FIRST PILLAGE, THEN RAPE, THEN BURN:
S.M. Stirling shows us terror... in a handful of alternate histories

[final draft, probably, unless someone emails me with a whole bunch of typoes and factual errors I made]

A little webcrawling yesterday turned up an email address for long time personal favorite author S.M. Stirling. I sent out an 'is this address still working and if it is, does it really belong to you' note, and got back a quick confirmation that yes, indeed, the address belonged to 'quasi-famous author' S.M. Stirling.

(‘Quasi-famous’ being his words, not mine. Me, if I’d written a handful of best sellers like the Islander novels, and especially if I’d written such brilliant alternate history science fiction as the Draka novels, well, I’d be happy as a clam, and I wouldn’t be throwing around self-pitying phrases like ‘quasi-famous’… I mean, so you only have maybe a hundred thousand fans instead of a hundred million. Gee. That’s terrible.)

Despite the fact that Stirling was boorish enough to ignore all my broad hints, and still refuse to encourage me to inundate him with a million and a half words of drooling drivel about nearly his entire body of SF, from the obscure and little known Fifth Millenium series up through the more recent The Peshawar Lancers, which all of you should also be snatching up and reading right this second, and inclusive of the intrinsically flawed but still vital and brilliant Draka novels, and The General, a series he did over some plots by David Drake, and his Islander trilogy, I'm going to write about all that stuff anyway , just to spite him.

However, probably the only mention I'll make of Stirling's couple of Terminator novels will come right here, since, while they're well written, they're still Terminator novels, based in the truly stupid revised continuity established by the truly stupid Terminator 2 film, which I personally believe to be one of the most egregious violations of trust between an audience and a work of fiction since Spock was resurrected.

Having said all that, let's get to the goodies...

I’ll take the Fifth (Millenium, that is)

According to the introduction to Baen's revised, mid 1990s edition of Stirling's Snowbrother, Stirling had created his own sword & non-sorcery, barbarian adventure type setting for fantasy/SF novels, and had set one book, Snowbrother, there already, when he met Shirley Meier and Karen Wehrstein in college. Meier and Wehrstein had each created their own separate fantasy settings, with their own separate main characters, and it occurred to one of them, or all of them at once, that these separate settings could be combined into one elaborately detailed future world, where all their various protagonists could meet and interact, just like, you know, Spider-Man and Captain America and the Fantastic Four, back in the Silver Age Marvel Comics universe.

From that rather fannish idea was born the Fifth Millenium series, one of the most elaborately detailed, consistently intruiging, atmospheric and entertaining fantasy settings since M.A.R. Barker's Tekumel.

In terms of the themes Stirling would continue to explore over the course of his career to date, it's most interesting to note his apparent early infatuation with the essential concept of sadistic evil. While the Kommanz barbarians of North America, of which Stirling's protagonist (she's certainly not a heroine) Sh'kaira is a renegade member, are pretty much anarchistic pikers compared to the Draka, Stirling's later, more successful attempt at embodying sheer literary evil in one primal distillation, it's very much worth pointing out that in Snowbrother, Stirling's first novel, he spends the entire book setting up a basic, fairly standard dichotomy between good and evil... and then, in the end, brutalizes his audience's perceptions, expectations, and emotions, by having the unambiguously wicked villain, the rapist/reaver Sh'kaira, triumph over the gentler, much more acceptably heroic victim, Maihu the Mintzan.

Since the Mintzan folk are cheerful, pleasant, highly civilized forest dwellers who attempt to live in peace with everyone and who only fight in self defense (making them classic examples of socially positive characters), the typical reader simply assumes that Maihu is the heroine of the piece and therefore assured of an inevitable victory. Especially when one contrasted Maihu, and her folk, with the vileness embodied by Sh’kaira, and her people the Kommanz, a tribe of more or less sociopathic landlocked Fifth Millenium bikers on horses who take the Nietzchean concept of the strong ruling the weak to such seemingly contra-survival extremes as culturally encouraging adult Kommanz to rape Kommanz children, when the whim takes them… something that pretty much guarantees all adult Kommanz will continue to be sociopaths, unable to love or trust to the slightest degree, effectively ruined for life for any kind of social interaction more complex than master/slave.

Having Sh’kaira emerge from the book’s climax as the victor, leaving Maihu and her people behind as slaughtered victims of the apparently superior Kommanz culture, was kind of stunning.

Not good stunning, either.

Stirling's first version of Snowbrother, which someone gave me a copy of back in the early 1990s, is almost gloating as it sets us up for this really wrenching twist of an ending. All along, Stirling has no compunction about rubbing our faces in Sh'kaira's truly disturbing and disgustingly cruel immorality. Sh'kaira, like the rest of her people, steals and plunders, slaughters and tortures, and pretty much rapes anything she can hold down long enough, whenever she feels like it... not just the adult 'heroine' of the novel, but Maihu’s 12 or 13 year old son, as well.

Self declared feminist analysts out there may, if they wish, wax rapturous on the delights of seeing the usual male/female rape-dominance psychosexual dynamic so intriguingly skewed; I'll simply note that Sh'kaira was, in this book, one of the more convincingly vicious villain figures I've read, and the constraints of moral fiction absolutely demanded she come to a grisly end at the conclusion of the novel. That Stirling not only refused to let Sh'kaira get her just desserts, but so obviously reveled in shocking his audience with his calculated moral reversal, was... well, obviously, it was shocking. I also found it very troubling.

Due to the eventual intervention of Meier and Wehrstein's own individual creative visions, and specifically the influence of Meier's Megan character on Sh'kaira, the big nasty barbarian bitch does, over time, redeem herself and become somewhat more heroic and acceptable by most basic social standards. However, it's interesting to note that the differences between the two versions of Snowbrother lie primarily in two areas... first, Stirling has inserted many more topical references to the rest of the expanded universe Sh'kaira inhabits, to foreshadow her future encounters with elements contributed by his collaborators. Second, however, the later version of the book tones down Sh'kaira's viciousness rather significantly, going to some pains to show Sh'kaira as being comparatively 'nicer', for a vicious rapist reaver, than, say, the completely vile tribal shaman who does die at the end of the story.

