-Dale R. Cozort
There tends, in my opinion, to be something of a disconnect between writers of professional alternate history books (SM Stirling, Harry Turtledove) and those who write timelines as part of the online alternate history community and post them online. The former tend to concentrate on building up characters rather than just world-building, while the latter focus entirely on building their world. Both have much to recommend them, but not everyone moves smoothly from one to the other.
I have followed Dale’s work for a long time – he has been a great inspiration to me over the years – and he is probably the foremost writer of timelines in the AH community. (And, another point to his credit, he doesn’t get up on his high horse or bogged down by petty politics, unlike many others I could mention.) He commands a vast grasp of his subject matter, which ranges from World War Two – a stable among the community – to such subjects as the American Indians (upon which he has published another book), biology and places where most people would struggle to find a Point of Divergence.
I first read Exchange in snippet form through Point of Divergence, a semi-workshop for writers and I have to admit that I wasn't too impressed, mainly because I was reading it out of order and missing sections. When Dale published it, I decided that it was worth giving the completed and revised manuscript a look and I’m glad to say that I didn’t regret it. Completed, Exchange is definitely a worthwhile story.
Exchange is set in the very near future, where ‘exchanges’ – a dimensional warp that exchange locations in our world with the same locations in an alternate world – are fairly common and alarming. Direct contact between our world and one where humanity never evolved poses considerable dangers, including wild animals that have no fear of humanity and diseases for which we have no cure. Although direct settlement of ‘Bear Country’ is illegal, there are plenty of groups that want to set up settlements on the alternate world, escaping the modern world. This isn’t easy. Exchanges, as far as anyone can tell, are random; you’re either caught up in one or you’re not. An exchange will generally reverse itself within a few days, but if someone leaves the exchanged territory, they remain stranded within Bear Country.
The main character of the book is a divorced woman, Sharon. Sharon is the mother of Bethany, a young girl with OCD – readers of Questionable Content will note similarities to one of the characters within that web comic – who finds herself roped into a work party at gunpoint, just before the exchange takes place. When she returns home, just after the Exchange and a brief battle between Marines and swarming monkeys – she discovers that her drunken loser of an ex-husband has returned home, kidnapped their daughter and vanished into Bear Country. Sharon has to find her daughter – weaving her way through a maddening mix of convicts, unconcerned authority, religious fanatics and racists – before the Exchange reverses itself. In some ways, the book is a travelogue of Bear Country, exploring the new world and just what it means for the humans unlucky enough to be trapped on the far side. I would not be too surprised to discover that SM Stirling’s Conquistador was one of the inspirations.
But that isn’t all. Sharon is, more by accident than design, entrapped in a web of lies and deceptions, told by everyone. Everyone has their own plans for Bear Country, from the insane Sister West to the survivalists to the US Government itself. One of the book’s minor problems is that I found the issue a little confusing, although it was wrapped up nicely at the end. Dale actually handles this quite well; we, the reader, only see through Sharon’s eyes and her obsession (quite understandable) with recovering her daughter blinds her to the many different plots and counter-plots being laid by the other characters.
Sharon is quite a believable character, although she is incredibly lucky and she does have her flaws. She’s a martial artist – she fights her way clear of danger several times – yet she is less used to guns. I would have expected her to have taken shooting lessons after leaving her useless husband. Most of the other characters are believable as well, although I found myself hating the women dragged along by the survivalists. If women were smarter about who they dated and married, the world would be a happier place. One issue was that Bethany is something of a cipher. I never had the sense that she was real.
Dale deserves credit – full credit – for making it clear that Bear Country is not a safe place to live and that most people who are intent on returning to a ‘simpler’ time are utter fools. Without law, society and socialisation breaks down rapidly; Sharon comes close to being raped several times in the story, while others are not so lucky. The cultists and the convicts are reverting to type rapidly, while the shortage of modern medicine means that women will die in childbirth – what few women there are in Bear Country. One of the ideas mentioned within the story are of a number of women who have been kidnapped by the convicts and held outside Bear Country until the exchange reverses itself, trapping them permanently.
The story also looks at the implications of the exchanges for our world. After the first couple of disasters, standard procedure became to sterilise any exchanged territory in order to prevent new animals and diseases spreading into our world. The hints that there might be someone out there with advanced technology are tantalising, as are some of the hints and clever stunts the US Government did to try to learn more about the unknown threat. I wish that Dale had spent more time exploring that angle; perhaps it will be something for the sequel.
One thing I didn’t buy is the international agreements banning exploration or settlement of Bear Country. Dale is quite right to point out that Bear Country is of limited use – and a massive liability – to national governments, but there are plenty of groups that would want to get loose in Bear Country, if only to establish a homeland of their own. Governments, too, would want to set up research bases, even if they would only be of limited value. Perhaps someone would discover a way to generate exchanges at will, or predict them perfectly weeks in advance, making the bases of infinite value. I’d expect far more groups plotting to get into Bear Country – most of those plans would come to grief very quickly, though.
Please don’t let those minor quibbles distract you. Exchange is an extremely good story that cries out for a sequel (or two).
A sample of Exchange can be found at: http://efanzines.com/SFAM/SFAM-05-01.pdf
Dale’s Website is at: http://www.dalecozort.com/
The best (or at least most civil) online AH discussion forum is at: http://counter-factual.net/