Review: Worlds That Weren’t

Worlds That Weren't
Worlds That Weren’t by Harry Turtledove

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A genuine curate’s egg, with something at all levels:

‘The Daimon’ exhibits Harry Turtledove’s talent for research alongside his inability to devolve it into his staid, plodding narrative style as anything other than hard, indigestible lumps of infodump. The story is readable as long as you gear back your expectations to the ones you had when you were first discovering SF in your early teens, but shows little sophistication or style. Readable, but nothing more.

SM Stirling’s ‘Shikari in Galveston’ should have been excellent. The premise is enjoyable, the boy’s-own-adventure setting and execution is appropriate to the subject matter, and a great deal of setup time is spent portraying the sweep of two alternative world aspects coming into collision with each other in obsessive detail. But the narrative pace is so woefully inept that it turns reader frustration into outright anger– after spending an inordinate majority of the story placing each character in exact locations the climax happens in tiny moments, half off-screen, and with most of the major characters either watching from the sidelines or playing extraordinarily passive parts. The whole thing is massively contrived and just as massively disappointing, all promise and no delivery.

‘The Logistics of Carthage’ Mary Gentle’s contribution, is equally disappointing, a gloriously detailed and beautifully painted setting being used as the backdrop to a great deal of nothing much, other than yet another in Gentle’s seemingly endless parade of worldly yet strangely alluring middle-aged Mary Sues, this time one going gently off the rails while offering us no great justification for anything she experiences. As with Stirling, this story is set in the world of one of Gentle’s novels, which also robs the reader: rather than creating something new, we end up with 2 addenda to other works that come across as half-realised and lazy.

The only piece in the collection that goes any way towards justifying the purchase price, although it does so by virtue of being an excellent work in its own right, is the last story, Walter Jon Williams’ ‘The Last Ride of German Freddie’, which not only manages to act as a gripping narrative but explores a genuinely examined alternative possibility to our own reality. It’s a work of exquisite craftsmanship, simultaneously turning established facts on their head whilst reinforcing them, and giving us strong, believable characters acting both as we might imagine them doing so in our reality and perfectly in tune with the different universe presented by Williams. It’s easily the best piece in the book, and the only one I’ll bother to pick up the book to read a second time. What stars this collection is given belong to it.

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