun!
I think this is the essential quality a reader will take away from Turtledove’s massive new collection. No matter the topic or theme, these sprightly stories retain the old-school SF virtue of “ludic ratiocination,” playful juggling of tropes and novums. Grab an idea and have a ball with it, stretching it like silly putty without going all grim’n’gritty. This approach does not preclude probing forays into existential or emotional matters. It’s just the difference between Bruce Springsteen’s “Rosalita” and his “Nebraska”. I’d have to put Rhys Hughes, Rudy Rucker, James Cambias, and Ben Bova in the same camp, but it’s hard to find others.
In any case, this mammoth compilation delivers the joyous goods. I won’t be able to dig into all two dozen tales in my limited space, but let’s hit a few highlights.
We open with three stories—”Peace is Better”, “Visitor from the East”, and “Typecasting”—concerning an alternate timeline where Sasquatch are real beings and integrated into human society. Our viewpoint character is one Bill Williamson, hairy cryptid governor of the 51st US west coast state of Jefferson, whose charm resides in the fact that he is so like a human politician, yet so different. The adventures here are mild ones, almost domestic, and the pleasures derive from the human-Sasquatch interactions and the history-based speculations. Turtledove’s métier, as we all know, is history both real and counterfactual, and he deploys his learning in a flexible, jovial way that makes outrageous “what-if” scenarios seem plausible.
Such is likewise the case in the next lively trio of stories: “Junior & Me”, “Bonehunters”, and “The Quest for the Great Gray Mossy”. There are no homo sapiens on this Earth, just little cunning and disgusting mammals, and intelligent dinosaurs rule instead. The milieu is equivalent to our 19th century. We first meet a Wild West desperado named Rekek, and ride with him on a dangerous stagecoach run. Its climax finds him adopting a native dino hatchling named Junior. The pair return in the next story to guide Professor Otnil on his fossil-hunting expedition though hazards aplenty. Lastly, we get a vivid retelling of Moby-Dick, wherein the saurian differences and the human parallels vie for dominance.
Alien invasion is the theme of “Vilcabamba”, and this uncommonly dark offering for Turtledove offers no solace as we witness humanity trodden underfoot, despite measures of heroism and ingenuity. It’s a Wellsian take on our species. As one who has written his own counterfactual story about Anne Frank, I particularly enjoyed Turtledove’s approach to that conceit in “The Eighth-Grade History Class Visits the Hebrew Home for the Aging”. Elderly Anne sums up a life of small triumphs and ruminates on how a greater history has more-or-less passed her by. Along cousinly lines, Nazis and WWII offer an allied tale in “Zigeuner”, where we witness the brutality of a certain officer named Joseph Steiglitz, only to be thrown out of the assumed historical paradigm at the last moment, with a lesson on the arbitrariness and interchangeability of good and evil.
Devastatingly ironic and sad, “News from the Front” imagines what would happen if the postmodern cynical attitudes of continual dissent and rebellion had been transplanted into the citizenry of the 1940s during WWII. A nifty noir pastiche full of colorful characters is delivered in “The Maltese Elephant”. “‘During the great siege by the Ottoman Turks in 1565, a Maltese Elephant warned of an attack with its trumpeting.'” Try wrestling with that MacGuffin, Sam Spade! The counterfactual fate of Abe Lincoln resonates all the way down to 1940s New Orleans in “Must and Shall”. The survival of humanity’s hominid cousins propels some curious doings in the London of 1661, as narrated by a certain famous amanuensis in “And So to Bed”.
My absolute favorite tale comes next, “The Weather’s Fine”. Postulating a kind of timestorm effect, where different eras coexist side-by-side, ameliorated by “chronostat” technology, Turtledove lays down a love story involving a somewhat schlubby fellow named Tom Crowell. The surrealism underpins or overlays some fine naturalistic rendering of quotidian life.
Finally I will praise “The Last Article”. which finds Gandhi battling Nazis in his own non-violent way. But do not be tricked into holding out much hope for the triumph of saints over monsters. For some reason, although the two stories are perhaps more different than similar, I am linking this tale in my mind with David Brin’s “Thor Meets Captain America”.
Exiting this volume, one notes an absence of space operas, robot tales, climate apocalypses, Faustian Frankenstein fables, and several other traditional themes of the field. Except for an occasional alien or dino, Turtledove likes to work with history and humanity as our records have immortalized them. Using our acknowledged crooked timber, he twists, teases, and tampers with consensual reality, titillating us with funhouse-mirror versions of our loves and hatred, follies and victories, like the cosmic jester that he resembles.
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