"The Moe Berg Episodes: Alternate Histories of the Catcher and the Spy" by Rick Wilber; New Word City (232 pages, $11.99)
Moe Berg was a real person with a life story that sounds like fiction. He had a 20-year career in Major League Baseball even though he was never more than a middling player, earned degrees from Princeton and the Columbia Law School and, during World War II, served as a spy for the U.S. government.
Author Rick Wilber takes that unusual life to a much weirder level in "The Moe Berg Episodes," his lively new collection of four stories about the catcher-spy that are set in a series of alternative universes.
A former professor of journalism and writing at the University of South Florida, Wilber is now a visiting assistant professor in the low-residency creative writing program at Western Colorado State University. He is a prolific author of science fiction and fantasy, with an emphasis on baseball fantasy and alternative history – both of which categories "The Moe Berg Episodes" falls into.
The stories all focus on Berg's wartime escapades, reading like fast-paced, globe-trotting spy thrillers, with a difference. They're packed with realistic details, but they're not the ones our version of history records.
Sometimes, physicist Albert Einstein died young, and the Hindenberg is still flying in the 1940s; at others, Irish politician Michael Collins wasn't assassinated in 1922 but is alive and leading Ireland in 1940, when the Nazis have taken over England and its government in exile, including Winston Churchill, is ensconced in Dublin. In yet another scenario, Mexico is a German ally, Germany has destroyed the East Coast, and all that's left of what we'd call the United States is a portion of California. And sometimes "President Roosevelt" refers to Eleanor.
Always, Berg is working with (or is it for?) a mysterious woman whose name and hair color change but who's always "a real looker" – and lethal. In between the episodes of these stories, Berg tends to forget her and their adventures, only to have most of those memories reappear when she does to call him back into service.
The scenarios Wilber creates, and the ways they play out, raise many questions, some grim, some intriguing. Much of the pleasure of these stories comes from the inventive details: In some parallel worlds, Berg is a star ballplayer, and in one story, At Palomar, he rescues a geeky little kid named Hughie Everett, who, we assume (although nothing is certain), grows up to be the physicist who first proposed the many-worlds interpretation of quantum physics.