It seems safe to conclude, however, that had Meier and Wehrstein not come along, Snowbrother would have remained an obscure, little read fantasy novel in which one of the nastiest and most gruesomely, cruelly wicked and viciously violent antagonist characters ever put on paper was, in the end, victorious over the equally clearly drawn representatives of good, socially acceptable behavior.

Worse, Sh'kaira's victory is one of sheer, simple strength and athleticism over superior wit and guile... in other words, a savagely Ahrimanesque triumph of base matter over exalted mind, a clear win for brutality over spirituality and intellectuality.

Yay. That's just what the world needs now.

In the first version of Snowbrother, it was very much as if Stirling set out to create a story that was completely and consciously anti-moral fiction... one in which the bad guy not only won out over the good guy, but did so in the most ethically reprehensible and utterly nihilistic, anti-humanistic manner possible, as well.

Snowbrother, like everything Stirling writes (even relatively bad stuff he obviously just did for the paycheck, like his two Terminator novels, or the fairly wretched The Chosen) is stylish, entertaining, and exciting, and the rest of the Fifth Millenium series (Shadow's Daughter, Sabre & Shadow, The Cage, and the now very hard to find conclusion to the series, Shadow's Son , which I read once, long ago, but haven't been able to find since and which no longer seems to be in print; as well as Karen Wehrstein's separate but set in the same world books, Lion's Heart and Lion's Soul) are all very much worth reading and re-reading. Stirling, Meier, and Wehrstein between them create an elaborately detailed, always fascinating, and entirely entertaining world-setting, reeking of atmosphere and intrigue at every twist and turn. And, under Meier and Wehrstein's influence, the Fifth Millenium books do, for the most part, comport themselves as moral fiction; they celebrate positive social values like love and trust and honor, and the bad people... other than Sh'kaira, who does eventually grow some empathy and become a good guy, kind of... all eventually get punished for their bad deeds.

But a thoughtful analyst cannot help but recall Stirling's seemingly gleeful exploration of darkness and depravity in the original Snowbrother, while reading perhaps Stirling’s most powerful contribution to alternate worlds sub-genre, the Draka books:

People who own people

I would love to describe the Draka series as "The Draka Trilogy", because God knows I wish it was so. To my own deviant and petulantly stubborn mind, it is so; the fourth book in the Draka series, Drakon, is just so morally appalling and thoroughly dreadful (despite being written with Stirling's usual 'can't put it down' style) that I myself refuse to personally acknowledge it as part of my personal Draka continuity. (But, in that continuity, eventually the Alliance settlement on Alpha Centauri comes roaring back, beats holy hell out of the evil Draka, kills them all, liberates all their serfs, and resettles Earth as a democratic, freedom loving planetary culture… a sequence Stirling seems far too besotted with the Draka to be able to bring himself to actually write. But we'll get to that.)

However, before we go into detail on the Draka stuff, let me take a moment to address something that some few in my audience may be wondering about:

Why is it necessary to only write 'moral fiction', in which, presumably, wrong fails and right prevails? Why can’t a writer, if he or she so chooses, decide to explore an arguably more ‘realistic’ form of fantasy, in which darkness, violence, immorality, and viciously anti-social violence are shown to be triumphant over gentility, empathy, and those who behave in a more socially enlightened manner? Why should that be so thoroughly objectionable, to the point where I simply insist that Stirling’s Snowbrother, and now, his Draka series, are simply morally unacceptable as works of fiction?

As a long time debater, I'm well aware that the argument 'just BECAUSE' is never particularly persuasive. Yet in this case, it seems to me so self evident that it is a writer's basic social responsibility to write moral fiction, especially if that writer is aware that they have a large audience who will be reading, and therefore, most likely, influenced by, their work, that I'm almost forced to simply default to it.

It's like explaining why we need a space program to one of these emotional infants who wants to run the government like a business, and who insists that every single thing that gets public funding show a sizable profit. How do you explain to someone with an abacus for a soul, that mankind's first, best destiny is to be an explorer, and space is the frontier we have left?

Similarly, it seems to me you either get the basic social contract, or you don't. If you do, then you won't need to have it explained to you that a writer... a published author... is someone who is so intrinsically dependent on the web of laws, of intricate social mechanisms governing acceptable and unacceptable behavior, on the various economic and moral and ethical covenants that all people of good will, or who possess even the most vestigial level of enlightened self interest, everywhere, subscribe to, on some basic level, that it utterly behooves them... it is simply such an author's duty, as well as their responsibility, to the society as a whole that supports them... to not undermine that society and its covenants by creating strongly influential pop culture artifacts specifically intended for profitable mass consumption that will corrupt and corrode the very foundations of that society.

Honestly, it just seems like I shouldn't have to explain all that. But, there are doubtless some out there who have never grasped the social contract, and for all I know, one or two of them are reading this now. So, the Cliff Note's Version:

If you can survive on your own, without any help from anyone else at all, without any contribution whatsoever from the efforts or abilities of anyone else, and you choose to do so then, fine. You do not need to subscribe or adhere to any social contract. You may, if you wish to, immediately travel beyond the perimeter of any and every society of mankind and there, in the anarchistic wilderness, make your own laws, beholden to no other man, engaging in your own personal Manichaean struggle with very forces of chaos themselves. And hurray for you.

If, on the other hand, you cannot create your own shelter, clothing, food and potable water from raw materials, would like to be able to go to sleep while feeling relatively secure that you won't be killed and eaten by some predator as soon as you do so, and are not entirely confident in your ability to protect yourself while awake in your newly chosen, utterly savage and lawless environment from whatever threats there may be to your safety and well being... if you'd like to enjoy something created by the labor and efforts of another person, if you think at some point you may need to make use of the hard won skills and abilities of another person (like a health care professional, say), well, then, guess what... you're part of society. Yea, my brother, verily, my sister, I say unto thee, you need society, or even if you don't, you choose to benefit from associating with society, and however much you may dislike the notion, you owe society something back.

