Imperial Stars, Vol. 1: The Stars at War

The Jerry Pournelle series continues with a look at one of his anthologies that characteristically mixed fiction (not always science fiction either) and nonfiction.

The fiction selections were reprints and writers selected from the slush pile.

Unfortunately, this is the only one of his anthologies I have complete notes on.

Raw Feed (1987): Imperial Stars, Vol 1.: The Stars at War, eds. Jerry Pournelle and John F. Carr, 1986.Imperial Stars

Introduction: Empire”, Jerry Pournelle — Pournelle logically expounds on the thesis that empire is the government most natural to man and that its time, no matter what democracies naively think, is not done. He also well shows the advantages of empire and that empires can take many forms including the possibility the U.S. is heading toward empire.

In Clouds of Glory”, Algis Budrys — Good story but would liked more exploration of how Agency would open way for an Earth empire. Extensive surgery and conditioning of main character was reminiscent (or, rather, predates) Joe Haldeman’s All My Sins Remembered. Would have liked more on future Earth history and how global government founded. Technically, story is interesting in that all military action occurs off-stage and story is a “thought-piece” on historical and political matters. Not as good as other Budrys I’ve read.

The Star Plunderer”, Poul Anderson — First read this story in Brian Aldiss’ excellent anthology Galactic Empires. I only remembered the bit with a slave revolt, but I liked this  story the second time as well. Pournelle, in introduction, goes further with rationalizing space barbarians (How, in story, did they get the tech to begin with?) than Anderson does. Anderson has a talent for invoking flavor of epic in language. Manuel Argos, who brings order out of an environment obviously reminiscent of late Republican Rome though he is personality-wise, no Augustus. He is a cold, manipulative, ruthless character who unsentimentally realizes what desperate measures need to be taken. Not a pleasant character but realistic one. Excitement and desperation and the degradation of servitude were all well-depicted. Nice touch in Earth being liberate, and an empire being established, but this is subordinated to the poignancy of narrator losing his love. The only flaw of story was the rather cliched early description of their romance, and Kathryn “instinctively” choosing a figure like Argos. Love is never so simple or instinctive a matter. Continue reading “Imperial Stars, Vol. 1: The Stars at War”

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What If?

The alternate history continues with a collection of essays from various historians and popular writers, a modern sequel of sorts to If It Had Happened Otherwise.

There was a follow up volume I have not read.

Raw Feed (2004): What If?: The World’s Foremost Military Historians Imagine What Might Have Been, ed. Robert Cowley, 2000.what-if

“Introduction”, Robert Cowley — A cursory look at the current state of academic “counterfactual” writing, teasers for the essays in the collection, and a brief discussion of their genesis in the special tenth anniversary edition of MHQ: The Quarterly Journal of Military History.

Infectious Alternatives: The Plague That Saved Jerusalem, 701 B.C.”, William H. McNeill — Not surprisingly McNeill, the historian who really first put forth the idea that disease epidemics affected many events in history, chooses a plague as his turning point. We don’t really know why the Assyrian king Sennacherib abandoned his investment of Jerusalem. We know his army suffered severe losses, and it is probable that it was due to disease. McNeill briefly sketches, in cultural and religious terms, the consequences of the Assyrians taking Jerusalem and, thereby, killing Judaism as a cultural force for good. (It really isn’t that much of a stretch. The splinter kingdom of Israel had abandoned Judaism and disappeared in 722 B.C. Several cities in Judah were taken, and the King of Judea ended up paying tribute to the Assyrians.) McNeill sees the main effect of Jerusalem being taken is that the Jewish faith looses further confidence. The unique universal monotheism of Judaism is weakened. When the Jews are taken off in the Babylonian captivity, they become just another locally centered, ethnically based faith and exert no influence on the following centuries.

