by S.M. Stirling
Roc Hardcover: ISBN 0451459083 PubDate Feb 03
Review by Edward Carmien
438 pages List price $23.95
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Stirling’s Draka series hit the scene and made him the author many hated to love. Super-human, slave-owning meanies conquer the world? How dare they! He made up a lot of ground with his first alternate history series, which featured a much nicer bunch of folks. He also hates it when people associate him with his characters, hence his mention of Niven’s law* in his acknowledgements. Along with Carmien’s Corollary**, the law is a good thing to follow when it comes to Stirling’s works.
In Conquistador a WWII veteran with a war-surplus shortwave radio near San Francisco accidentally creates a gate to an alternate Earth that did not develop an industrial culture. North America is full of, well, North Americans (“Injuns,” as they say in the old westerns). The vet, a scion of Virginia colonists, knows exactly what to do with his remarkable discovery. And the rest, as they say, is alternate history.
For sixty-odd years the colony our Conquistador founded thrives. Continued and industrially intensive contact with the outside world, along with politics in The Commonwealth of New Virginia, eventually leads to a few “firstworld” game wardens coming upon the secret of the gate, but not in a way they intend or predict.
This page-turner is rich with description and historical and political gleanings from Stirling’s keen mind. Nit-pickers will invariably find nits—the Commonwealth is unnaturally free of social troubles (if not political ones), and Stirling’s characters, as usual, are cut from military-style stock. Then again, the Commonwealth has a pretty good deal going. They receive the benefits their easy-to-extract resources (gold rush, anyone? This is California, err, “New Virginia” after all) bring from “firstworld” markets but don’t as yet suffer from the many problems that plague our admittedly chaotic and unplanned industrial society. Makes sense.
Stirling keeps the world of the Commonwealth fresh by positing its founder had a penchant for importing African beasts of all sorts and descriptions into his colony. Set free into an otherwise pristine North American ecology, they do what comes naturally. This adds many opportunities for odd surprises throughout the book, and gives Stirling a chance to describe something different than a California empty of “firstworld” industry, pollution, and sprawl.
Is Conquistador a good read? Absolutely. Bleeding heart liberals will cringe at the social structures of New Virginia, but bleeding heart liberals need not apply (and aren’t they extinct now, in any case?) Joking aside, this is not a utopian novel in the traditional sense, where a new land is found, and the inhabitants display some terrific form of government that meets the highest of humanist ideals. The title promises something quite different, and the novel delivers by romancing the reader with the ruthless nature of the Commonwealth, the beauty America used to possess, and a page-turning story.
Worked on me. I’m ready to sign up for my hitch in the Marines and tinker with my short-wave set after I get mustered out. (With my luck I’d end up in the alternate Earth where an oxygen atmosphere was never established.) I recommend Conquistador for readers of military fiction who want something a bit more literary (but still a nice combat scene or three) and for readers of alternate history fiction in general. I also recommend this book for anyone who picked up one of the Draka series and hated it. Stirling is definitely worth another look.
*There is a technical, literary term for those who mistake the opinions and beliefs of characters in a novel for those of the author. The term is “Idiot.”
**Don’t be an idiot.