Reviewed by Michael Berry

The popular notion is that works of science fiction are set in the future. That's far from always the case, especially given the increasing popularity of alternate histories. In fact, five very different recent releases draw their inspiration from the pages of history.

Patricia Anthony set her last novel, "God's Fires" during the Inquisition. Now she details the horrors of World War I in "Flanders" (Ace; 354 pages; $23.95).

Having postponed his plans of becoming a doctor, Texas-born and Harvard-educated Travis Lee joins a British army unit and finds his calling as a sharpshooter in Northern France. Serving under a Jewish captain with an explosive secret and teamed with a Canadian spotter who enjoys killing just a little too much, Lee endures a daily struggle for survival.

During infrequent moments of rest, Lee dreams of a peaceful garden, where his dead comrades rest for a while before moving on to some other plane of existence. As the war progresses, he begins to suspect that this vision is more than merely a dream.

Anthony spares no gruesome detail in chronicling Lee's trial by fire. She shows the reader almost every atrocity and indiginity of war, from the trenches filled with rats, excrement and half-buried corpses to the field hospitals, where gas victims and amputees await either death or a ticket home. "Flanders" is by no means an easy read, sometimes feeling like a ten-mile slog through the mud of No-Man's Land. But beneath the novel's grimness lies Travis Lee's otherworldy promise of relief and salvation. It is hard to fault the vividness with which Anthony re-creates "the war to end all wars," and "Flanders" ranks close to "All Quiet on the Western Front" in its devastating impact.

"Darwinia" (Tor; 320 pages; $22.95) by Robert Charles Wilson is set only a few years after the events in Anthony's novel, but it posits a timeline in which the Great War never had a chance to happen.

The world changes forever in March 1912, when bright lights in the sky herald the complete transformation of the European continent. Every human inhabitant and every native plant and animal disappears, replaced by the flora and fauna of an alien world.

Eight years later, "the Miracle," as it comes to be known, represents for Boston photographer Guilford Law a chance for adventure and recognition in his field. Leaving his wife and daughter in a newly rebuilt London, Law embarks on a scientific expedition into terra incognita, only to meet with disaster after catching a glimpse of even greater mysteries. Decades later, Law is called upon to fulfill a destiny that has implications that extend well beyond the merely personal, or even the merely terrestrial.

Author of "The Harvest" and winner of the Philip K. Dick Award for "Mysterium," Wilson starts "Darwinia" at a brisk clip and never slackens the pace. What starts as a variation on Conan Doyle's "The Lost World" develops into an intricate meditation on mortality and duty. Best of all, unlike much science fiction of a metaphysical bent, "Darwinia" feels complete and self-contained, not the first volume of series. All in all, it is highly recommended.

Howard Waldrop, author of "A Dozen Tough Jobs" and "Night of the Cooters," serves up nine very different alternate worlds in his latest short story collection, "Going Home Again" (St. Martin's Press; 224 pages; $20.95).

In the title story, Thomas Wolfe, recently recovered from brain surgery, travels from Japan to Europe aboard the airship Ticonderoga and discovers a new perspective on his life and career by listening to jazz great Fats Waller jam in the zeppelin's bar. "The Saw Boys" presents Grimms' "The Brementown Musicians" as interpreted by Damon Runyon. "The Effects of Alienation" is a "the Nazis won" tale that focuses not on Hitler, Churchill or any of the other usual suspects, but on Peter Lorre, Zero Mostel. Bertolt Brecht's widow and Shemp Howard of the Three Stooges.

Waldrop isn't for every taste. His erudition and love of the obscure can leave readers scratching their heads and feeling as if they've missed the joke. But his stories are usually well worth the extra effort. Whether writing about Mexican wrestlers, talking insects or Keystone Cops, Waldrop always manages brings a mischievous wit and a keen sense of drama to the enterprise. In this collection, he thoughtfully supplies an explanatory afterword for each piece. And who says readers shouldn't have to work a bit anyway?

Thomas Disch, renowned for such novels as "334" and "The Businessman," turns his hand to book-length non-fiction with "The Dreams Our Stuff Is Made of: How Science Fiction Conquered the World" (Free Press; 256 pages; $25)

Disch's thesis is that America is a "nation of liars," and that science fiction epitomizes the nation's collective need and appreciation of outlandish untruths. He designates Poe as the true progenitor of the genre, then traces its influence on television, politics, religion and race relations.

"The Dreams Our Stuff Is Made of" makes some interesting connections between seemingly disparate aspects of popular culture, addressing everything from the "alien abductions" of Whitley Strieber to the literary career of Newt Gingrich. The book's approach is broad enough to appeal to the casual reader, with enough insider's observations to make it worthwhile for serious scholars. In fact, Disch is so entertaining in pointing out the foibles of Robert Heinlein, Ursula LeGuin and other sf luminaries that one wishes that the author had let loose and delivered just little more, well, dish.

Scott McCloud presents a topsy-turvy portrait of one the most famous presidents in his latest graphic novel, "The New Adventures of Abraham Lincoln" (Homage Comics; 136 pages; $19.95).

After Honest Abe comes busting through a library wall like The Thing from Jack Kirby's "Fantastic Four," he escorts young Byron Johnson and two friends on a fractured tour of American history. Later, Byron decides that this platitude-spouting Abe is really a dangerous impostor, and when the "real" Abraham Lincoln shows up in his living room, he takes the President to Washington to confront the man who has stolen his good name.

That McCloud chose this project after the mainstream success of his latest major work, "Understanding Comics," speaks to his idiosyncratic approach to the medium. Featuring cartoonish characters rendered against highly detailed digital backgrounds, "The New Adventures of Abraham Lincoln" cannily explores the ways in which the symbols of history are employed to obscure the facts. One wishes that McCloud had devised a more original genesis for the false Lincoln, but it's hard to argue with the premise of his story or the energy with which he illustrates it.

(c) 1998 by Michael Berry

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