A Good Night’s Sleep Can Do Wonders“, Barbara N. Porter — A very brief alternate history that imagines the possible consequences (actually, it spends most of its time recounting the historical record and not imagining alternative outcomes) of the Lydian King Gyges not getting a good night’s sleep and impatiently attacking the Cimmerians before he was ready. The Lydians don’t form an alliance with Assyria and, years later, nascent Greek culture is overwhelmed by the expanding Cimmerians. Continue reading “What If?”

Down in the Bottomlands and Other Places

The alternate history series continues with yet another Turtledove collection.

Yes, I’ve covered two-thirds of the material before.

Raw Feed (2002): Down in the Bottomlands and Other Places, ed. Harry Turtledove, 1999.down-in-the-bottomlands

Down in the Bottomlands“, Harry Turtledove — Apart from Turtledove’s Sim World series and Harry Harrison’s Eden series, there are few alternate histories that use, as their deviation point, an event of natural history rather than recorded human social and political history. This is one of those stories. It postulates that a chain of barrier mountains closes off the Mediterranean Basin from the Atlantic Ocean and that it dries up to form the deep, dry, landlocked Bottomlands, (Death Valley on a big scale). Turtledove does little, by way of alternate history, with the idea. The Krepalgan Unity (roughly the area of modern France, Spain, and Portugal) hatch a scheme, using buried nukes, to geologically breach the mountains between the Atlantic and the Bottomlands thereby flooding it so they gain sea access and Tarteshan, the nation of the hero Radnal vez Krobir, being deprived of the mineral resources of the Bottomlands. The plot reminded me of an Alastair Maclean novel (specifically his Night Without End in plot and Goodbye, California with its scheme to use earthquake inducing nukes) with its murder of a secret agent in the midst of a Bottomlands tour group and Radnal being pressed into service to detect and capture the murderers (the rather obvious suspects of Lofosa and Evillia given their reflexive prowess in unarmed combat) and find the nukes. We get little sense on how humanity’s history has changed in what appears to be a time contemporary to ours apart from that nudity taboos have altered, no Christianity appears present, brides are bought in Tarteshan and tortured in its pragmatic justice system. I don’t know enough about botany and zoology to comment on the animals and plants of the Bottomlands and their relation to our world. It’s an engaging enough story and the Bottomlands are an interesting jumping off point to an alternate history of the supercontinent of Africa, Europe, and Asia, but Turtledove doesn’t do much with it apart from the adventure plot of Radnal foiling the attempt to flood the Bottomlands and being rewarded with a title and the friendship of a noblewoman who is the niece of the tyrant of Tarteshan.

The Wheels of If“, L. Sprague de Camp — This is the second time I’ve read this story. This time I was struck by its similarity to de Camp’s classic Lest Darkness Fall in that both feature intrepid and ingenious protagonist thrust into a strange world and remake it for their own ends. The ultra competent protagonist Park is very much in the competent man tradition of Heinlein and the Golden Age: he learns languages, researches his historical place, fights a war, outwits violent political faction, and leads a double life as a political party organizer and bishop. (Though he doesn’t do much like with technology unlike the protagonist of Lest Darkness Fall.) It’s also interesting to note that, given this early stage in the development of the alternate history sub-genre, de Camp spends the opening four and a half pages on covering the real historical events that the world of his story deviates from: King Oswiu of Northumbria accepts the supremacy of the Roman Catholic Church and the Pope rather than the Celtic Christian Church, and Moslems lose the Battle of Tours. Now days, an alternate history would probably take much less space to cover the hinge events of the fictional timeline or just allude to them in passing. Continue reading “Down in the Bottomlands and Other Places”

Roads Not Taken

In an alternate history, I would actually have a new essay for you — even if about old stuff.

In the world you inhabit, you just get this.

