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Other Worlds, Better Lives: Selected Long Fiction, 1989-2003 (A Howard Waldrop Reader) Paperback – September 1, 2008
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In 2007, Old Earth Books, an independent press located in Baltimore, Maryland, brought out Things Will Never Be the Same: A Howard Waldrop Reader, a comprehensive volume that features selected short fiction from 1980-2005 by the Nebula Award-winning and often anthologized writer. This is a book that belongs on the shelves of anyone interested in science-fictional and fantastic short fiction at its best. Old Earth has now followed that earlier and welcome volume with an equally fine companion, Other Worlds, Better Lives, which features longer stories written between 1989 and 2003 and displays Waldrop s mastery of the novella form.
Among the stories here is You Could Go Home Again, in which Thomas Wolfe, having survived the brain disease that killed him in our world, returns from the 1940 Tokyo Olympics, aboard an airship where fellow voyager Fats Waller provides musical interludes, to a U.S. governed by technocrats. Fin de Cyclé is the story of how a movie made by Georges Méliès, assisted by Alfred Jarry, Marcel Proust, and Pablo Picasso, rouses the French public to demand justice in the case of Captain Alfred Dreyfus and helps to free him from Devil s Island. Various young characters from late 1950s and early 1960s TV programs and science fiction movies confront the Cuban missile crisis in The Other Real World, while Richard Wagner abandons his operatic ambitions to become one of the forefathers of the Peoples Federated States of Europe in A Better World s in Birth! Flatfeet! combines reflections on Osvald Spengler s classic The Decline of the West and American artist Thomas Cole s series of paintings titled The Course of Empire with a number of historical parallels and Keystone Kops-style antics in what the author calls in his afterword one of the most jam-packed stories I ever wrote. In Major Spacer in the 21st Century! Waldrop manages to cover the history of much of twentieth century communications technology in realistic detail.
The longest story in the collection is A Dozen Tough Jobs, a Nebula and World Fantasy Award finalist; here, Waldrop takes the mythological figure of Hercules and sets him down in early twentieth-century Mississippi along with an African-American sidekick appropriately named I.O. Lace. Readers unfamiliar with Greek mythology (although even the completely uninformed might still have been viewers of the 1990s TV series featuring Kevin Sorbo as Hercules) can read this novella straight as a tale of race relations, rural poverty, and class distinctions centered on the convict Houlka Lee; those who know the old myths will delight in the meticulously worked-out parallels between Waldrop s story and the fabled Twelve Labours of Hercules.A master of fantastic and alternative worlds who doesn t repeat himself
One trap in writing alternative histories is the gratuitous story, the what if Attila the Hun had howitzers kind of tale. A somewhat better alternative, in an age when ignorance of history abounds, is concentrating on major historical figures and events, ones familiar to most people, or at least likely to be known about by many readers. Howard Waldrop usually ignores these alternatives in favor of focusing on more obscure, although still important and influential, cultural figures and social movements. In the process, he offers insight into some of history s more overlooked streams and also manages to draw parallels between his imagined worlds and reality, while capturing both the undertone of regret and the sense of precariousness that seem essential elements of alternate history.--Pamela Sargent, SciFi Weekly
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Fortunately for his readers, short story specialist Howard Waldrop likes to stretch out to 25,000 words or so every once in a while. His longer stories aren't always as action-packed as his shorter ones, but we get to spend a little more time in the various, richly-textured worlds he keeps dreaming up.
"A Dozen Tough Jobs" transplants the twelve labors of Hercules to rural Mississippi in the 1920s, and Waldrop's vernacular "translation" is a hoot: our hero from Mt. Oatie has a young, black sidekick named I.O. Lace, and the episodes are by turn funny as hell and scary as hell; the ending is poignant as hell.
"Fin de Cyclé" (a Waldropian joke: "cycle" in French has no acute accent, and refers to "a series of events") asks, "What if Méliès, Proust, Picasso, Satie, Jarry, and le Douanier Rousseau got together to make a movie about the Dreyfus affair?" The story is proof that Belle Époque Paris is as wild a science fictional setting as any alien planet.
In "You Could Go Home Again," novelist Thomas Wolfe lives to cross paths with Fats Waller, J.D. Salinger, T.E. Lawrence, and Nevil Shute on a zeppelin flight from Japan to Germany. Wolfe's books were always about bombastic young men in search of the real America; this story is about an older, sadder, and somewhat wiser man in search of himself. "Flatfeet!" is early 20th century world history as seen through the eyes of the Keystone Kops. "Major Spacer in the 21st Century!" takes us from live television drama and anti-Communist paranoia in 1950 to the Y2K technology crash of the new millenium (which actually happened in this story's world). What's the connection? Excessive government surveillance leads to a world that no one wants to live in? Could be. This one left me shrugging.
Ever wondered about the kid characters in The Day The Earth Stood Still (1951) and other 1950s sci-fi movies, and how their screwed-up lives might've gone on after the movie ended? Neither have I, but while "The Other Real World" has too many oblique movie and TV references for its own good, it's still one heck of a Cold War thrill ride.
In "A Better World's in Birth!" a spectre is haunting the Peoples' Federated States of Europe -- the spectre of Marx, and those of Engels and Wagner as well. A secret police investigator is assigned to find out who or what's behind these ghostly sightings. This is, without question, the best 19th century, hardboiled Communist detective story I've ever read.
A Dozen Tough Jobs (1989)
Fin de Cycle (1990)
You Could Go Home Again (1993)
Major Spacer (2001)
The Other Real World (2001)
A Better World's In Birth (2003)
Michael Dirda of the Wasington post Book World has written:
"If Philip K. Dick is our homegrown Borges (as Ursula K. Le Guin once said), then Waldrop is our very American magic-realist, as imaginative and playful as early Garcia Marquez or, better yet, Italo Calvino."
And award winning author Orson Scott Caes has written:
"Now he brings us 'A Dozen Tough Jobs' [included in this volume], which is, yes folks, a retelling of the Labors of Hercules, set in a Mississippi town in the 1920s. Because it's Waldrop writing it, though, it's more than a comic reworking of an old myth. It's also a clear depiction of life in that sunbeaten, humid, fearful place and time. The rhythms of speech, the slang, the relations between the races, between rich and poor, between men and women, all are there, with the power and ugliness and majesty of real life. Waldrop's comedy comes from his true-seeing eye, and A Dozen Tough Jobs puts him right amoung William Faulkner, Carson McCullers, Flannery O'Conner, and Harry Crews as one of the umcompromising prophets of the American South."
Don't wait, click away and order this! Order two! One for you, one for a friend!
But then I'm prejudiced about Howard Waldrop.