Sideways in Time: A review

Sideways in Time: Critical Essays on Alternate History Fiction, edited by Glyn Morgan and C. Palmer-Patel

Reviewed by Nick Hubble

On Friday 19 February 2016, Boris Johnson, wrote two drafts of an article intended for publication in the following Monday’s Daily Telegraph. The first argued in favour of Britain leaving the European Union; the second argued in favour of Britain remaining in the European Union (see Shipman 2016: 170-3, 609-18). As we know, Johnson opted to publish a redrafted version of the original, went on to become the figurehead of the successful Leave campaign and, in 2019, became Prime Minister of the United Kingdom and then won a General Election by a landslide. But what if he’d published a polished version of the second article instead and decided to support Remain in the European referendum?

Continue reading “Sideways in Time: A review”

Future Classics: #9

Farthing by Jo Walton (2006)

Farthing cover

Farthing, the start of the Small Change alternate history series, was nominated for the Nebula, John W Campbell Memorial, and Sidewise awards (among others). Adrienne Martini was typical of the book’s reviewers:

Despite the parallels to today’s current political climate (just substitute “Liberal” for “Communist”), the murder mystery is the spine from which the rest of the book moves. A Scotland Yard inspector, who has his own reasons to avoid prying eyes, is brought in and the narration alternates between his point of view and Lucy’s. It’s an effective technique and one that keeps you flipping through pages, despite the fact that the identity of the murderer is fairly well telegraphed in the first few pages. Lucy and the inspector make you want to know why it was done and, more importantly, what will be done about it.

But Farthing is also a book about fascism and the parallels between her Britain and today’s climate is never didactic and always effective. It’s also a book about husbands and wives, however, and about class and sex. It is quite an achievement, brothers and sisters. Hallelujah.

See also Paul Kincaid’s review from the New York Review of Science Fiction; Sherwood Smith at SF Site; David Soyka in the Internet Review of SF; and (with a few reservations) Dan Hartland at Strange Horizons.

Ranking calculated from 101 responses to a poll run during October, November and December 2010.


Or, two bits of self-promotion. First, I have an article in the new issue of Journey Planet, the fanzine edited by the Bacon-Brialey-Garcia superteam:

The direct link to the (fairly hefty) pdf of the issue is here. It’s all themed around alternate history; my piece is about Stephen Baxter’s Voyage. I’m guessing this is probably also the only time I’ll share a table of contents with Jon Courtenay Grimwood, Paul McAuley and John Scalzi.

Second, I have a review of Justina Robson’s Chasing the Dragon, fourth in the slowly-improving Quantum Gravity series, at Strange Horizons, which is probably the only sf novel you’re likely to read in the near future to contain the phrase, “he was still surprised sometimes to look down and find that he was made of cloth.”


I’ve posted my additional thoughts about “Divining Light“; thanks to everyone else who read the story and commented. Hopefully discussion will continue …

What’s interesting to me about Clute’s review of Half a Crown, and the reason it has made sure what was already pretty likely beforehand, that I will read the Small Change trilogy, is that it seems to me to contain or imply an interesting set of ideas about what dystopian fiction is and does, and how it works. For starters, there’s the implied question of whether you can write a dystopia with a happy, or even relatively happy, ending. A friend of mine observed recently (in a separate discussion) that there’s a reason most dystopias end with a boot stamping on the face of humanity, forever; it’s because dystopias are almost always intended to warn in some way, and if they end with a boot stamping on the face of humanity, for a while, the force of that warning inevitably gets dissipated in some way. Is that the case? How might a story get around it? What might be gained that might compensate for that lack of force, if it does occur? There are also the arguments Clute advances about formula and technique. It’s Clute’s argument (as I read it) that, however effective the narrow perspective is in the first two books, by the time you get to the third book it starts to look like avoidance. This seems plausible; it also seems like something that might vary from reader to reader. (Indeed, based on the fact that Clute’s is the only reaction to Small Change even remotely this negative, it seems that it certainly dose vary from reader to reader.) Why? Similarly, Clute argues that Small Change’s adherence to a formal structure makes its ending — however historically grounded it may be — unconvincing as fiction because it makes the fall of a fascist government look like “a plot twist”; in other words, makes it look in some sense unearned, or trivial, which retroactively diminishes the achievement of the trilogy. This may just be a potential pitfall of fiction that wishes to adhere to a formula, even in homage; or it may be something that particularly afflicts dystopian fiction. I find it more interesting to think about, at any rate, than Benjamin Kunkel’s article about dystopianism. (See also.)

I’m still rather enjoying Isvan Csicsery-Ronay Jr’s The Seven Beauties of Science Fiction. I mentioned the “novum” chapter in this post; the book as a whole is built around discussion of a number of “attractors” that Csicsery-Ronay Jr has identified as characteristic elements of sf, and contains a version of the argument that we are living in inherently science-fictional times that’s a bit more grounded than most I’ve read. Had I been a bit more patient, however, I could have used more of the book with reference to my discussion of Bernadine Evaristo’s Blonde Roots, namely some of the comments made in the discussion on “Future History”. Csicsery-Ronay Jr (yes, I have to check myself every single time I write that name, why do you ask?) is particularly attached to sf as a venue for various kinds of play; so although he identifies several kinds of future history common to sf, including utopian/revolutionary (change brought about by conscious action on the part of humanity) and evolutionary (change brought about as a result of unconscious, adaptive forces), his clear favourite is what he terms “dispersive” histories, in which change is essentially random, or (and this is what made it seem relevant to Blonde Roots) somehow walled off from the real we know.

It is sometimes said that any prophesied future that does not come to pass becomes a divergent reality. […] The more of these a public is exposed to, the less naive they become about projections, and the more comfortable with alternate histories that lack causal connections with the familiar present. Quantity turns to quality: so many predictions have been made, so many fictive prophecies have become uchronias and “fantastic philosophy”, that they rival the number of sincere predictions. Reading sf now incorporates the discounting process of already viewing it as an alternative timeline or retrofuture.
By disrupting the temporal logic of continuity with the present, alternative histories appear to renounce the ethical seriousness of the revolutionary and evolutionary paradigms. If there is no connection, how can there be responsibility? On the surface, such dispersed worlds lack even the minimal gravity of other kinds of uture history. It makes sense to view this scattering as an example of the flattening of historical consciousness that Jameson considers a defining quality of postmodernism. The sense of the continuity of unidirectional time lived toward death and succeeding generations, which links the experience of individual life with collective history, is replaced by an infinite array. […] The abstract dispersal of realities frees them not only from the burden of an inexorable past, but from the resistance of nature and embodiment altogether. (97-8)

That last sentence, in particular, seems a good way of summing up what I think Evaristo was aiming for — freedom from the burden of an inexorable past — without losing the ability to comment on that past, and on our present.

I’m not happy about this change to the David Gemmell Legend Award rules [pdf]:

After receiving lots of feedback from fans, readers and industry alike, we at the
DGLA have – after much deliberation – come to the decision to make the David
Gemmell Legend Award completely publicly voted.

This means that once the Longlist closes, the top 5 novels will be put forward to the
Shortlist Poll and YOU will be able to have the final say about who should win, by
voting once more on the shortlist! Readers and fans will be involved at every step to
produce our winner.

What was interesting about the Award, to me, was precisely that the final stage was juried; I was looking forward to seeing how the judges evaluated the award’s criteria. While popular vote awards certainly have their place, I can’t muster the enthusiasm for another one right now.