That’s why we call it the ‘social contract’. It isn’t necessarily anything as structured (or profoundly unrealistic) as ‘from each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs’, but still, a social contract does basically depend on civilized people of mutual good will all agreeing that they won’t stalk each other through the streets, beat each other over the head, steal each other’s chattels, rape each other’s unconscious bodies, and then either enslave each other, or just pop each other into the stewpot for dinner.

Now, I'm not a social extremist. I've never much liked the whole 'if you're not part of the solution you're part of the problem' idea, because it offends my fundamental desire to be lazy and utterly self centered. I personally think that it's perfectly feasible to not be part of either the problem or the solution; to, in fact, be socially inert. But I do think that, since I do not kid myself that I could survive for so much as seven successive picoseconds without the social matrix that surrounds and supports me (my eyesight, without corrective lenses, is very nearly non-functional; I'm vastly overweight, I have bad teeth, my only useful skill is typing, which has no value in a non-technological, subsistence level society, and frankly, I'm the sort of naturally obnoxious, dislikable person who would be the first one the cannibal tribes chucked into the bouillabaisse about four hours after the fall of civilization), I do owe that basic social matrix, at the very least, the consideration that I will not do stuff to actively attempt to subvert or undermine it. And, as a wannabe professional writer myself, that very much includes, not creating works of fiction in which my protagonists perform viciously anti-social deeds and seem to prosper therein.

People read that stuff, and they think to themselves "gee, you know, if Hannibal Lecter can escape from prison, triumph over all his enemies, and in the end kidnap and brainwash the delectable Starling into being his slut puppy, well, my God... why not be a sociopath and run around killing, eating, torturing, and raping people? I mean, shit, sounds like fun to me!"

Which brings us neatly back around to S.M. Stirling's brilliant, but fundamentally flawed, Draka novels.

The Draka conceit is a very well conceived one, an alternate history that turns on the smallest and yet most plausible of historical variations. Towards the end of the Revolutionary War, the British take over control of the southern tip of Africa from the Dutch, and use the inglorious colony thereon as a dumping ground and refuge for the Hessian mercenaries and former Tory colonists of North America who find themselves unwelcome in the newly independent United States. A hundred years or so later, the 'Drakeland' colony (named after Sir Francis Drake) gets a fresh influx of Yankee-hating refugees, when the bitter diehards from the losing, Southern side of the Civil War emigrate there, as well. (Bear in mind, there’s nothing wildly unlikely about any of this; the Brits did own the Cape territory for a while, and they also did ally themselves with the Confederacy during the Civil War; not for moral reasons… Britain was one of the first of the civilized nations to outlaw slavery… but for economic ones… Britain wanted cheap textiles from the South.)

'Drakia' is a harsh land, one where the former European/North American settlers are perpetually outnumbered and surrounded on every side by murderously hostile African natives. This gives rise to a violently xenophobic, insular, and extremely martial society, which in order to survive must dominate the less technologically advanced savages around them, slaughtering the utterly intransigent by the thousands and domesticating the more pliable ‘bushmen’ as much needed slave labor.

Stirling points out that this sets up an unstable social dynamic, whereby the 'Draka' are always in the minority, constantly surrounded by a barely domesticated slave race that could, at any time, rebel against their vastly outnumbered masters and slaughter them all to the last man, woman and child. In order to prevent this, the Draka create and come to believe in, as a culture and as a society, their very own uberman mythos, a self fulfilling prophecy they set about bringing into being by sending their children off to military boarding schools from near infancy onward, transforming their future generations into training hardened, athletic and intellectually overachieving near superhumans.

More important even than the hardening of their children's bodies through lifelong martial training, however, is the hardening of the will that comes from the lifelong steeping of the nascent Draka in their poisonous and toxically anti-humanistic 'Will To Dominate' mythos. For the Draka to continue to survive in their unstable and untenable position, they must firmly believe that they are an elite race, born and destined to rule all non-Draka the way humans rule the beasts of the field, and more importantly, they must continually impress this mythos on their slaves, which always by necessity outnumber the Draka, as well. If ever the Draka ‘serf’ class rises up in universal rebellion, the Draka will all die, and they know it. Therefore, they have to make this Uberman mythos real, both to themselves and to those they have conquered. It’s not simply a matter of convenience, it’s literally life and death for all Draka everywhere.

Over generations, the Draka truly come to believe that they are superhumans; literally higher on the food chain than non-Draka. To the Draka, all non-Draka are serfs, either already domesticated and useful, and therefore entitled to the beneficent protection and dominance of the Draka ruling class, or feral and savage and dangerous, still not yet brought 'Under the Yoke'... something that they inevitably will and must be, for the Draka to survive as a people, a culture, and a race.

The Draka culture is probably the best and most utterly hateful embodiment of sheer sadistic evil I have ever seen in a fictional milieu, and Stirling brings them to life in chilling four dimensionality, making them seem to live, breathe, strut, swagger and sneer across the pages of his first three Draka novels, Marching Through Georgia, Under The Yoke, and The Stone Dogs. And beyond simply being one of the most utterly fascinating literary studies of pure twisted loathsomeness ever done, these novels are wonderfully entertaining adventure fiction, as well. Stirling weaves an epic, multigenerational tale of a monstrous and yet still palpably human Draka family, the von Shrakenbergs, following Erik von Shrakenberg from his early adulthood as a minor officer during World War II, helping the Draka defeat the Nazis and secure all of Europe for their global 'Domination of the Draka', up through Erik's eventual ascension to the title of Archon, the Draka's highest elective office and leader of their government. Along the way we see other von Shrakenbergs have their own adventures, including, in probably the most fascinating twist, two agents of the Alliance for Democracy, the American led social, moral, and political opposition to the Draka, who, although they aren't really more than peripherally aware of the connection, are actually von Shrakenbergs themselves, due to their mother being repeatedly raped in Draka occupied France just after WWII, before she was smuggled out at the end of Under The Yoke.

