Review: The Way It Wasn't

3 stars
Mediocre anthology of alternative histories, with just a few gems

In contrast with time travel adventures, the genre of alternate history tells stories set in timelines that have already been altered. So, someone or something prevented Adolf Hitler from being born—now what? The most well-written alternative histories can deepen our understanding of real history, by re-examining the causes and effects that made our world what it is.

The Way It Wasn’t is a 1996 anthology edited by Martin Greenberg that assembles thirteen short stories of varying quality. There are only three that stood out to me as good or excellent:

  • Robert Silverberg’s “Lion Time in Timbuctoo”, an adventure set in a world where the Black Death was far deadlier than in ours, and different empires are struggling for power. Silverberg previously invented this alternative timeline in a novel called The Gate of Worlds, and Lion Time itself is short on worldbuilding and history, but it’s still a fun tale once it gets going.

  • Pamela Sargent’s “The Sleeping Serpent”, which describes an encounter between Mongols and Iroquois, in a timeline in which the Mongols are controlling continental Europe. Sargent has written a 700-page tome novel about Genghis Khan (Ruler of the Sky), and the quality of this story reflects her scholarship.

  • Kim Stanley Robinson’s “Lucky Strike”, which is about the morality of the use of nuclear weapons—and whether the decisions of individuals can make a difference.

Three stories are about US presidents—”Ike at the Mike”, which imagines a music career for Dwight Eisenhower; “Over There”, in which Theodore Roosevelt gets his wish for a final World War I adventure with the “Rough Riders”; “The Winterberry”, in which JFK is not dead, but no longer the man he was. These stories are more about presidents as celebrities and myths than about their real lives or the consequences of their actions, and I found them wholly unnecessary (“Ike at the Mike” was execrable).

If you find this book in the bargain bin, you’re likely to enjoy some of the stories, but given the hit-or-miss quality of the selection, I would suggest seeking out the highlights above instead of buying the anthology.