Hertzsprung-Russell rating: M104

Available in: Stories Of Your Life And Others

Among Ted Chiang’s small but brilliant body of work is this story, which describes the construction of the titular tower (you know that thing ain’t up to code) and what happens when its builders finally reach Heaven. Whether you’re a contractor looking for tips on how to work with bricks made of baked clay, or just a time-travelling, homesick Babylonian eager for news from back home, this story rocks. Read it, and everybody have fun tonight. Everybody Ted Chiang tonight.


Hertzsprung-Russell rating: G102.5

Available in: The Mammoth Book Of Alternate Histories

The trick to writing good AltHist is making the world-that-never-was relatable to the reader without getting bogged down by too many scholarly details. Cadigan succeeds with this dystopic tale of 1960’s radicalism that sees the war in Viet Nam won, Kennedy alive and things still in the toilet. This story has a Watchmen-esque feel to it that will unnerve anyone with an ounce of left-leaning blood in their veins.

Hertzsprung-Russell rating: G106.5

Available in: Faces At The Bottom Of The Well

Aliens land in America with a deal: they’ll give Americans enough gold to wipe out the national debt and extraterrestrial technology that will reverse pollution. In return, they want all the black people (and they’ll be checking, so don’t try to slip any Mexicans in there at the bottom of the pile!) Someone get me a Cosby sweater, because this is a chilling commentary on race in America.

Hertzsprung-Russell rating: F0.1

Available in: Alternate Warriors

A chock-full-o’-chuckles alternate history story that transforms pacifist, man-on-a-mission-of-peace missionary Albert Schweitzer into a Tarzan-type archetype who fights enemies in darkest Africa. The biggest problem missionaries faced in darkest Africa was the shocking realization that, despite what the lyrics to Guns N’ Roses’ ‘Welcome To The Jungle’ promised, the jungle had neither fun nor games. The second biggest problem they faced in darkest Africa was stubbed toes. Cuz it was dark, y’see.

Hertzsprung-Russell rating: G0.5

Available in: Alternate Outlaws

A charming little alt-hist tale about a friendly bartender who helps a customer go back in time to meet ‘Shoeless Joe’ Jackson and change the history of baseball. It’s kinda like Cheers, Quantum Leap, and, uh, what’s another show I watched in the 80’s?….let’s say, Night Court, all rolled into one. Interesting footnote: between the two of them, ‘Shoeless Joe’ Jackson and White Sox teammate ‘Shirtless John’ Jefferson couldn’t get service in most convenience stores.

Hertzsprung-Russell rating: G106

Available in: Tales From Jabba’s Palace

Tales from Jabba's Palace

Return Of The Jedi aficionados know Bib Fortuna as a head-tentacled bit player at Jabba’s palace; a pale, near-anonymous Rusty the Bailiff to the Hutt’s imposing Judge Wapner. But we always wanted more Bib. Give us more Bib, we pleaded with George Lucas, but an extended ‘Now With 48% More Bib Fortuna!’ version of ROTJ was not forthcoming. And we wept. Then this story came along. It’s all about Bib Fortuna; his character, his desires, his backstory, and his never-ending machinations against Jabba the Hutt. And it was good. So good, in fact, it left me drooling. Luckily, I was wearing a….wait for it…..napkin in the front of my shirt.

Hertzsrpung-Russell rating: A/F10-3.5

Available in: Armageddons

An amateur astronomer discovers a comet heading towards Earth that’ll wipe the globe off the map in the next few hours. So he spends his last moments alive working up the nerve to ask a co-worker out for coffee, resulting in the awkwardest first (and last) date small-talk ever (“So….um….how did you enjoy civilization?”) Chicks fall for the old ‘end-of-the-world comet’ trick every time; it’s how I got my wife to marry me. Luboš Kohoutek was our officient. He got really drunk at the reception.