That Stirling is fascinated with his viciously sociopathic creations is obvious throughout the series, and not necessarily a flaw for the bulk of it. Where another writer would have been content to let the Draka be flatly black, cardboard, undifferentiated Klingon or Orc stereotypes, investing detail and dimensionality only in their heroic counterparts, Stirling focuses much of his narrative on Draka characters, often making them his protagonists, if not necessarily his heroes. This gives the Draka a truly fascinating credibility, and makes their world a very vivid and believable one... and makes the reader long, through the several thousand pages of Stirling's stirring narrative, to finally see the Draka crushed into smoking, flaming goo once and for all, in the final conclusion of the epic.

Unfortunately, Stirling proves to be more than merely fascinated with the Draka, he's enraptured, bewitched, and ensorcelled by them, and somewhere around the middle of The Stone Dogs, he abandons any pretensions he might have had towards writing a moral conclusion to this series and simply (completely unacceptably) lets the Draka win in the Final (nuclear) War between them and the Alliance, chasing the last remnants of democratic, egalitarian human self-government off the near-ruined Earth, setting the stage for the horrors of an utterly Draka dominated globe for the next thousand years…. which he then takes ghoulish delight in detailing at great and enormous length for the first several thousand words of the truly reprehensible Drakon.

As a climax to one of science fiction's better story arcs, the Draka’s triumph over the Alliance for Democracy is a moral and ethical grotesquerie, and while The Stone Dogs is a beautifully written piece of fiction, and one of the finer pieces of speculative science fiction I've ever read, the disfiguring blotch of this completely intolerable resolution makes it impossible for me to fully reread the entire final volume with any real pleasure. In fact, it's probably the reason Under The Yoke remains my favorite Draka novel, since this is the only one where the Draka arguably lose in the end... and even then, they don't lose much, and the final resolution of The Stone Dogs makes even that minor victory on the part of the Alliance utterly moot.

In a late breaking newsflash, Mr. Stirling tells me, in response to me sending a first draft of this thing to him, that he wrote Snowbrother in law school.

Now, it shouldn't surprise me that the evil Kommanz and thoroughly reprehensible Draka were inspired by close association with aspiring lawyers. In fact, that makes perfect sense.

But Steve, you still shouldn't have let the creepy bastards WIN.

General principles:

According to the notes from the inside front page of The Hammer, Book II of THE GENERAL, David Drake plotted this series based on the historical career of the ancient Roman Byzantine general Belisarius. Which is interesting because... well, okay, this isn't interesting to anyone but me, but Belisarius was also used as an important character in Chelsea Quinn Yarbro's A Flame In Byzantium.

See? That wasn't interesting to anyone but me. But I like these little cross connections, and I’m writing this.

Anyway, in Drake’s own words: “I researched the life of the great Byzantine general Belisarius, then wrote approximately 20,000 words of background and plot set on a human-settled planet which had sunk to roughly the technological level of 19th Century America. I outlined in meticulous detail the battles by which my hero reunited his world.” Or, in other words, Drake loosely took the historical story of Belisarius’ campaigns and personal life and based "The General" on it, updating the technology to the mid 19th Century or so... cannons, rifles, pistols, Gatling guns, revolvers... and setting his new story on a distant planet, Bellevue, where the starfaring culture from Earth that had originally colonized the world had fallen somewhat into decay.

The primary difference between Earth and this distant planet seems to be that horses hadn't done well way out there, so people rode around on giant dogs, instead, and they actually painted this on several of the covers, and it looked pretty stupid, too.

As a side note: I've never understood the 'let's do a fantasy story and have our guys ride around on anything except horses'. In my opinion, it's just a bad idea. Yes, there are alien worlds and yes, man only relatively recently in historical terms here on Earth began riding on horses, and yes, different cultures have ridden different types of beasts of burden. I don’t care. It's still a bad idea to do pre-modern fantasy melodrama and mount your troops on anything but horses. The horseman is one of those images that has become deeply rooted in our cultural matrix and it's an image that carries an enormous amount of emotional tonnage for any modern reader, and when you make a point of putting your heroes on anything else... I don't care what it is, camels or ton ton or huge eighteen legged Martian dinosaurs with feathers or giant dogs... it's just stupid. The points you get towards 'alien world/different culture' atmosphere and credibility simply don't make up for the ‘boy does this look stupid’ factor. If humans can survive on an alien world, so can horses. People like horses, they'd take them along. Let your damn heroes ride horses. End of lecture.

There were a few other differences between Earth and Bellevue (again, the name of the world in these books), like there were monstrous sentient sea creatures that made shipping problematic and tended to keep humans from swimming in the ocean. That wasn't a major plot point, but it was mentioned from time to time. Other than that, the world was kind of barren, but basically Earth-like.

S.M. Stirling was apparently hired to write the actual text of the series over Drake's plots, and I assume Drake's plots weren’t overly detailed, since Drake himself indicates that he emphasized detailing the battles, not the story, and because the story itself is classic Stirling. (That's a good thing, for the most part.) Basically, we follow a young officer named Raj Whitehall who, with the help of a still surviving sentient computer from the early days of the colony which is trying to rebuild an advanced technological civilization (and therefore needs a strong centralized government ruling as much of the human settled terrain as possible), pretty much ends up conquering most of the world and supplanting his current ruler as a sort of military-emperor.

Perhaps because he's working over someone else's plot, Stirling's usual predilection for and fascination with Evil, Pure and Simple is pretty much entirely absent from "The General". On the other hand, Stirling seems fascinated with 19th century style warfare (judging from this series, as well as the later Nantucket trilogy, and his latest alternate history novel, The Peshawar Lancers) and he does a pretty good job of recreating the military tactics and strategy from that long dead time here.

