Working my way through the pile of sci-fi paperbacks my father occasionally hands me after digesting them himself, I’ve finished S.M. Stirling’s Conquistador.
As the first work of fiction I’ve read since reading Booth’s book on the rhetoric of fiction, it served to make me more aware of the genre conventions of alternate-Earth sci-fi than ever, though there are some interesting differences. When I think of alt-Earth, I think of Harry Turtledove’s Guns of the South first; a great book that makes more than one appearance in this one (Andres Rhoodie and his errant band of South Africian mercs make a cameo, and the book is on the reading list of two characters).
Whereas Turtledove escaped the usual characterization problems of scifi by using mostly historical characters – his Lee and Lincoln are biography-worthy in particular –
The book escapes this flaw partially, though, by making the society in this alt-California a problematic one. It’s a neofeudal agrarian paradise with bickering, mob-flavored dynasties, overseen by an aging dictator; in other words, essentially the same politics as your average fantasy novel. The main character debates a bit over which world is best (his 2009 is smoggy and post-Iraq) but is easily distracted by the clean, pollution-free (and mostly Indian-free, victims of smallpox again) landscape, the intrigues trying to kill him, the joys of heavy weaponry and big game hunting, and the kind of incredible, mind-numbing sex that only happens in between paragraphs. You can guess which world he ends up staying in.
Rhetorically, the book feels like an argument for environmental conservatives and a blend of feudalism and libertarian thinking, delivered with a wink, enough melodrama and bloodshed to satisfy all but the most thirsty, and several 55-gallon drums of salt.