Monday, January 3, 2011

Sideways in Crime

Sometimes, just the idea behind a book is enough to get you excited about it. Rarer still, the book lives up to the idea.

The premise behind Sideways in Crime is to collect short stories about alternate histories, with each short story being about a mystery. Lou Anders writes in the introduction to this anthology that he collected that the difference between mystery and science fiction is not very far at all, and that there a number of authors who have been successful in both fields—a few of whom he includes in the collection. He also notes, rather slyly, that such stories involves two different types of question: the standard mystery whodunit as well as how the setting presented differs from the history we have lived.

One of the most fascinating things about this collection is that the stories allow even the least critical to see some of the bones of storytelling. A basic premise of alternate history stories is that eventually the differences are made clear to the reader, and given the small space a short story has, those differences have to be annunciated pretty quickly. The result is a study of expository methods, the bane of many writers—how to explain things without just lecturing the reader. For example, Paul Di Filippo's "Murder in Geektopia" has his investigator read a magazine article about history off and on throughout the story, a refresher for the investigator and a lesson for the reader. The rationale for the investigator reading the article is a little thin, but somewhat creative. On the other hand, Jon Courtenay Grimwood's "Chicago" only tells how history has changed by inference and as important tangents to the event of the story. Further down that path, S. M. Stirling's "A Murder in Eddsford" is never very clear about what changed in history, but it is hinted at and very compelling—for some reason physics has been turned on its head. Similarly, Pat Cadigan's "World of Possibilities" doesn't completely reveal what has happened, and unfortunately, it's not quite as successful as Stirling's work, because the change somehow plays a part in how the crime being investigated was committed. Fortunately, no one resorts to straight-out lecturing, which while a writing faux pas sometimes occurs in longer works. I attribute this welcome lack to both the skill of the writers included in the collection and the editorial skills of Lou Anders.

By far, my favorite story in the collection was Di Filippo's aforementioned "Murder in Geektopia" despite it perhaps having the clunkiest exposition. I think that exposition may well have been required because his critical turning point in history may well have been more obscure than the relatively commonly used "X colonizes America" or similar large movements. Di Filippo posits that William Randolph Hearst loses his son in the Spanish-American war and recognizes that his warmongering played a large part in the war that killed his son. As a result he radically moves to a movement of scholarly pursuit, building a coterie of the finest minds of the turn of the 19th century and pushing social change via his medium of choice, newspapers, and especially comics. Eventually he runs for president and spreads his movement worldwide, such that passion for learning is appreciated and expected, regardless of its method, and the things that are now considered "geeky" are there considered mainstream and even, heaven forefend, popular. There is a lovely ironic scene in which historic re-enactors attempt to recreate early 20th century activities and are mocked a bit because they are playing football, a pursuit lost to time as geeks began to rule the world. The result of the change that Di Filippo imagines is, as the title suggests, a geektopia, where life is good and pretty much everyone is happy as science marches on. The premise itself is a lot of fun, but what makes it even better is Di Filippo letting his own geek show as he recognizes the very changes to everyday lexicon that would happen as a result—our narrator's idols include Windsor McCay and Stan Lee rather than a sports or celebrity figure. Metaphors that would be common to that history are obscure to the reader that's even as geeky as me. The story is in many ways an Easter egg hunt, but it doesn't distract from the murder that has been committed and its solution. And that solution is also delightful because it relies so heavily on the alternate history that propels the story.

Another favorite is Kristine Kathryn Rusch's "G-Men," the turning point of which also is the crime being solved in the short story. Rather than being a story about private detectives, "G-Men" is a police procedural along the lines of the most popular ones on TV now, and as predictable to solve. But of greater interest are the repercussions that the turning point cause in the second story being told beside the procedural. Of all the stories in the collection, "G-Men" has the best characterization; the two protagonists in the parallel narratives are fully developed, believable, and most importantly, compelling.

One story that does not work so well is "Conspiracies: A Very Condensed 937-Page Novel" by Mike Resnick and Eric Flint. Its failure is, in part, structural, forcing the premise of the condensed novel on the reader—which could be used effectively—to the point where a chapter is left out because it is not condensable. There is an implied humor in the condensation that evades me, or perhaps it is better said that is overwhelmed by the attempted humor of the plotline. Jimmy Hoffa being kidnapped by aliens and unionizing a galactic federation is worth a snigger or two simply on consideration, but the promise remains mostly unfulfilled in the story, relying on stereotypes of aliens and union organizers to the point where there is very little that is original. It also barely fits into the framework for the book: no crime is solved, instead relying on Hoffa's murder as the crime.

Anders has included 15 short stories in Sideways in Crime and all of them show skill and verve. The result is the second collection I've recently read with Anders associated with it and the second that I have pretty much thoroughly enjoyed. So I'll be looking for Anders's name on new anthologies and, if you like a good collection of short stories, I recommend you do so as well.

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