Book Review – Conquistador

Books –
S. M. Stirling
ROC, 2003

If you’re not, as I am, a native Californian, you may skip the next paragraph.  It probably won’t mean much to you.

I have often wondered what it would be like to visit pre-Columbian California.  To see all those animals that have gone extinct since the arrival of Europeans, including the many native tribes.  It would be breathtaking to look upon the Yosemite Valley, Mount McKinley, Mount Shasta, the San Francisco Bay, Death Valley, the Mojave Desert, the redwood forests, and the wild Pacific coast before modern technology put its footprint there.  Being able to time-travel back to these days has been the core of many a personal fantasy.

I won’t begrudge living in modern California.  If it weren’t for modern technology, much of it invented here, I wouldn’t be alive today.  But the fantasy remains.

This is sort of what S. M. Stirling does in his book, Conquistador.  In the very first chapter, he opens a gate to a parallel universe, a staple in modern SF for lo these many years, where Europeans never made it to the Americas.  A young veteran, just back from the war in the Pacific, invites his friends on an adventure through this gate, and by 2009, where the bulk of the story takes place, things have progressed quite a bit.

It dawns on you during the early parts of the book, that the story doesn’t start off in our universe, either, but one that is very similar.

The vet, John Rolfe, decides that secrecy is the best policy, and manages to hide his universe  for over 60 years. But the problems with secrets is that they become increasingly difficult to keep.  Along comes Tom Christiansen, a game warden for the California Department of Fish and Game, who literally stumbles across this secret.

After this, the book takes on the familiar tone that Stirling set in his other books.  Huge fighting Swedes, beautiful plucky women, lots of battle scenes, descriptions of weaponry, and an array of stereotyped support cast.

We follow Christiansen through a travelogue of this Alternate California, which isn’t entirely pre-Columbian anymore since Rolfe’s arrival, but it’s close enough.  Those of you who are purists when it comes to native species ecologies will be aghast to learn that Rolfe has introduced a number of large game animals from Africa and Asia to the California landscape, which certainly adds to the exotic nature of the narrative.   You’ll also cringe at the part where we learn that the native human population of North America is about 10% of what it was before Rolfe, due to that ol’ friend, disease.  Stirling is quick to point out, however, that Rolfe was not any sort of epidemiologist, and had no intention of killing anybody through germ warfare.

Note to self: Upon discovering alternate universes, hire a group of ecologists and epidemiologists.

If you liked other Stirling books, you’ll like this one.  And vice versa.


Books – A Meeting at Corvallis: What would you do?

Books –
A Meeting at Corvallis
S. M. Stirling
ROC, 2004
Third book of a series started with Dies the Fire

I haven’t finished reading this book yet, so it wouldn’t be fair to write any kind of review. But the opening chapters force the reader to come to grips with the concept of crime and punishment in societies that can’t afford prisons, where the human population is about 1/100th of it’s current 6 billion, battling for survival against the elements and each other without the aid of electricity, heat engines, or firearms.

I was put off at one of the main characters, Mike Havel, in the first two books because he hung outlaws. Now, hanging is a pretty gruesome way to kill somebody. But it wasn’t so much as the barbaric method of execution that bothered me, but the fact that Mike Havel, along with being the military and civil leader of the Bearkillers, was also the judge, jury, prosecutor and executioner of the prisoners. Even though the narrative makes it clear that these men deserve no sympathy what so ever, this is not something that my Twenty-first Century American mind can accept as just, no matter how it’s described.

In the third book, A Meeting at Corvallis, a different set of heroes in the story must defend their borders against an incursion of bandits, thieves, rapists and terrorists. This band of brigands is lead by a man of aristocracy and money. The aristocrat has hired the criminals to conduct a stealth incursion into our heroes’ territories.

Now, our heroes defeat the bad guys handily, but now need to decide what to do with the survivors.

Without even thinking about it too much, they decide to hold the aristocrat for ransom and behead the rest.

This is certainly a very practical answer. Our heroes have absolutely no facilities for holding prisoners, and we hold no delusions that the criminals will ever be rehabilitated, and if released, they’d simply find other, less well defended, victims. And our heroes are in dire need of money so that they can buy the weapons and supplies necessary to go about their crime fighting ways.

However – the rich guy, who was the mastermind and prime motivator for the crime, gets to live, and the scum of the earth, who were simply being opportunistic, get the death sentence. Even though this directly mirrors our own justice system, it’s still not right. In fact, the only crimes they actually commit are conspiracy and trespassing. They never get the chance to carry out their nefarious plans. Neither of these are capital crimes in any just system.

On the other hand, if I think about it hard enough, I can’t say that I’d handle the situation any differently. At least I would regret the necessity and have nightmares about it.

What would you do?

Book Review – Dies the Fire

Book Review – Dies the Fire
S. M. Stirling, 2004
First book of a series.

I have a very dear friend I’ll call “Eva” because … well … that’s her name. We’ve known each other since before the snakes left Ireland. In the last year or so, she and her husband have been suggesting that I read a book called Dies the Fire.

It’s a sort of an inverse of the time travel idea, where instead of taking the traveler to the Middle Ages, the Middle Ages are brought to the traveler. This Mohammedian task is accomplished by (select one: A; some deity or B; some space alien [depending on your religion, that’s roughly the same thing, and the book never specifies]) getting so pissed off at the human race, that they (select one: A: cast a spell or B: set off a weapon) that causes every piece of technology invented since the beginning of the Renaissance to stop working. This is accomplished by causing all electrical potential to ground out permanently, and all gun powder and gasoline to burn too slowly to support any kind of explosion. Don’t ask about steam power. It seems a minor flaw in the spell and the story.

I remember seeing the celluloid atrocity, Escape from Los Angeles, the sequel to Escape from New York. In the final scene, Kurt Russell’s character, Snake, sets off a bomb that permanently plunges the entire world into the situation described in the previous paragraph. Snake’s comment at that point was, “Welcome to the Human Race.”

My comment at that point was, “Great! In the guise of saving us from evil technology, you just murdered millions of people instantly, and condemned most of the rest of humanity to a long suffering death by starvation, disease and mayhem.” This is exactly where the book Dies the Fire starts. People are going about their late 20th Century lives, and somebody sets off the Sword of Damocles bomb. From there, the book follows two groups of characters who handle the situation somewhat differently, but come to the same solutions. To wit, it’s time to relearn the sword and bow, folks.

The author doesn’t try to hide his own prejudices, but rather embraces them. Modern humans aren’t really humans because they spend too much time watching television and doing meaningless tasks. But after the Change, the real people emerge.

I can’t help but wonder if I would survive those initial hours and days. The first task is to sus out what’s happened and realizing that it’s global and permanent. If you live in a large city near a major airport, it’s a big clue when the entire world goes dark and silent and airplanes fall out of the sky. But if you’re driving along some rural backroad, what clues would you have? Assuming you could put the clues together, what would you do about it?

Dies the Fire is written almost like a How-To book for just such an scenario. Stirling goes into great detail, and I often get the feeling that he’s showing off his encyclopedic knowledge, and this tends to slow the story down somewhat. For just this reason, I highly recommend this book for anybody who expects to be in this situation.