Raw Feed (2000): Roads Not Taken: Tales of Alternate History, eds. Gardner Dozois and Stanley Schmidt, 1998.roads-not-taken

What Is Alternate History”, Shelly Shapiro — Shapiro, an editor at Del Rey books (publishers on this anthology and several alternate history books) writes an informative, if short, introduction to the subgenre. I’d heard that the first alternate history dates to a French speculation, in 1836, about Napoleon. However, I had not heard of the first English-language alternate history, 1895’s Aristopia by Castello Holford nor had I heard of Nat Schachner’s “Ancestral Voices”, a pulp sf alternate history from Dec. 1933’s Astounding. It predates Murray Leinster’s “Sidewise in Time”. Both stories are predated by the scholarly alternate history anthology, If It Had Happened Otherwise ed. by John Squire.

Must and Shall”, Harry Turtledove — Turtledove uses devices characteristic of many of his short alternate histories to present an uncharacteristic alternate Civil War tale. The turning point here, presented in the opening page, is that Abraham Lincoln is killed on July 12, 1864 at the battle of Fort Stevens outside of Washington, D.C., a battle he really did attend in our timeline. He is succeeded by vice-president Hannibal Hamlin, a man far more vengeful towards the South than Andrew Johnson, who became Lincoln’s vice-president after the 1864 election. The main story takes place in the New Orleans of 1942. Two FBS agents investigate a seditious conspiracy amongst Southern whites, a conspiracy armed by Nazi agents. We see the vicious repression of the defeated whites, repression partially supported by the descendants of freed blacks. The counter-espionage story is typical of Turtledove’s short alternate histories. An FBS agent does consider the notion that the South should not have been so harshly punished, that a new armed rebellion is perhaps inevitable, but is determined to quell domestic dissent in order to “get on with the business of getting rid of tyrants around the world”, a comment he makes “without irony”. As a final dark commentary on this world, Turtledove presents a surprising definition of the acronym FBS. I thought it stood for something like Federal Bureau of Security, but, no, we find out, at story’s end, it stands for Federal Bureau of Suppression.

An Outpost of the Empire”, Robert Silverberg — This is part of Silverberg’s Roma Eterna alternate history series. It is based on the notion that the Exodus of the Israelites failed at the Red Sea. This is certainly not evident in this story. All I could tell was that the history of the eastern and western branches of the Roman Empire was certainly very different from our timeline and that there is no mention of Christianity. The revived Empire has spread to the New World. The story is a poignant, realistic look at human nature. A proud, young widow of Byzantium initially despises the new proconsul. Technically, the old Byzantium Empire has been reunited with Rome. De facto, she’s right in that her Venatia (Venice) has been conquered by Rome. Haughtily, she fends off the advances of the proconsul, sure he’s uncultured, ignorant, a brute. She finds he is intelligent, intimidatingly well-traveled and educated. She is so proud of having visited Constantinople when young – for him, it was just a stopover on a diplomatic mission to China. She is sure he will be arrogant, a dominant lout in bed, that he despises Greeks. He is kind, skilled in lovemaking, and, in sort of a version of “the white man’s burden”, thinks highly of the Greek arts but finds them incapable of governing themselves. It is the Romans’ burden to shoulder the boring duties of governance and administration for which they are highly suited. On his way up the cursus honorum, the proconsul must leave the widow who now realizes that Rome is the future, Byzantium pride unfounded, and that she must bow to the new rulers of the world. Silverberg well captures the attraction and hate we can simultaneously feel towards those with gifts we admire. Continue reading “Roads Not Taken”

American Empire: The Center Cannot Hold

The Harry Turtledove alternate history series continues while I work on new stuff.

Raw Feed (2003): American Empire: The Center Cannot Hold, Harry Turtledove, 2002.center-cannot-hold

This book exhibits the usual strengths and weaknesses of what has been termed Turtledove’s “worm’s eye view” of history. Through sheer volume, he fully develops several of his characters and creates a sense of realism about his alternate world.

What this technique often lacks is high drama. We never get long descriptions of important events. For instance, Sam Carsten is present when the war between Japan and the United States break out. But, just as it gets interesting, we cut away and see Colonel Morrell discussing the naval battle with his wife.

