Conquistador

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).

Stirling’s novel is about an alternate-North America (in particular, California) where Europeans never showed up. An enterprising WWII vet in 1945 discovers a two-way door to this happy hunting ground in his Oakland basement, and builds an precious-minerals empire on his side and a new civilization on the other. That’s the background; a Game and Fish warden stumbles onto his setup during a bust in 2009, which forms the main storyline. It’s a fun little ride.

But Stirling has a different style altogether than Turtledove. GOTS was a more serious book with lit pretensions and telling questions. Stirling mainly has a gift for description – not short description, alas, as half of the 596 pages of this small-print book are devoted to landscape labeling. I can’t say he doesn’t know what California looks like; but I’m not sure the book does more than describe California and provide an entertaining, action-filled plot. It does have a nice structure, though; the story sprawls across time, moving between 1945 to 2009 in thematic rather than chronological order; the main story is in 2009 but frequent flashbacks grant background.

Whereas Turtledove escaped the usual characterization problems of scifi by using mostly historical characters – his Lee and Lincoln are biography-worthy in particular – Stirling creates Californian versions of superheroes. This bugged me. Not two pages in did I realize CA’s current governor would be a shoe-in for the main character. He’s even got a sidekick – who probably would have made a better protagonist, come to think of it. And the love interest – while we’re going through the screenplay slots – is equally disturbing. Adam and Eve romping in Eden got tiring after a bit; it can get boring fast to read about characters that have no real weaknesses or faults.

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.

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