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from the January 2015 issue

Alternate Pasts: An Introduction to International Uchronia

In 1995, Stanley Asimov compiled excerpts of his older brother’s correspondence in a collection titled Yours, Isaac Asimov. This assortment of more than a thousand fragments of letters not only spans several decades, but also, as one can imagine, covers a wide array of topics ranging from personal relationships with prominent people such as Carl Sagan, Kurt Vonnegut, Arthur C. Clarke and a host of others, to the inner workings of the publishing world, science fiction fandom, and meditations on decidedly more metaphysical themes. Among the many fascinating missives is an exchange between Asimov and one Martin H. Greenberg in which the writer wonders if his correspondent was the same person who he claimed had stiffed him after the publication of the Foundation Trilogy and I, Robot. The response from Greenberg reads in part:

I am not what I appear to be! I am (in no particular order), 32 years of age, male, overweight, a college professor, a science fiction fan and editor of science fiction anthologies. We met at the Nebula Award banquet in New York in April, but only for a few minutes. I am, definitely, not the Martin Greenberg of Gnome Press, but rather Martin Harry Greenberg, son of Max Isador Greenberg of Miami Beach. Could you supply me with any estimates of the odds involved in there being two people named Martin Greenberg who edited, but did not write, science fiction?

The pair wound up getting along famously after that initial correspondence—Asimov would subsequently refer to Greenberg as “Marty the Other,” and they would chat on the phone almost on a nightly basis for the next nineteen years. Asimov even went on to make the following laudatory remark about his friend, “Marty Greenberg, for my money, is the best judge in the world where science fiction is concerned.”

It goes without saying that Marty the Other could be considered a rock star in the world of speculative fiction, especially for his work as an editor and publisher of more than 2,000 books and one of the founders of the Sci-Fi Channel (now known as SyFy). He is the kind of figure that every sci-fi enthusiast should know about, which is why I was so utterly mortified the time I was asked if I had heard of him and had to respond negatively. It happened roughly five years ago on my campus at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay while giving a faculty forum presentation on the works of Peruvian playwright and short story writer Juan Rivera Saavedra. During my talk I briefly summarized Rivera Saavedra’s major works, which included Cuentos sociales de ciencia-ficción, one of the seminal collections of Latin American sci-fi microfiction. Spurred on by my mention of this anthology, my colleague, historian Clifton Ganyard, approached me at the end of the Q&A session. After geeking out on our favorite novels and films and our shared fondness of Salman Rushdie’s story “Chekov and Zulu,” I told him that one of my goals was to publish an anthology of Latin American fantasy, sci-fi and weird fiction in translation. He responded, “Have you heard of Martin Greenberg? I’m sure he owns the Guinness Book of World Records title for editing the most books! He’s a huge sci-fi buff and also used to be a professor at UW-Green Bay, but retired a few years back. You should contact him.” The name rang a bell, but I truly couldn’t place this “anthologist extraordinaire.” “Take a look at your bookshelf when you get home. You’re bound to have something Martin has published,” Clif concluded as we left the conference room of the University Union.

That weekend I opened a few boxes of books that had remained sealed from our recent move and sure enough, there were six anthologies that bore the fingerprints and curating of Marty the Other. To be fair, as a grad student I was a stereotypical habitué of secondhand bookstores and amassed quite a library of choice genre collections. And yet I was still embarrassed about not recognizing Greenberg’s name having recently devoured his co-edited anthology Future Americas. Here was this big-time publisher that lived just a few miles from me! I then determined my next step would be to reach out to him and pitch the idea of a sci-fi in translation compendium, but first I needed to decide on a unifying theme for my project.

This decision came rather quickly as I had always been a voracious reader of one subgenre of speculative fiction in particular: uchronia—otherwise known as alternate history, allohistory, counterfactual or what-if. These types of stories present the reader with divergent timelines and imagined variations of key moments in the past which lead to intriguing conclusions about our historical beliefs and practices. Uchronia is a narrative mode that has enjoyed both critical recognition and popular acceptance throughout literary history. Notable examples include works such as the Hugo Award-winning The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick, a story set in an alternate post-Second World War era in which the Axis had been victorious; Farthing by Jo Walton, a Nebula Award-nominated novel that imagines a world in which the United Kingdom had ceased fighting against Nazi Germany and negotiated peace prior to American involvement in the war; Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policemen's Union, which also won the Hugo Award, takes us to a world in which the State of Israel collapsed after a few months of existence; and even the great master of horror, Stephen King, has dabbled in uchronia with his novel 11/23/63, an alternate history that involves time travel to prevent the assassination of John F. Kennedy. I soon found out that among Greenberg’s vast catalog, he had also published several anthologies of uchronia, including his collaboration with Harry Turtledove, The Best Alternate History Stories of the 20th Century.