Drake’s notes indicate that the 19th Century technology was pretty much his idea. Stirling has shown, in both the Fifth Millenium series, and the Draka arc, that he has an in depth working knowledge of obscure and little used historical technologies (obscure and little used in our timeline, anyway) and a general fascination with past ordinance, so it would seem that it was this series that began the fascination with 19th century weaponry, strategy, and tactics that continued through Stirling’s later work, the Islander trilogy, and his current The Peshawar Lancers.

"The General", it's also interesting to note, continues another sub-theme of Stirling's, namely, for having a monogamous, romantically involved gay couple in each of his major works. Exactly why Stirling does this (and why he forwent it in The Peshawar Lancers) isn't clear, but, well, in everything Stirling has written to date, somewhere or another, there's a gay couple... Sh'kaira and Megan in Fifth Millenium, Yolanda and... hmmm... Myfwany, that's her name, in the Draka series… although, to be fair, Yolanda only becomes a character in The Stone Dogs. However, the Draka's cultural tendency to fuck anything they can make hold still long enough, of either gender, is well established in the first two books, as well, and, come to think of it, Tanya von Shrakenberg and her little French maid Solange are another gay couple in Under The Yoke, it's just that Tanya certainly isn't exclusive in her attentions, nor can you really call a relationship between a Draka and a serf a truly romantic one, however much the two of them may care for each other... it's much more a master/pet dynamic than it is anything between one human partner and another.

Later on, in the Nantucket trilogy, Marian Alston and her girlfriend Swindapa are central to the narrative... in fact, gay couples, or at least, romantic homosexual relationships, are simply so damned common a thread throughout Stirling's body of work, that it came as quite a surprise when he didn't have such a couple show up in The Peshawar Lancers, and he skipped over some perfectly good opportunities for lesbian sex scenes in his first Terminator novel, too... which certainly wouldn't have hurt that last at all.

As noted briefly, in both the Islander books, and in Stirling's previous lengthy collaboration with David Drake, The General, there is among each contingent of heroic protagonists a monogamously involved, very happily gay couple. What’s even more interesting about both these depictions of homosexual romance is that both of these couples are rather ostentatiously shown adopting children and acting as exemplary parents, as well as world saving military heroes. This seems like such a shining (and not particularly subtle) exemplar of alternate lifestyles advocacy that one has to wonder exactly who among Stirling's friends are politically active gays, and just exactly what they have photos of Steve doing to get him to do such obvious product placement for them.

However, when one reflects on just how much shit Steve must have taken from the gay community at large, and any gay friends of his he might have in specific, over the fact that he depicted pretty much all the vile and noxious Draka as being at least bisexual (while arguably the most monstrous Draka character created by Stirling, Yolanda Ingolffson, was pretty resolutely lesbian no matter how hard she tried not to be), while contrasting this with the straightforwardly heterosexual heroic figures in the ranks of the Alliance for Democracy... well... you can see why Stirling would suddenly prioritize putting some positive gay couples (adopting kids, yet) front and center in his subsequent fictional constructs.

Personally, I need only fondly recall Alliance infiltration agent Frederick Kustaa in the following passage from Under The Yoke [pg 323, Baen Books, 1989]:

…it still looked unnatural to see men wearing jewelry. A rueful glance down at his own clothes; loose indigo-blue trousers with gold embroidery down the seams, ruffled shit, string tie with broad lapels edged in silver-gilt, buckled shoes. He had drawn the line at the diamond ear-studs the outfitting section back at OSS HQ tried to insist on, but there was no alternative to the floppy-brimmed hat with the side-clasp and spray of peacock feathers; the only really comfortable item was the gunbelt. At least he didn’t have to wear that to breakfast.

I look like the most dangerous goddam pansy in the world, [Kustaa] thought…

to realize that Stirling probably still hasn't dug himself out of that particular hole with his gay pals, and will almost certainly need to keep creating detailed alternate worlds with heroic gay protagonist couples adopting children and raising them brilliantly for quite some time to come before he does.

"The General" series is quite worth reading, and if you really want to, Baen is reissuing it (or has reissued it) in two large trade paperback volumes, each, I believe, with three of the six part series in them. Be warned, however; Baen similarly collected the Draka books into one volume (The Domination) a few years back, and I was disgusted to discover, when I skimmed through that rather large trade paperback, that they'd deliberately left a lot of stuff out... all Stirling's fascinating historical information that he uses as chapter headings and appendixes to each work is gone, and the text itself has been condensed in places. I suppose the essence is still there, but stuff like that annoys the shit out of me (even if Stirling did the condensations himself, it's still aggravating, and if he didn't, it's reprehensible). So I strongly recommend hitting a used bookstore and looking for the original paperback editions if you're going to look either of these series up. I also strongly recommend you do find them and read them, both for the Draka series and, less strongly, "The General". The Draka stuff is, in my opinion, must read material for SF fans, especially those who enjoy well conceived and wonderfully detailed alternate history stories. "The General" stuff is solidly well written military/SF adventure; nothin' wrong there, either... it's just not crucial to the whole SF experience, like the Draka material is.

I also note, with a sigh, that there are two follow ups (at least) to "The General" series, The Chosen and... something else. The Chosen is, honestly, quite awful, the sort of thing I assume Stirling slammed out because he needed bail money or something, or had a contractual obligation to Baen he needed to satisfy before he could do something he really wanted to do. The other one, which I can't remember right now, I vaguely recall being okay, but not great.

And an island never cries

Moving on to the Islander trilogy, Island In The Sea of Time, Against The Tide of Years, and On The Oceans of Eternity...

This is rousing time travel/alternate history/fantasy/adventure fiction of the finest kind. Stirling has written slightly better stuff than this... the Islander arc is, among other things, pretty much an unabashed soap opera that reads in many places like an old Republic serial with a lot of mushy stuff thrown in... but the depth and breadth Stirling brings to all his alternate world building is very much present here, and it transforms what could have been simply a very two dimensional narrative of Modern Good Guys vs. Unprincipled Bronze Age Savages into something far more vital and intriguing.

