Allred, Lee. Assembled Allred: 7 Tales by the Master Sergeant of Alternate History. Lincoln City, OR: Rookhouse Books, 2012. 171 pages. $14.99 in trade paperback, $8.99 Kindle. Reviewed by Jonathan Langford.
Much of science fiction is written in the spirit of What if? What if humans could fly? What if there were aliens among us? What if you could go back in time and marry your own grandmother? (Thanks for that one, Heinlein!)
The best of these questions are never just about science or technology. They invite us, instead, to consider what is real and constant — and what changes — in human hearts and minds and spirits, and societies. They prod us to reflect on our values and challenge our own easy answers about what is right and wrong. For all the conflict many readers and writers see between science fiction and religion, there’s a surprisingly large shared space (in my opinion, and that of many Mormon sf&f readers) between the kind of imagination needed to explore the stars, if only mentally, and a cosmology that sees the bounds of current mortality as merely a proscenium on eternity. Or maybe it’s mortality that’s the strictly bounded stage, and religion — and imaginative fiction — a mental transition space between where we are and the boundless limits of possibility?
Allred’s stories explore that space. They ask not only what if history had been a little bit different, what if the Mormons had repeating rifles during the Utah War, but also what if (for example) a magical implement could remove the signs of cowardice, at the price of blood? Or T. H. Huxley wound up after death in a Hell he didn’t believe in during life? The answers tickle the imagination; at their best, they engage the heart as well.
Beyond a doubt, the two strongest stories in this collection are “For the Strength of the Hills” and “Hymnal”: the first an alternate history of the Utah war from the point of view of a non-Mormon, which I’ve reviewed previously; the second an end-of-the-universe story told from the point of view of a devout Mormon, with musings on entropy and what it is that enables people to press forward in the face of apparent meaninglessness, whether a kind of humanistic courage (as in the case of the main character’s atheist friend) or the power of loving relationships. And poetry. Really, “Hymnal” is largely about poetry, and faith. A story that is both thoughtful and ultimately heartwarming, in the best tradition of humanistic science fiction — quickened by Tennyson and “whitebread” Mormon faith.
The other stories are a mixed bag. “Our Gunther Likes to Dig” is a one-idea story that mostly succeeds because it is no longer than it ought to be (and I can’t say more without spoiling it). “Forged Verbatim” is a fairly straightforward story (vignette might be a more appropriate term) set in the time of the Crusades, with a fantasy premise about the magical power of the hammer used to crucify Jesus. “Add Infinitum” is a debate between the ghosts of T. H. Huxley and Samuel Wilberforce that is good for several chuckles and belongs on the same shelf with Steven Peck’s A Short Stay in Hell. “And Dream Such Dreams” weaves together the strands of Lincoln’s speech at Gettysburg, rhetoric professor Joshua Chamberlain’s pivotal role during the battle at Gettysburg, and then Chamberlain’s speech at Gettysburg 25 years later dedicating the monuments to Maine solders killed during the battle, in a meditation that produces not an alternate history but a partial, private explanation of the history we have.
I’ve skipped “East of Appomattox,” the only other really genuine alternate history story besides “For the Strength of the Hills,” which like that story involves Robert E. Lee as a central character. There is, I’ve observed, something about Robert E. Lee — the tragic mismatch of great ability, admirable character, and corrupt cause — that makes you think (wistfully) about other ways things might have been. In “East of Appomattox,” the historical fork in the road is the battle of Gettysburg, which the South won — leading to Lincoln’s lynching and a Confederacy which, five years after the conclusion of the war, is still trying to gain support from Britain — and which, Lee discovers in a dramatic twist near the end of the story, has decided that it cannot allow its individual states to emancipate their slaves. In the end, Lee finds himself facing once more the same dilemma of duty he had answered wrongly once before. It’s a good story, almost haunting at some points: one of the best crafted in the collection, and one which (like all the best alternate history) supplies mental images so vivid they sit beside the real history in my mind.
Like I said, a mixed bag. But I did notice some commonalities: one of style, and one of substance.
