Atlantis and Other Places is a collection of short stories published over the last ten years, in which Harry Turtledove does his best to showcase the freedom offered to writers of alternate history. Just ask “what if” and see what happens. For example:
What if 21st century news media existed during World War Two? What if centaurs suddenly discovered humans? What if complex intelligence had evolved in mollusks instead of people? They’re interesting ideas and it’s tough not to be curious about what sort of ride Turtledove has constructed for his audience.
What’s more, Turtledove clearly enjoys exploring these historical reversals and alterations. In “Uncle Alf,” which is told in a series of letters from Uncle Ade/ Alf, Turtledove speculates about what would have happened if Germany had won the First World War. The challenge in this approach is to come up with an angle that is believable, but also surprising. When it comes to the latter, Turtledove is often not always successful. “Bedfellows,” for example, which literally marries George W. Bush and Osama bin Laden, does little that is not implied by a summary of its premise. At times these stories navigate plots that are simply too smooth to allow for a very adventurous alternate history.
And since nearly every story here nabs an established character or historical figure, the characterization also feels rather convenient. The benefit of this approach is that Turtledove can fast-track his characterization and readers can similarly buy into these pastiches, mysteries, and adventures with ease. However, at other times, Turtledove is merely demonstrating his ability to parrot other authors’ voices. He borrows J.D. Salinger’s adolescent voice in “Catcher in the Rhine” and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s formal rationalism as we read about Sherlock Holmes, here renamed Athelstan Helms. And in stories like these, a summary is hardly required to imagine what will happen.
Fortunately, other plots pack a little more punch. In “Audubon in Atlantis,” the famous ornithologist and wildlife painter John James Audubon considers mortality and his legacy. Audubon worries that this foray into the wilderness of Atlantis (in this alternate world, the eastern United States separated from the rest of the North American continent) will be his last adventure. Perhaps it’s just as well the natural world has been all but destroyed due to agriculture and overhunting.
“Daimon” offers another aged hero from history. Turtledove sends Socrates — or “Sokrates” here — into battle in defense of Athens. However wizened he may be by age and Socratic method, Sokrates is pretty handy with a spear and sword. And more than one of his peers invites him to bed. In our world, the Athenians lost this battle, but what would have happened if wise old (and surprisingly capable in battle) Sokrates had been there?
Some of these stories and characters are a little too smoothly drawn. However, readers with an enthusiasm for history and a weakness for “what if?” will find something to enjoy in Atlantis and Other Stories.