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Author: William Stoddard

Medical Alternative History: The Wages of Sin by Harry Turtledove

Medical Alternative History: The Wages of Sin by Harry Turtledove


The Wages of Sin (Caezik SF & Fantasy, December 12, 2023). Harry Turtledove photo by Joan Allen

Harry Turtledove has been writing alternative history for a long time: His early stories included those that became A Different Flesh, set in a world where the Americas were inhabited by Homo habilis rather than Homo sapiens, and The Guns of the South, portraying a Confederate victory in the American Civil War, confirmed his standing in this particular subgenre. A large share of his work has explored the two big premises for the genre: reversed outcomes in the Civil War and in World War II — sometimes as straight AH, and sometimes as science fiction (as with the alien invasion during World War II of Worldwar) or even fantasy (as in the created world consumed by a parallel to World War II of The Darkness). Such premises seem to have a huge appeal for fans, going back to Winston Churchill’s “If Lee Had Not Won the Battle of Gettysburg” in J. C. Squire’s anthology If It Had Happened Otherwise, published 1931.

Turtledove’s newest novel, The Wages of Sin, is a refreshing change of pace, taking place before the time of either war, and with a point of departure that’s not military at all, though equally grim in a different way. Following a long established tradition of AH, he starts out by showing the point of departure, which provides the premise for his world: the transmission of HIV from Africa to Europe in the year 1509, in a world where there is no chance of an effective treatment for it. His second chapter begins in 1851, in an England that has come to such terms as it can with “the Wasting,” and has been changed by doing so.

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Love Exotic Science Fiction on Desert Planets? Try Donald Kingsbury’s Courtship Rite

Love Exotic Science Fiction on Desert Planets? Try Donald Kingsbury’s Courtship Rite

Courtship Rite (Timescape Books, July 1982). Cover by Rowena Morrill

Noe took her strange Liethe in a comforting embrace. “Some of us make our Contribution to the Race through Death, and others of us make our Contribution to the Race through Life. That’s the way it has always been.”

One of the distinctive pleasures of science fiction is the heterotopia — a story set not in a good place (a utopia) or an evil place (a dystopia) but in an interestingly different place. Geta, the setting of Donald Kingsbury’s Courtship Rite, has long been my favorite heterotopia.

The society Kingsbury portrays is shaped in important ways by its physical setting. Geta is a desert world, a science fictional trope that goes back to Percival Lowell’s Mars and the many stories set there, from Burroughs on. It’s not as harsh as Herbert’s Arrakis, but certainly harsher than Le Guin’s Anarras. For one thing, its native life is biochemically incompatible with its human inhabitants; eating it, without careful detoxification, is lethal. The only things truly safe to eat are a limited number of introduced Earth lifeforms: bees, eight species of plants (not all named) — and other human beings, because Geta’s most visibly distinctive cultural trait is institutionalized cannibalism. Kingsbury calls this out on the first page of the novel, where the children of a famous man, Tae ran-Kaiel, attend a funeral feast where his roasted body is the main course.

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Emancipation: April by Mackey Chandler

Emancipation: April by Mackey Chandler


April, Mackey Chandler (self published, May 4, 2019). Cover uncredited

Back in 2020, one of the blogs I follow had a paragraph about a newly released self-published novel, Who Can Own the Stars? by Mackey Chandler. The title sounded interesting, so I tracked it down on Amazon. It turned out to be volume 12 of a series; having enjoyed it, I went back to the first volume, April, and then read through the entire series, one volume at a time.

Like many science fiction writers of an earlier era, Chandler has a background that’s technological rather than literary. The April series is self-published, and has the rough spots that often go with that: It could benefit from a professional line edit, both to catch errors of language and to avoid minor inconsistencies such as changing a character’s name. As a copy editor, I’m sensitive to such things, and often they put me off a book. However, I just finished rereading April, and still found it both enjoyable and interesting.

