Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Alternate History Bites

Review: River of Teeth by Sarah Gailey


What does a hippopotamus eat? This is an animal whose name means "river horse"; if you can accept Black Beauty with a serious yen for the flesh of gulls, small boys and river-boat gamblers, some of the problems with this novel disappear. If you can overlook modern-day conversation and sexual mores in a late 19th Century populace, many of the other issues vanish.

What remains is a rollicking alternate history set in the late 1800s on the lower Mississippi rivera river, moreover, that is gated at its broad mouth and dammed somewhere north of its delta to create a lake-pen between them for feral hippos.

Wait a second! I just realized I read this whole book and never spotted that little detail; any lake would not be between gate and dam, it would be upstream of the dam.

And therein lies the secret power of this story. We overlook details if they conflict with the sweeping action of the novella. The characters are so colorful that we hardly notice they are lacking back-story. We forgive the anomalous diet of the hippos swarming Lake Harriet, because they are just too wonderful otherwise. 

Not that hippos cannot be violent and vicious; they are. I searched "Do hippos eat people" and got this answer:
Hippos may look like oversized harmless cows to some people, but truth be told they are one of the most dangerous beasts in Africa and kill more humans that any other animal there... They can weigh up to 9000 pounds and and have teeth that are as sharp as razor blades. [But they] are vegetarians and don't eat people.

We can dismiss the anomalieslike TATP for sale by Richard Wolffenstein a full decade before he invented the explosivefor a while. It is an alternate history, after all, and we must dismiss counterfactual elements that play into that history. 

Eventually, though, an accumulation of HUH!? reactions does get in the way. Winslow Houndstooth, the bisexual crew chief leading an operation to remove feral hippos from Lake Harriet, openly solicits for and has sex with other men, and discusses his sexual preferences with the women he works with. This is in the same era in which another British-accented fellow, Oscar Wilde, was sent to prison for two years for the same behavior. Hero (who is consistently referred to as "they" with no explanation) and the other women of the hippo-hunting crew also flout the sexual conventions of the time in various ways without any visible consequences.

I enjoyed reading this book; it is a marvelous concept almost adequately executed. But at the end, I closed my Kindle feeling cheated. Gailey squandered the power of her tale when she broke the principal rule of alternate histories: introduce only the counterfactuals required to account for the altered historical record. Stir too many alternates into the biscuits and you wind up with lumps too big to swallow.

Like hippos in the Mississippi.