First, the stylistic one: A lot of the story goes on inside the head of the main character(s), and the rest is mostly dialogue. In short, these aren’t action stories. This doesn’t bother me at all; I tend to like dialogue-driven stories, and to my way of thinking, one of the great advantages of fiction is the opportunity it gives to get inside someone else’s head. This stylistic tendency is one of the things that contributes to the thoughtful tone of Allred’s writing. (Which makes me wonder: How does this work with his current project writing superhero comics? I may have to read some just to find out.)
The other commonality is a tone of underlying seriousness. Most of these stories (and all the best ones) revolve around choices characters have to make: choices between conflicting values, choices to sacrifice one thing for something more important. Even “Forged Verbatim” is partly about the possibility of future choices, though it’s also about consequences for past (wrong) choices, as is “Gunther.” Even “Add Infinitum” can be squeezed into that framework, if you try hard enough. (Okay, maybe not.)
And perhaps there’s another commonality as well. The attraction of alternate history lies in our part in the sense that underneath the chances of historical circumstance, there is an essence we can come to understand more fully by imaginatively exploring how it could have operated if things were different: an essence of individual men and women, of morals, of human nature as a whole, of the ideas and trends and emotions that move history. It seems to me that this thread of unchanging underlying essence contrasting with the flux of temporal change and the (superficial) specifics of circumstance runs through Allred’s other stories as well, from the timeless morality of “Forged Verbatim” to “Hymnal’s” evocation of those lines from “Abide with Me”: “Change and decay in all around I see; O thou who changest not, abide with me.” By playing with change and decay and choice and consequence, Allred’s stories focus on the part that doesn’t change, whether in our ethics or our individual character. (Well, except for “Add Infinitum.” But six out of seven isn’t bad…)
There’s a fundamental marketing problem involved in the assembly of a single-author anthology. To wit: how much material is needed to justify a reader’s purchase? I’m afraid that for me, the answer is: more than what I see here.
Part of the problem (at least, for me as a reviewer) is that the two best stories in the collection are already easily available to LDS readers (through Irreantum and Dispensation, respectively), and so of the seven stories in this collection, there were only five I didn’t already have on my shelf. Seven stories for $14.99: that’s more than two dollars a story. Are these stories worth that? For several of them, the answer is no.
The problem isn’t the mixed quality of the stories. I’ve never seen any anthology (especially a single-author anthology) that isn’t a combination of the good, the bad, and indifferent. The best you can ever hope for is a couple of standout stories. And this anthology has that. The problem is that it doesn’t have much more. Seven stories just weren’t enough to carry the weight, especially not when several of them don’t amount to much in terms of content and word count. There weren’t enough pleasant discoveries for me to justify the cover price. (Though, in fact, I didn’t pay for this one, but received it as a review copy.)
And then there are the proofing errors, which are pretty atrocious, particularly in “Hymnal.” Checking against the version in Dispensation, a surprising number appear there as well. The one that bothers me most, though, can’t be put down to proofing error, although a good editor should have caught it. Twice — including once at the end of the story — the characters quote from the conclusion of Tennyson’s poem Ulysses, which has long been one of my favorites:
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are—
The problem is that without the line before these — or at least the last word (“though”) — the part quoted above doesn’t make sense, even grammatically:
Though much is taken, much abides; and though
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are—
I can’t help but think that this story deserved one more good edit as well as a good proofread — which it didn’t get, either here or in Dispensation.
Which isn’t to say that this anthology lacks virtues. I like the prefatory notes from Allred, and his Introduction, and the interview with him at the back. The layout is excellent, and the cover is (in my view) gorgeous. But it needed more content, and they needed to hire (or bribe) a good editor.
I’m still an Allred fan — now more than ever. I think he’s one of our most talented and nuanced authors of short fiction dealing with Mormon themes in an imaginative way. I still find “For the Strength of the Hills” stunning, an absolute must-read in Mormon historical fiction (alternative fiction though it is), and “Hymnal” one of those daring stories that succeeds somehow in communicating faith to those who may not share it. But I can’t really call this anthology a success. Better, ideally, to have put together a larger collection (if the material exists for it) — or make these stories available individually. Which, in fact, has been done in eBook version, for all except “Add Infinitum.” That there may continue to be more Allred to include in some future collection is my hope and plea.