The enormous volume of detail Stirling invests into his alternate histories is always impressive (and the enormous amount of research it doubtless represents honestly staggers me when I consider it at all) and the Islander books, while they're a strange sort of alternate history, are no exception. Here we, as the readers, are in on what promises to be a fascinating alternative timeline from the very inception... as the entire island of Nantucket in the year 1997 is thrown back three thousand years, into 1350 B.C., instantly either wiping out the history of the modern world as we know it due to the inevitable ripples created by a high tech, near 21st Century society tossed into the pond of the prehistoric Bronze Age, or (in the more palatable theory) causing an immediate branching of the time stream, in which the history that spawned the modern day Nantucketers will never exist, and in its place will be one shaped by late 20th Century industrial, social, and philosophical concepts suddenly introduced into a much more primitive period.

Stirling paints on a literally world sized canvas, creating a large cast of epic figures, both heroic and villainous, to populate his thundering romantic pageant. Nantucket needs heroes to lead it through this unprecedented temporal transposition, and Stirling provides them in plenty. Nantucket's police chief, a singularly even tempered, practical, and thoroughly sensible fellow named Jared Cofflin, finds himself thrust into the role of chief executive of the budding nation-state, while visiting scholars in history and astronomy, Ian Arnstein and Doreen Rapiewicz, suddenly find their previously obscure and impractical academic specialties to be of enormous value in plotting a course through the ill-defined world of the second millenium before the birth of Christ. Most vitally for the transplanted Islanders, a steel hulled windjammer belonging to the Coast Guard, under the command of black female Captain Marian Alston, is also swept up in the Event, as the inexplicable (and never explained) temporal transposition comes to be called, and a good thing, too, since without Captain Alston and her ship the Eagle, the timelost castaways would almost certainly have perished within a few months of their misfortune.

Stirling's fiction likes to teach us that there are never any unmixed blessings, so along with Marian Alston, arguably the hero and protagonist of at least the first of the Islander books, the Bronze Age receives Lt. William Walker, also a member of the Eagle's Coast Guard crew, an amoral schemer who is intelligent enough to see the kind of opportunities that this new situation presents to someone like him, ambitious enough to take a shot at making his fantasies of carving out an empire come true, and ruthless enough to actually succeed in doing so.

So Stirling sets us up for a grand conflict, with Marian Alston and the entire Island of Nantucket on one side, basically representing all the most idealistic principles of late 20th Century American culture, and William Walker on the other, more or less embodying a more piratical and predatory time, when a man of superior education, intelligence, charisma and will could reach out and reshape the raw materials that were a world and its peoples, remaking them into his own image.

The Republic of Nantucket, with its government arising from the strict one for one democracy of the Town Meeting, is directly opposed by William Walker, slaver, pirate, robber baron, and eventually, King of Kings in ancient Achaean Greece.

The most interesting thing about William Walker to me is the astonishing resemblance he bears to H. Beam Piper's character Lord Kalvan of Otherwhen; a parallel I'm not at all sure is a coincidence. However, even if the similarities are unintentional, I find Walker’s casting as the main villain to be an interesting commentary on how cultural philosophies have changed in the past thirty to forty years.

Back in the 1960s and 1970s, had a story like this been written, the stodgy establishment of Nantucket would have been depicted as conservative, unenlightened, and determined to preserve its own existence, position, privilege, power, and prosperity at the expense of the primitive world around it, while the Walker character would have been a ruggedly individualistic hero prototype, a non conformist, and a two fisted gun-totin' sword swingin' champion of the local, oh so noble primitive folks. Where the corrupt, materialistic and power hungry merchants and would be imperialists of the Island's 20th Century ruling class would have been busy attempting to exploit the locals with their superior technology, the renegade... er, I mean, rebel... Coast Guard Lieutenant would have been the only 20th Century American with any sense of honor or compassion, who would have taken the technological secrets of his own time and kind to the poor downtrodden savages and helped them band together to battle for their own survival and sovereignty.

All this is indicative of a major shift in the cultural zeitgeist from the 1960s to now. Back then, the authoritarian centralized imperialist government had to be bad, while the lone wolf/individual achiever by necessity was always good (and inevitably triumphant over the better organized, hivelike forces of evil, as well). Nowadays, though, the loner has come to be an archetype that even science fiction (a sub-genre generally embraced and supported by outsiders and misfits) has come to largely suspect, while the team/organization has very much come to exemplify nobility and goodness and other socially acceptable virtues. Lord Kalvan was fine for an otherdimensional, imperialist, manifest destiny type SF fantasy of its time, but nowadays, a character who shows up in a backwards era and sets himself up as a big boss using his superior knowledge of gunpowder would have to be regarded as slightly creepy and not a little bit exploitative.

Stirling's exploration of evil in these books (specifically, the wickedness of pure, unrestrained power when married to the pure, unrestrained gratification of all fleshly desires without conscience or morals) is very similar to what he almost lovingly depicts in his Draka novels, although most of the modern day Draka would probably turn their noses up at William Walker as little more than a parvenu and an amateur in the amoral exercise of sheer raw power over lesser humanity. (On the other hand, Walker would fit right in with the Draka's 18th Century founders.) If Walker's excesses are necessarily more restrained than those of the entire Draka race (or, for that matter, just various of the von Shrakenbergs), Stirling's address of same thankfully seems much more in line with the necessities of moral fiction, and although Stirling does allow a seed to be planted that will doubtless grow into future conflicts (assuming he continues to write within the series), he ends up dealing with Walker and his coterie of amoral renegades in a far more satisfying fashion than he could apparently bring himself to mete out to the even more deserving Draka.

