If you’re not into the Super Bowl, this weekend is book reading time. The most thought-provoking book you can read this weekend is Harry Turtledove’s The Wages of Sin.
Turtledove got his moniker as “the master of alternate history” with hinge point stories. Two examples are Lee magically getting AK-47s in 1864 or winning the Battle of Antietam in 1862. This let Turtledove people his stories with real characters, like an aged Abraham Lincoln wandering the desert on a train, or Amelia Earhart fighting the Battle of Britain.
The Wages of Sin is different.
In this case the hinge point is 350 years in the past. AIDS came to Europe in 1500, so there’s no Henry VIII, no Scottish Enlightenment, and no Industrial Revolution. There are no “real people” in this story because their forebears didn’t exist.
The Tudor line continued so there’s no Church of England, and no Queen Victoria. There’s no British Empire, thus no United States. India remains independent, and there’s no cotton trade. In this ultra-Victorian England, sex outside marriage is a death sentence. Men and women are strictly segregated, the women kept bundled in something like Burqas.
The story takes place in the Wiltshire town of Salisbury, and in London. They’re just a few hours apart today, but days apart by stagecoach in this world. It’s a small, happy story of meager successes against society’s expectations. No more spoilers.
What makes the story compelling is how many millions of Americans might prefer this world to their own. Everyone in this world goes to church, and engines don’t pollute the sky. Imagine a world where all thinking outside the lines is readily suppressed, where letters remain the primary means of communication, and where progress of all kinds is measured in centuries, not years. (I see Mike Johnson smiling in the corner.)
Turtledove immerses you in this world, to the point where you forget this one for a time. It’s only when you turn the last page that you start to think about what his little world is missing, and what we’d be missing, as a result.
This makes it his most shining achievement to date.