by William Shunn

Spilt Milk Press


An Alternate History of the 21st Century

Reviewed by Steven H Silver

Although the title of William Shunn’s new collection, An Alternate History of the 21st Century, implies a series of related stories looking at the next hundred years, in fact, each story, while set in the coming century, stands on its own. The six stories in the collection are published roughly in chronological order and include four previously published tales (appearing in the pages of F&SF an in the pixels of Salon) and two new stories.

The stories cover a wide range of topics.  “Kevin17” takes a look at cloning and the ethics of releasing clones who grew up in a crèche with their own selves into the real world, while  “Observations from the City of Angels” is an examination of voyeuristic culture which is reinforced by the emergence of reality television and Andy Warhol’s dictum concerning fifteen minutes of fame. This story suffers from a protagonist who is not particularly dynamic, which is essential to his role in his world, but makes it difficult to care about his fate in the story.

Unfortunately, many of the stories in An Alternate History of the 21st Century have an unfinished feel to them.  “From Our Point of View We Had Moved to the Left,” a political piece which presaged the emergence of the neo-conservatives, feels as if it needs to be expanded into a longer story, perhaps a novel, before it can provide complete satisfaction.  “Kevin17” also feels as if it is merely the opening salvo of a longer work.

Similarly, “Strong Medicine,” set on New Year’s Eve in 2037 postulates an interesting world which claims no hunger or disease, but terrorism still exists.  The protagonist, Dr. Emmett Fairbairn, has lost all purpose in his life, which makes him seem a bit two-dimensional given the strictures of the world Shunn has sketched out, although it can be simply that Shunn is showing the world through Fairbairn’s cynical and jaded eyes.  In fact, Fairbairn is similar to many of the characters Shunn introduces in the collection in that he is not a particularly sympathetic character.

As with many of the stories in the collection, “Objective Impermeability in a Closed System” feels as if Shunn hasn’t taken the time or space to fully develop his characters, their situations, or the denouement.  In this case, the story is written in a style reminiscent of Stanisław Lem’s Ijon Tichy stories, but Shunn uses a framing device which distances the reader from the main part of the story. Furthermore, by allowing ambiguity into the story, Shunn contributes to the feeling that the story isn’t quite complete.

In fact, the only story which really feels complete is the final, and longest, story in the collection.  “Not of This Fold” looks as a Mormon proselytizer who has been assigned a mission on a space station.  Ignoring the question of whether a space station would have a large enough population to make having multiple missions economically feasible, the characters are presented in a reasonable and sympathetic manner. One of the key elements to the story is the difference between faith and fact.  Elder Chad Sutton’s faith sustains him and influences every aspect of his worldview. Because others without his faith don’t see a connection between observable reality and Sutton’s own version, he is mocked and eventually the dichotomy results in Sutton facing the aliens, where he is brought face to face with the fact that belief can influence a perception of reality, but not reality itself.

From Our Point of View We Had Moved to the Left Strong Medicine
Kevin17 Objective Impermeability in a Closed System
Observations from the City of Angels Not of This Fold

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