If there's any one annoying point in the Islander books, it lies in just how resolutely soap opera-ish they are, at least, in terms of the instant symmetry with which couples cohere out of random social chaos. Every major character in the book is single pre-Event, and most of them are nearing or at middle age and pretty much have given up on the idea of ever meeting their true loves. Immediately post-Event, every single major character almost instantly couples up into what turn out to be near perfect, long term, romantically idyllic relationships of the sort most of us here in the real world can only swoon at the thought of.

And Stirling doesn't simply do this for his cast of characters in the first novel; as he continues to introduce new major characters while the saga unfolds over the next two volumes and ten years in the new/ancient millenium, he also continues to issue these newly created characters their own true loves as if he’s programmed this as a function into his word processor… highlight ‘Justin’, hit Alt-F9, and bingo, here comes Justin’s soul mate in the next paragraph. One of the benefits of being an S.M. Stirling character is, apparently, that within a few months at most of the start of the story, your ideal mate will somehow turn up in your bedroll without you having to do a damned thing to find him or her. No awkward mating rituals are required here, folks... if you've got S.M. Stirling writing your life, you're not only going to get seriously laid early and often, but you're going to get laid by someone you find absolutely gorgeous, who's great in bed, and who you want to spend all your non-sack time hanging out with, too.

Ah, if only real life worked out so conveniently...

For one brief moment it seemed as if Stirling might have become aware of his perhaps over-emphasis on utterly balanced, completely monogamous, perfectly romantic hearts & flowers, when he presents us with a stalwart young doctor figure whose heart is broken because his marriage is in its final stages of dissolution. But no, no, all that is just stage setting, preparatory to sending the pining young lunk halfway around the world to Babylon, where he gets neatly paired up with the only female Bronze Age Babylonian healer/chirurgeon in the history of the universe. (And so what if she has a big nose and a mustache. Justin is fat, so he doesn't get a hottie like Marion and Ian and Brigadier General Kenneth Hollard and the King of freakin’ Babylon all end up with. But I'm sure he's grateful to be getting any at all, and Lord knows I would be, too.)

Another interesting tendency Stirling has shown, which we may dwell on more in our next section, is to include in his narratives an extremely competent brother/sister team of action heroes who seem to have a slightly unhealthy degree of affection for each other. Which is as good a segue as any, I suppose, for :

A woggy night in London Town

On October 3, 1878, the first of a series of high-velocity heavenly bodies struck the earth. The impacts continued for the next 12 hours, moving in a band from east to west and impacting at shallow angles. The scanty and confused records meant that it was never possible to determine the exact nature of the object or objects; the consensus of Imperial scholars a century and a half later was that the Fall was either a spray of comets or a smaller number of large comets (possibly only one) that broke up in the Earth’s atmosphere.”
  • Appendix One: The Fall, The Peshawar Lancers

  • From this auspicious beginning, one of the most complexly detailed, exciting, entertaining, and intriguing alternate history adventure stories I’ve ever read is spun.

    Due to the Fall, the entire history of the world, as you’d expect, is substantially altered. England, in order to survive as a nation, evacuates 3.5 million of its subjects (leaving another 16.5 behind in the British Isles to starve or survive through reversion to savage cannibalism) into its territory in India. Russia survives by making a virtue of necessity; the Russian nobility establishes a Priesthood of Malik Nous, or Tchernobog, which makes cannibalism a religious ceremony, allowing the ancient Czar and his attendant nobility to survive by devouring their Asiatic subjects. Japan, mostly spared the impacts of the Fall, ends up taking over most of China, and the Islamic states also benefit from the Fall, expanding under the Caliph to a point where one Moslem nation now rules most of what we would call the Middle East.

    But enough of that. Let’s talk about story: Our heroes are Athelstane King and his twin sister Cassandra. Like previous twin-pairings we’ve seen in other Stirling novels, one gets the impression that the King siblings would really enjoy taking a year long vacation to Heinlein’s Boondock, where they could finally get all this repressed incestuous lust out of their systems once and for all. The Kings, for reasons unknown to them, are at the center of a vast conspiracy whose main purpose seems to be their assassination. Since the Kings are hardly all that essential to the Angrezi Raj/British Empire (a very peculiar fusion of Indian/Oriental culture and 19th Century Victorianism), these determined attempts (by factions representing every enemy the Raj has) baffle them. However, what the Kings do not know is that the Russian Empire has bred up a line of reliable psychic seeresses who are capable of seeing probable futures, and in the most probable of those futures, the Kings’ deaths will cause the downfall of the Raj, and eventually, the extinction of all mankind, when another, larger heavenly body impacts the Earth without warning more than a century into the future.

    The villain of the piece, the utterly evil Count Ignatieff, is a High Priest of Malik Nous who has been trying to wipe out the King dynasty for two generations now. As a young man, he set an ambush that took the life of Athelstane and Cassandra’s father, and now he seeks the deaths of the two younger Kings, in order to bring about the future worldlines his insane and cannibalistic cult of death most fervently desires.

    Honestly, that’s all you need to know about the book. Written with Stirling’s normal fanatical attention to cultural and historical detail, plastered with atmosphere and riddled with intrigue, the plot thunders forward at a mad gallop without pausing for breath from the first page to the last. Both viscerally exciting and intellectually intriguing, The Peshawar Lancers is a, you know, all those cliché things I’m supposed to say here… a riotous romp, a non stop thrill ride of blah blah blah, an over the top action/adventure in the best tradition of H. Rider Haggard and Edgar Rice Burroughs… you’ve read a bunch of dust jacket flaps just like I have, fill in the blanks yourself.

    I really enjoyed this book, and am enjoying re-reading it. Having said that, I will note that this is not an alternate history I myself would want to even so much as visit, much less live in; when Stirling goes into elaborate detail as to the various cuisines (mutton and turnips! AUGH!) enjoyed by the thoroughly Indianized characters, it frankly wrenches my stomach into knots and makes me want to shriek for a waiter to immediately bring me a roast beef sandwich with a side order of potato chips. Stirling is very aware, and obviously enjoying himself vastly, as he torments his Western audiences with lovingly detailed descriptions of the meals eaten by his heroes; one exchange between Prince Charles (!) of the Raj/Imperium and our heroine Cass indicates that due to the Indian influence over Raj culture, both of them are simply horrified at the thought of eating ‘cow meat’… and my God, the thought of a life without beef is enough to make me think the folks who died in the Fall got off easy.