Some of the stories seem to continue on the basis of sheer inertia and because they involve characters from earlier books. For instance, not much is revealed about the world by continuing to follow Lucien Galtier in the Republic of Quebec, not even after his wife dies. The same holds mostly true for continuing to follow Nellie Jacobs, her husband, and children — though Turtledove does an effective scene where some Confederate officers visiting Washington DC calmly declare their attention to avenge themselves on the USA. He also has a rather gratuitous scene where Hal Jacobs and his son-in-law fail to make the connection between tobacco and its bad effects. (I say gratuitous because I’ve heard Turtledove say that several people have actually complained about the prevalent use of tobacco in his stories.)

In fact, there are several bits where Turtledove can’t resist winking at his audience and breaking the mood a bit by alluding to our contemporary world: a character thinking climate is just too complex to say that the massive artillery barrages have changed the climate, calling Jake Featherston’s radio network the “wireless web” (perhaps a way of reminding us that the Internet is not the first communication media to change lives drastically), complaints about Congress trying to ban a solvent as dangerous, and, of course, many references to rampant speculation which is entirely consistent with including a version of the Great Depression and preceding stock market crash.

A curious lapse — I suspect an editor’s influence — is that the romantic relationship between Anne Colleton and Clarence Potter is not depicted. The first we hear of it, it’s already over.

As with his Basil Agroyos stories, you can complain that Turtledove too often insists on repeating history. Would a stock market crash really have happened around 1929 if Socialist policies would have been in effect in the USA? Calvin Coolidge conveniently drops dead after being elected, and Herbert Hoover is inaugurated as President Blackford’s successor. (Part of me suspects Blackford comes from Dakota because Turtledove suspects no one knows the history of their senators. He also gets Dakota’s weather a bit wrong in claiming its humid in the summer.) On the other hand, Turtledove is less guilty of that in this book than others. The war in the thirties between Japan and the USA has no analog in our history. He also has no Dust Bowl. It is also interesting to see the USA contemplate war not only with the Confederate States of America but also Kaiser Germany and Japan. (Japan came be a much greater power in this world because, since there was no Spanish-American War, and the US never developed a Pacific empire.) There is also no Panama Canal. Russia has not gone communist, and France and England and the CSA have thriving fascist parties. And, of course, the all too plausible Mormon unrest in Utah continues.

This is a grim book. Jake Featherston long ago ceased to be a sympathetic character, but his rise to power is completed by novel’s end when he is inaugurated CSA president. Anne Colleton, already arrogant and unlikeable, sells her soul to the Freedom Party. Other characters loose our sympathy. Hipolito Rodriguez becomes a Freedom Party thug as does Jefferson Pinkard. We genuinely begin to fear for Scipio’s life and that of Clarence Potter. The former because he’s black in the CSA, and the latter because he has publically opposed the Freedom Party and has even gone so far as to contemplate assassinating Featherston.

Turtledove has some fun with some cameo appearances by disguised and barely disguised historical figures. The vitriolically anti-Semite sergeant who accompanies visiting German officer Heinz Guderian (one of the inventors of the blitzkrieg in our world) on a tour of occupied Canada seems to be Adolf Hitler. Ernest Hemmingway, here rendered impotent by a war wound on the Canadian front, helps Sylvia Enos write her memoirs. Robert Howard seems to be writing for the aviation pulps. Samuel Clemens’ daughter is a reporter, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt is an assistant secretary of war.

The books ends with fascism looming almost everywhere in the midst of a worldwide depression. (Turtledove effectively communicates the desperation of those trying to survive the Depression.) And the hints — and Turtledove’s authorial proclivities — point to Featherston initiating genocide against the CSA’s blacks.

 

More reviews of fantastic fiction are indexed by title and author/editor.

