“The Other Nineteenth Century,” by Avram Davidson
7/10: Inconsistent collection of alternate histories and other stories by a great writer.
As a kid, some twenty-odd years ago, I was given an anthology (which I still have) called “A Treasury of Modern Fantasy.” That may still be the single best collection of fantasy stories I’ve ever encountered(*). It was my introduction to H.P. Lovecraft, Harlan Ellison, Fredric Brown, James Blish, Theodore Sturgeon–and, as it turned out, Avram Davidson.
I recently compared Ted Chiang to Avram Davidson, a comparison that arose partly because I had this book on my stack to read. When I found 1998’s award-winning Avram Davidson Treasury, I devoured it, reveling in his brilliant imagination and wit. His style is so distinct that it was only after reading some of the stories that I thought, this resembles that story about the camera in my Treasury of Modern Fantasy. And voila–same author.
I found this book on a bargain stack last year and snatched it up, only now getting around to reading it. Davidson lived in the heart of the 20th century (he died in 1992) but had a fascination with history. The stories don’t stick religiously to the 19th century; in fact, the first one is an alternate take on the American Revolution. Neither are all of them concerned with events of such a scope as to be noted in History. What they do share is that distinctive imagination and style, which feels very Victorian in and of itself, so the time period is a good match.
The first half of the book is generally up to the level of the 1998 collection. As the stories go on, they become less crisp and tend to feel more like second drafts that could have stood a bit of editing here and there. His wonderful descriptions still pop out from a paragraph here and there, but the stories are looser and less compelling. The last two are longer tales, one complete and one collected from fragments and stitched together with interstitial pieces by Michael Swanwick, who raves about how brilliant it is. The complete story was interesting, but should have been much shorter than it was. And the incomplete story had some nice images and ideas, but didn’t live up to the breathless excitement Swanwick displayed in writing about it. I found it more interesting to read his interpolations and extrapolations than to read the actual fragments.
If you’re interested in reading Avram Davidson, go get the 1998 collection. It’s brilliant. If you’ve already read the 1998 collection and are hungry for more, this book will satisfy your appetite for a while, but it is clearly the second-best collection of his work.
(*) In going back to that listing to recall the authors, I noted one story by Joanna Russ, whom I just read about this morning in an article on James Tiptree, Jr. and wouldn’t have recognized otherwise–this collection is the kind of book I keep going back to and finding more things about it to like. I linked to the Amazon listing because the one reviewer listed all the stories; you may be better off going to abebooks.com (look for the Avon 1981 paperback edition).