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.

4 stars
A trip to the 1960s, as located in the Cloud Atlas

A 576-page novel about a fictional British rock band trying to make its way to international stardom in the late 1960s? That really doesn’t sound like my cup of tea—but this one was written by one of my favorite authors, David Mitchell (Cloud Atlas, The Bone Clocks), so it was an instant purchase for me.

Utopia Avenue tells the story of the eponymous band from the perspective of its members—Dean Moss, Elf Holloway, Jasper de Zoet, Peter “Griff” Griffin—and their manager, Levon Frankland. Each chapter is named for one of the band’s songs and focuses on one of the main characters. (To promote the book, Penguin created a PDF with complete lyrics written by Mitchell for several of the songs, attributed to Utopia Avenue’s songwriters. Actually singing them might prove challenging!)

The book does not overplay the rags-to-riches angle of a band struggling towards success. Instead, it focuses especially on Dean, Elf, and Jasper, whose different class backgrounds and personal struggles (with sexual identity, with mental health, with discrimination, with estranged family, with grief) elevate the book beyond its colorful setting.

Astute Mitchell readers will recognize Jasper’s last name from The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, which is about the adventures of Jasper’s great-great-great grandfather. Jasper’s story intersects with the supernatural elements of the Mitchellverse, but this is only one thread among many, and Utopia Avenue stands entirely on its own.

Nonetheless, it’s par for the course for Mitchell to include plenty of references to prior works, and he does so with gusto, including a significant role for Luisa Rey, the Spyglass writer from Cloud Atlas (unforgettably portrayed by Halle Berry in the 2012 movie).

Cartoon celebrities

What’s more unusual is that Utopia Avenue is chock-full of real-world cameos, from David Bowie to John Lennon, from Jimi Hendrix to Leonard Cohen. Mitchell tries to make these encounters brief and memorable, but some readers will find the portrayal of these (in some cases recently) deceased celebrities jarring and cartoonish.

Mitchell might agree. He loves playing with the contrast between the serious and the farcical, the exaggerated and the real. Compare Cloud Atlas: Is Luisa Rey the character of a mystery novel inside the novel, or a fictionalized Karen Silkwood? The world of Utopia Avenue is the same one in which writer Dermot Hoggins throws book critic Felix Finch off a twelfth floor balcony.

I enjoyed the celebrity cameos without taking them too seriously. I love that some readers have compiled playlists on Spotify and on YouTube of the many works referenced in Utopia Avenue. Clearly, these readers felt transported by the book—not to the historical 1960s, but to an imagined place and time. In Mitchell’s own words, he evokes lacunae, just like when Dean Moss discovers a hidden church while wandering Rome:

In memory and in dream, he’d revisit this lacuna in time and in space. The place was a part of him now. Every lifetime, every spin of the wheel, holds a few such lacunae. A jetty by an estuary, a single bed under a skylight, a bandstand in a twilit park, a hidden church in a hidden square. The candles at the altar did not burn out. (p. 330)

Utopia Avenue is bright and stylish; it plays with plenty of tropes and stereotypes (sometimes to its detriment), but does not neglect the inner lives of its characters. If you’re new to Mitchell and the subject-matter does not appeal to you, you may want to sample his other works first—The Bone Clocks is fantastical and accessible; Cloud Atlas is masterful and deeply moving; Ghostwritten and number9dream are showy and experimental; Slade House is short and creepy; Thousand Autumns is an adventure in a different time; Black Swan Green is evocative and wondrous, a personal favorite.

4 stars
Of rebels, arms, and the cost of empire

The Taiping Rebellion raged in China from 1850 to 1864. It was a civil war (overlapping with America’s) in which 20-30 million human beings or more lost their lives. The Taiping sought to overthrow the Qing dynasty and establish a Christian theocracy in its place. Their leader, Hong Xiuquan, proclaimed that he was Jesus Christ’s brother (presumably not that one). Where the Taiping ruled, the temples and “false idols” of Buddhism, Confucianism, Taoism, and other ancient beliefs were often smashed to pieces.

In Autumn in the Heavenly Kingdom (2012), historian Stephen Platt retells the story of the rebellion and Western involvement in the conflict. After setting the stage with several maps, a timeline, and dramatis personae, Platt centers the experiences of memorable and colorful characters like Hong Rengan (the Taiping Prime Minister who envisioned Western-style reforms in China), Zeng Guofan (an imperial scholar-general who employed exceptional brutality to suppress the rebellion), and Frederick Townsend Ward (an American soldier of fortune who helped fight the Taiping).

A dynasty on its knees

After the First Opium War (1839-1842), the ruling Qing dynasty was near collapse. The overtaxed peasantry and gentry flocked to the Taiping in droves. Due to their Christianity-inspired and pro-Western ideology, they also had Western supporters, especially in the missionary community which hoped to help “correct” the group’s more idiosyncratic teachings. But along the way, Britain picked the side of the Qing dynasty, helping bring about the end of the rebellion.

When a Taiping force reached Shanghai (one of the treaty ports opened to foreign trade by force) in 1860, Taiping commander Li Xiucheng sent an advance letter assuring the foreigners in the city that the Taiping wanted positive trade relations, and that no foreigner would come to harm. Britain’s trade representative Frederick Bruce refused to even open the letter. Instead, British and French forces helped repel the Taiping forces from Shanghai—while simultaneously waging a Second Opium War against the Qing dynasty which culminated in the destruction of the Imperial Summer Palace in Beijing.

Reconstruction of the Imperial Summer Palace in Beijing, which was looted and destroyed by Anglo-French forces in the Second Opium War. (Credit: Guo Daiheng / Beijing Re-Yuanmingyuan Company Limited. Fair use.)

Gunboats and mercenaries

Britain continued to strenuously assert its neutrality in China’s civil war, but the intervention in Shanghai marked the beginning of increasingly active efforts to help suppress the Taiping: by imposing conditions on their military movements, by selling arms to the Qing empire (including an aborted attempt to sell China’s rulers a small fleet of gunboats known as the “Vampire Fleet”) , and through support for Frederick Ward’s mercenary force, the “Ever Victorious Army”, which would come to be led by a Brit, Major Charles “Chinese” Gordon.

The Qing dynasty lasted until 1912. Would the empire have defeated the Taiping without Western help? If not, would Hong Rengan’s vision of a peaceful, modern China have prevailed—or would Hong Xiuquan have led an increasingly fanatical theocracy, worse in its oppression than the rulers it sought to displace?

While Platt’s narrative is sympathetic to the Taiping (as is modern China, which has sometimes portrayed them as proto-Communists), he does not attempt to answer those questions. Instead, Autumn in the Heavenly Kingdom, together with its “prequel” about the First Opium War, Imperial Twilight (reviews), helps us understand the wounds of colonialism and the human cost of empire in all its forms. It may also provide clues to modern China’s obsession with totalitarian political control.

The verdict

As in Imperial Twilight, Platt succeeds marvelously in making this history engaging, at the expense of attempting to chart out the larger patterns of the conflict (e.g., the economic impact of the First Opium War on the Qing dynasty, the ideological development of the Taiping, the volume of arms sales). Like Imperial Twilight, I recommend Autumn in the Heavenly Kingdom unreservedly as a starting point to explore the history of China in the 19th century.

 Older reviews