    Aside from that, though, what I find most fascinating about the book is the very real pleasure Stirling seems to take in the destruction of North America depicted in this timeline. Heinlein, of course, wiped out the entire Northern Hemisphere in Farnham’s Freehold, but he never really seemed to enjoy it all that much. Stirling, on the other hand, seems to be dancing in the ruins of 19th Century America with ghoulish joy when he writes, in Appendix Four, Imperial English and Other Languages [pg 415, last paragraph]: In the interior of North America, a wild variety of English-based creoles and pidgins were spoken among the neobarbarians; something fairly close to nineteenth-century standard English survived in the Mormon enclaves of the Rockies, which maintained a tradition of literacy; and Spanish-influenced forms were common in the Free Cities of California..

    Combine this with the undeniably American origins of the sociopathically savage Kommanz in Snowbrother, and the fact that their victims, the very civilized Mintzans, are fairly obviously of Canadian derivation (and Stirling himself is Canadian) and, well… gee, Steve… I got your American neobarbarians right down here, fella. Why don’t you pucker up and give ‘em a nice long smooch, buddy?

    One more note, this one also in the ‘no one will find this interesting but me’ category… I found it fascinating that only shortly before reading The Peshawar Lancers, I had previously encountered, for the first time in my life, references to both Malik Nous and Tchernobog, in widely separated areas: Malik Nous is the demonic, Earth ruling figure worshipped by the character King Peacock in Alan Moore’s excellent comic book series Top 10, while Tchernobog is a very vivid secondary character in Neil Gaiman’s interesting if ultimately disappointing fantasy novel American Gods.

    One wonders if Stirling reads the same source material as Moore and Gaiman… or maybe, if he just reads Moore and Gaiman? (That last isn’t a criticism; I just read Moore and Gaiman, myself. Nothin’ wrong there.)


     
    OTHER ARTICLES OF NOTE:

    HEINLEIN: THE MAN, THE MYTH, THE WHACK JOB

    BILL OF GOODS: The Words And Wisdom of A Heinlein Fan Much Like Every Other Heinlein Fan, But More Polite

    KILL THEM ALL AND LET NEO SORT THEM OUT: The Fundamental Immorality of The Matrix

    UNLUCKY SEVEN: Why Buffy Still Sucks, And Not In A Good Way, Either

    DOING COMICS THE STAINLESS STEVE ENGLEHART WAY!by "John Jones" (that's me, D. Madigan), & Jeff Clem, with annotations by Steve Englehart

    JOHN JONES: THREAT OR MENACE!

    FUNERAL FOR A FRIENDSHIP

    Why I Disliked Carol Kalish And Don't Care If Peter David Disagrees With Me

    MARTIAN VISION, by John Jones, the Manhunter from Marathon, IL

    GEEK STUFF YOU WON'T LIKE UNLESS YOU'RE REALLY COOL:

    Orto's Embassy

    James Gifford's Robert A. Heinlein Fan Site

    Calliope Comics presents Martian Vision

    Doc Nebula's Phantasmagorical Fan Page!

    THE OMNIVERSE TIMELINE

    MY DAMN WRITING, SO SHUT UP ABOUT IT:

    NOVELS: [* = not yet written]

    Universal Maintenance

    Universal Agent*

    Universal Law*

    Time Watch

    Endgame

    Earthquest

    Earthgame*

    Warren's World

    Warlord of Erberos

    Return to Erberos*

    ZAP FORCE #1: ROYAL BLOOD

    Memoir:

    In The Early Morning Rain

    Short Stories:

    Positive

    Good Cop, Bad Cop

    Leadership

    Talkin' 'bout My Girl

    No Good Angel

    No Time Like The Present

    Pursuit of Happiness

    The Last One

    Pursuit of Happiness

    Return To Sender

    Halo

    Primogenitor

    Alleged Humor:

    Ask A Bastard!

    On The Road Again

    Meeting of the Mindless

    Star Drek

    THE ADVENTURES OF FATHER O'BRANNIGAN

    Fan Fic:

    The Captain and the Queen

    A Day Unlike Any Other (Iron Mike & Guardian)

    DOOM Unto Others! (Iron Mike & Guardian)

    Starry, Starry Night(Iron Mike & Guardian)

    A Friend In Need (Blackstar & Guardian)

    All The Time In The World(Blackstar)

    The End of the Innocence(Iron Mike & Guardian)

    And Be One Traveler(Iron Mike & Guardian)

    COMICS SCRIPTS & PROPOSALS THAT WENT NOWHERE:

    SERAPHIM 66

    AMAZONIA by D.A. Madigan & Nancy Champion (7 pages final script)

    AMAZONIA (Alternate Draft 1)

    AMAZONIA (Alternate Draft 2)

    AMAZONIA (World Timeline)

    TEAM VENTURE by Darren Madigan and Mike Norton

    FANTASTIC FOUR 2099, by D.A. Madigan!

    CARTOONS:

    DOC NEBULA'S CARTOON FUN PAGE!

    DOC NEBULA'S CARTOON FUN, PAGE 2!

    DOC NEBULA'S CARTOON FUN, PAGE 3!

    WEIRD WAR COMICS COVER ART.

    ULTRASPEED!

    Help Us, Batman...

    JLA Membership drive

    Don't Leave Us, Batman...!

    Ever wondered what happened to the World's Finest Super-team?

    Two heroes meet their editor...

    At the movies with some legendary Silver Age sidekicks...

    What really happened to Kandor...

    Ever wondered how certain characters managed to get into the Legion of Superheroes?

    A never before seen panel from the Golden Age of Comics...

    BOOM!

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