S.M. Stirling


Fantasy / Science Fiction


Date Reviewed:

March 31, 2005

he book has a great idea. Suppose you found a portal to an alternate pristine universe, a world just like ours, but without the technology of our 21st century. What would you do with it? Or, as the book jacket asks: If you could recreate civilization, what would you do differently? What mistakes would you repeat? Sadly, Stirling's answer to the second question seems to be: every single mistake would be repeated! Is his view of humanity so low? Have we learned nothing? It is a discouraging read.

Stirling tries to deflect the arguments he knows are coming by adding this to the acknowledgements:

And a special acknowledgement to the author of Niven's Law:

"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'"

The word Conquistador isn't used (that I recall) any where in the novel, except in the title. Does the title signal to the reader that the "heroes" are ruthless jerks, spoiling a new world without a second thought? Why would Stirling write this novel and then paste that insulting acknowledgement at the start of the book? Stirling could have written any story he wanted, but he chose this flawed story, and it is clear that he does believe that at least some of the new civilization is an improvement over our present system. I say this because Stirling obviously loves his hero and heroine. Tom the hero is a Fish and Game Warden, he is tall, incredibly strong (able to break the spine of a Native American with his bare hands), smart, physically beautiful, able to fly planes, speak some Russian, and attract members of the opposite sex. Adrienne the heroine is tall, strong, physically beautiful, wealthy, smart, an expert with weapons, and she is willing to have sex with wonderful Tom. Yes, they are flawless and Stirling clearly loves them. Yet they also seem not to give a bit of thought to the incredible ongoing genocide that is occuring even during the story timeline - oh well, they shrug their shoulders, nothing we can do about it except continue to appropriate the land of the now deceased original inhabitants.

The tremendous death toll is caused by smallpox. The First Siders (as Stirling calls the folks from our universe) have sailed a ship to the Middle East / Mediterreanean region of the alternate universe. They have brought back small pox and a host of diseases that kill most of the native population. But why don't the First Siders also fall prey to small pox? It's not like First Siders are immune to small pox, small pox does not exist in our universe either. You can't even get a vaccine for it. Thus, the First Siders should be dying left and right also - and when they smuggle furs and leathers back into our universe, they should ignite a small pox plague here too.

The novel starts off with a bang (or two!) There are explosions and the mystery of a condor found that is unrelated to any of the known condors in California. Tom (the hero) and his trusty sidekick are trying to solve this mystery, and the story rips along. But once Tom gets through the gate (9 feet high x 27 feet long - how they sneak a C-130 plane through such a small gate? How do they get so many C-130 planes to a warehouse in Oakland?? How do they get an ocean going vessel through that gate?) the whole novel falls apart. About 100 pages are spent strolling around the "ideal" civilization - sort of a "1950's that never was", right down to girls in bobbysocks sipping sodas through straws in the malt shop. Why this leisurely tour, harvesting grain and going to dances, when they know the bad guys are plotting a big conspiracy? The bad guys are led by ex-Nazis (how original!) - but why would a World War 2 veteran invite Nazis into the alternate universe he had discovered, and why would he make these brutes one of the 30 families??) Things moved so slowly that I thought I had fallen into a trilogy, certainly all the plot threads couldn't be resolved in the few remaining pages.

The ending is especially absurd. The small band of heroes goes Rambo and kills hundreds of bad guys. (They trick the bad guys into shooting at each other by yelling over the radio).

Stirling simply avoids the interesting question of: did Jesus and Mohammed also appear in the alternate universe, and did they leave the same message? (The alternate universe paralleled our universe up to the life of Alexander the Great - in the alternate universe, Alexander the Great lives to old age, conquers the known world from Spain to India, and thus history is changed. Stirling mentions that the lost plays of Sophocoles still exist in this universe, but who cares about that? Wouldn't it be vastly more interesting to read the gospel or Koran of the alternate universe? Stirling ignores this whole subject.

There are many other flaws in the plot (how can the bad guys have an entire air force of C-130 planes - where do they get parts, fuel, mechanics, etc.) I guess I was especially displeased with how foolishly Stirling's heroes abuse the new world, and thus I couldn't cheer for them at all. C'mon, Norplant for all the natives who come to work on the First Sider plantations? The ethics of the "good guys" left me unconcerned about whether the Nazis succeeded. And the last line of the book only left me sad.