Excited at the prospect of potentially working with Marty the Other, I drafted an email sketching out my vision for Cosmos Latinos 2.0, my working title for the project, which was a nod to the spectacular Spanish and Latin American sci-fi anthology edited by Andrea Bell and Yolanda Molina Gavilán. The proposal featured an ambitious mix of excerpts from novels and/or short stories by Bernardo Fernández (Bef), Jorge Baradit, Gerson Lodi-Ribeiro, Jorge Eduardo Benavides, and a rather lengthy etc., etc., etc.

Unfortunately, I postponed sending the message to Greenberg. I was a newly minted PhD on the tenure clock, and was advised by several colleagues both at my institution and at other universities to focus on “more scholarly pursuits” if I wanted to get promoted. Semesters passed, I published a few articles and a book on contemporary Peruvian narrative and political violence, and yet I kept adding to my burgeoning list of Latin American uchronias. I thought I’d eventually get the chance to discuss my ideas with Marty, but sadly that would never be the case. Greenberg passed away in Green Bay in the summer of 2011 after a long battle with cancer. As I read articles in the local press and sci-fi blogs celebrating Greenberg’s life, his generosity and constant mentoring, and of course, his valuable contributions to the publishing world, I couldn’t help but lament the mistake I had made by not connecting with him when I had the chance.

A couple of years later, I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to pitch a Uchronia-themed issue for Words Without Borders: the text you are now reading on your computer, tablet, smartphone or paper (printed on recycled paper, bien entendu). It is a project that was greenlighted seven months ago and ended up involving countless hours of reading (including multiple visits to Robert. B. Schmunk’s invaluable and exhaustive database,, hundreds of emails, and considerable energy and effort stalking writers and translators on Facebook. In this issue, you will explore alternate histories that deal with a string of famines and other catastrophes in mid-nineteenth-century Sweden that could have obliterated the Scandinavian peninsula in Karin Tidbeck’s “Mine-Wife” (translated from the Swedish by Silvester Mazzarella); how a matinee idol’s accident changes the face of international cinema in Xavier Mauméjean’s “Cinépanorama” (translated from the French by Edward Gauvin); the subsequent transformation of Mexican society after Emperor Maximilian I is not executed in 1867 and Benito Juárez’s brain is digitized by a European psychocyberneticist in Bef’s “The Beast has Died” (translated from the Spanish by Brian L. Price); the picaresque underworld of a female soccer hooligan gang who has been entrusted to transport a reanimated cyborg of history’s greatest soccer star, Lionel Messi in Hernán Vanoli’s “Saint Lionel” (translated from the Spanish by Juan Caballero); how Portugal’s King Dom Luís II escaped to Brazil after the invasion of his country by Franco’s fascist troops in Gerson Lodi-Ribeiro’s “Cousins from Overseas” (translated from the Portuguese by Sarah Ann Wells); St. Francis of Assisi’s peculiar life story as told from the perspective of his nephew Piccardo in Aldo Nove’s “Scandal” (translated from the Italian by Elizabeth Harris); the way Allende thwarted the coup attempt of 1973 and resisted US meddling in Chilean affairs in Jorge Baradit’s “Contreras’s Dream” and an allohistorical Peru in which Shining Path had defeated the armed forces in Jorge Eduardo Benavides’s “Distinguishing Marks: None” (both translated from the Spanish by yours truly, Gabriel T. Saxton-Ruiz).

While some may quibble that not all of the stories in this collection adhere to the strict generic classification of alternate history, they all offer us a new way of perceiving history. Besides, as Chabon once declared:

genre [. . .] is—in a fundamental and perhaps ineradicable way—a marketing tool, a standard maintained most doggedly by publishing and booksellers. […] The most useful way to think of the various literary genres is not as discrete rooms in a house or red-lined sections in a bookstore, but as regions on a map, the map of fiction. [. . .] And as with the regions on a map, on the map of fiction there is overlap: sometimes it can be hard to say where science fiction shades unambiguously into fantasy, or horror into gothic romance, or mainstream literary fiction into any of its neighboring genres.

Or as the familiar saying goes, “good writing is good writing, regardless of genre,” which is certainly the case in this issue. In any event, I believe wholeheartedly that the works assembled in this collection truly constitute a worthy tribute to Marty the Other and his tireless advocacy and promotion of speculative fiction. May these stories transport you to different epochs and places while opening new imaginative possibilities and disparate historical realities. Enjoy and safe travels in time!

Gabriel T. Saxton-Ruiz
Green Bay, Wisconsin
January 1, 2015

© 2015 Gabriel T. Saxton-Ruiz. All rights reserved. 

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