American Empire: Blood and Iron

I continue looking at Harry Turtledove’s long Great War series.

Raw Feed (2002): American Empire: Blood and Iron, Harry Turtledove, 2001.blood-and-iron

This novel exhibits the sometimes, by their repetition, annoying stylistic tics of Turtledove, especially when it comes to characterization. Tongues are frequently stuck out to express mock disdain, and there is too much intrafamily mock banter of a teasing sort — at least in the happy families.

The McGregor family, miserable over the execution of their son, Alexander, by American authorities is decidedly not given to banter. Arthur McGregor’s bitter quest for vengeance on war hero General George Armstrong Custer, is blackly comic given its repeated failures. Custer escapes his bombs by, once, breaking the plate of his denture and unexpectedly leaving a restaurant before McGregor’s timed charged goes off. Another time Custer, in his infuriating way of being right sometimes when no one else is (his aide, Abner Dowling finds this trait very annoying), suspects McGregor when intelligence experts do not and prepares for a confrontation with McGregor when travelling to the latter’s hometown on a farewell tour before his forced retirement. His preparation pays off and kills McGregor when his own bomb is literally thrown back at him.

The other character who dies off here is the unlikeable, but competent, Roger Kimball. After becoming a leading light in Jake Featherston’s Nazi-like Freedom Party, it is revealed that he is guilty of war crimes in deliberately, as a sub commander, sinking a US ship after an armistice was declared. Sylvia Enos, widow of one of the men on that ship, shoots him — after the unlikeable Anne Colleton, lover of Kimball, works him over after he tries to rape her. Continue reading “American Empire: Blood and Iron”

The Great War: Walk in Hell

I continue with reviews of Harry Turtledove’s Great War series.

And, as I’ve mentioned before, you can find plenty of information on Turtledove’s works at Steven H. Silver’s Harry Turtledove website.

Raw Feed (1999): The Great War: Walk in Hell, Harry Turtledove, 1999.walk-in-hell

In this alternate history series and Turtledove’s Worldwar series, Turtledove’s narrative technique of giving a worm’s-eye view of events has certain advantages and disadvantages. On the plus side, constantly viewing events in these alternate history series from the viewpoint of several characters not only is a copy of the large cast, multiple viewpoint, fast paced style of some bestsellers, but it also means each scene advances plot and, usually, characterization (especially since both series are heavily preoccupied with the changing racial attitudes of their characters). The negative aspect is that we never get epic, omniscient, godlike perspectives of the kind seen in so many disaster novels or in an alternate history like, say, Ward Moore’s Bring the Jubilee (my favorite alternate history). Battles for cities and countries are cramped into the limited perspective of this technique; important, epic events are covered in a sentence frequently. For instance, we only find about out about the war between Argentina and Chile in a few sentences. In a previous novel of the series, we got a cramped perspective on the taking of Washington, DC (courtesy of Nellie Semproch). It would be nice, at times, to get the big, epic picture (the closest we come is US General Staff discussions).

This is a middle book in the series and little is resolved. Even the Red Rebellion in the South that began at the end of the previous book isn’t concluded here. Cassius, at novel’s end, is still conducting a last ditch guerilla campaign in the swamps for his Congaree Socialist Republic. The only character from the first novel that dies is Paul Mantarakis. I suspect Turtledove killed him off (after his viewpoint showed us the interesting suppression of the Mormon rebellion – Mormon uprisings being a believable and interesting part of this series) just to prove his characters are always in danger. Oddly enough, he switches to Gordon McSweeney (a fellow platoon member of Mantarakis) as a viewpoint character. McSeeney is a humorless, self-righteous, and rather frightening religious fanatic of the Presbyterian persuasion. (Presbyterians are usually not thought of as radical, and this may be Turtledove’s first use of a stock sf character – the religious fanatic. He usually treats religion matter-of-factly if not sympathetically.) Continue reading “The Great War: Walk in Hell”