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From Mystery to Horror: Darker than You Think by Jack Williamson

From Mystery to Horror: Darker than You Think by Jack Williamson

Darker Than You Think (Fantasy Press, 1948). Cover by A. J. Donnell

Jack Williamson had an impressively long career in science fiction, from the pre-Campbell era into the twenty-first century. His first sale, in 1928, was to Hugo Gernsback’s Amazing Stories; his last book came out in 2005, the year before his death at 98. Darker than You Think is one of the high points of that career, published in 1948 as a novel expanded from a 1940 novella that appeared in John W. Campbell’s fantasy magazine Unknown.

Despite this venue, though, Darker than You Think is highly rationalized “fantasy,” to the point where it’s more accurately described as science fiction. Near the end of the novel, an important secondary character, Sam Quain, tells the protagonist that “supernatural” really means “superhuman.”

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A High-Tech Sandbox: Transhuman Space by David Pulver

A High-Tech Sandbox: Transhuman Space by David Pulver


Transhuman Space (Steve Jackson Games, March 29, 2018). Illustrated by Christopher Shy

In the 1990s, I made a big decision about tabletop roleplaying gaming: Rather than coming up with my own rules for running games, I ran campaigns using published systems. Some of these used my own original settings; some borrowed settings from published fictional or dramatic works, either as adapted by game publishers or in my own adaptations; and some used published original game worlds. I hardly ever used a setting more than once. But one that I found worth coming back to was David Pulver’s Transhuman Space, a setting for Steve Jackson Games’ game system GURPS.

As its name suggests, Transhuman Space was a science fictional milieu. Tabletop roleplaying has had a lot of these, going back to the classic Traveller, first released in 1977. For a long time, most of them built on the premises of what might be called classic science fiction: The stories of Old Wave authors such as Poul Anderson or Frank Herbert, and of later hard science fiction authors such as Larry Niven, or of the original Star Trek. That is, they were about aliens, robots, supermen, interstellar travel, time travel, parallel worlds, and psionic abilities, singly or in combination.

Transhuman Space does have robots, though they’re quite different from Asimovian robots. But it avoids all those other classic story elements. It has space travel, on an interplanetary (but not interstellar) scale, with human inhabitants from Mercury to the Kuiper Belt — but also with many machines that don’t need life support.

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Let’s Found a New Species: Odd John by Olaf Stapledon

Let’s Found a New Species: Odd John by Olaf Stapledon


Odd John (Beacon/Galaxy Science Fiction Novel #36, 1959). Cover by Robert Stanley

In 1963, in the early issues of X-Men, Stan Lee introduced the expression Homo superior into superhero comics. But the name had a history before then: It was coined in 1935 by Olaf Stapledon, a British philosopher and science fiction writer, in Odd John, the fictional biography of a young superhuman.

The book that established Stapledon’s reputation, Last and First Men, published in 1930, was certainly science fiction but can’t be considered a novel in any normal sense; its two-billion-year history of humanity’s future is presented almost entirely as historical narrative, with only a few paragraphs of dialogue. But Odd John is definitely a novel, with a protagonist, John Wainwright, and a viewpoint character who is, by necessity, an unreliable narrator, as he himself points out on the first page of the story.

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To Violate the Prime Directive: West of the Sun by Edgar Pangborn

To Violate the Prime Directive: West of the Sun by Edgar Pangborn


West of the Sun
(Dell, July 1980). Cover by Richard Corben

Edgar Pangborn is remembered now as a writer for his postapocalyptic series Tales of a Darkening World, which began in 1962 with “The Golden Horn,” later turned into the first part of Davy, one of the nominees for the 1965 Hugo Award for Best Novel. But he began writing science fiction a decade earlier, with his novelette “Angel’s Egg,” and two years later, his first science fiction novel, West of the Sun, which I’ve just reread.

Even this early, Pangborn was already doing the kind of writing that came to be called humanistic science fiction. There is advanced technology in West of the Sun: It takes place on a planet of Alpha Centauri, arrived at after a decade of space travel, which implies speeds nearly half the speed of light; and the starship Argo carries various useful small devices. But all of them are lost, or stop working, during the events of the novel. The Argo is — in the literary sense — a vehicle: It exists to get the characters into the story, which is about something else entirely.

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