The wang of worldbuilding: Conquistador by S.M. Stirling (Roc, 2003)

If you want a picture of alternate history novels, imagine the clomping foot of nerdism stamping on a human face — forever. The ceaseless barrage of detail can be bearable if characterisation, dialogue and plot don’t become secondary concerns along the way but needless to say that isn’t the case with Conquistador. Nice idea Mr Stirling, shame about the execution.

Former Ranger Tom Christiansen became a Fish and Game warden because he couldn’t fight any more and hates cities. It’s not a glamourous job but does mean he gets to stomp on bad guys who fuck with the environment and trade in rare wildlife. When a routine bust of a smuggling ring in LA produces a condor from an unrecorded gene pool along with a photo of Aztec priests wearing Grateful Dead t-shirts, Christiansen realises that something very weird is going on.

Rewind 60 years. John Rolfe VI has returned home after surviving WW2 and by magic his shortwave radio opens a gateway into another world, one that looks much ours would have done if white men had never set foot in the Americas. Seeing a grand opportunity before him, Rolfe takes some of his former army buddies with him, some weapons and carves himself a empire that he names the Commonwealth of New Virginia.

Back in the present other factions within the Commonwealth want to take over from Rolfe and expand to encompass the entire world. Rolfe’s grand-daughter Adrienne is tasked with flushing out the conspirators and gets friendly with Christiansen to get information. Unfortunately when he gets too close to the truth Adrienne shanghais him and his partner Roy Tully to New Virginia where she convinces him to help her fight against the bad guys in New Virginia. Needless to say, our heroes save the day, Christiansen gets the girl and readers are left with the possibility of more books in this universe. Hurrah. Or maybe not.

Thinking back, the moment that I realised that Conquistador was not going to be the book I had hoped it would be was the scene when Christiansen meets Adrienne for the first time at the gym.

Va-voom, he thought. Thirty-six, twenty-five, thirty-six.(p54)

Do men still do this? It’s the kind of eye-rolling objectification you expect from ‘classic’ golden-age sf that gives the genre a bad name. The fact that Christiansen is a blonde superman of Norwegian descent who fulfils Heinlein’s definition of a real man only adds to the retro feeling, along with two-dimensional characterisation that resorts to some distressing national stereotypes (Christiansen goes all Viking-style berserker at one point). And all this before Stirling even gets a chance to slap you in the face with his massive worldbuilding wang.

It’s not all bad. Up to the point where Christiansen and Tully wind up in New Virginia, the plot moves along quite nicely in a police procedural kind of way. The evidence mounts up as to where all illicit goods are really coming from and the pair have to come to terms with a bona fide other world, but then it all goes to shit.

Stirling spends the next two hundred pages with the plot on hold as he tells us over and over again how beautiful life in New Virginia is without being over-developed and over-populated. And when I say “tell”, he really does, even going to the point of having characters think to themselves in helpful italics in case the reader needed some pointers from time to time.

Stirling’s fetishisation of weaponary doesn’t help matters, something that Dean Koontz used to be guilty of in his earlier books. He bangs on about gun calibres and vehicles so much that the novel takes on a military sf feel.

They were twin-engine prop planes, sleek Mosquito fighter-bombers built new locally to a classic World War II design and modernized with fancy electronics. Each mounted eight .50-calibre machine guns in the nose and rockets beneath the wings, and the internal weapons bay carried a ton of cluster bombs and napalm. (p151)

When he’s not doing that he feels the need to break up the narrative with asides as to the original meaning of words, such as when he goes into explicit detail about an armoured car being blown up and then notes that this is what a real fuel-air bomb is like. At this point I was compelled to say out loud “Who fucking cares?!”.

Anyway, in this long-winded section between setup and resolution, Christiansen manfully rejects Adrienne whilst he contemplates the moral quandary of which side to support in an impending conflict has nothing to do with him. This might have had a bit more heft to it had Christiansen’s decision not been skewed by his cock voting for Adrienne (“Thirty-six, twenty-five, thirty-six”) Rolfe and the fact that the other side features racist South Africans (who use the word ‘bliddy’ and ‘kaffir’ a lot), Russian mobsters and actual Nazis, although in truth all of them are as equally bland as one another. It’s not a good sign when the reader doesn’t give a shit about who wins.

Speaking about bad guys, Rolfe’s entire empire is founded by a bunch of amoral opportunists who have no qualms about staking their territory and napalming the natives when necessary, and yet they all seem to get along just fine. One character even remarks that two of the groups are “..neck and neck in the Sheer Absolute Fucking Evil sweepstakes” (p301) but there is no feeling of tension or outright conflict in New Virginia apart from the potential change in leadership, which is unlikely to affect the predominately white population all that much anyway.

So eventually the plot resumes as Adrienne, Christiansen and Tully enlist some equally capable comrades and decide to take on a large group of armed mercenaries by themselves. That by itself poses plausibility issues but it’s fast-paced unlike the rest of the novel and so one should be merely thankful that the novel finishes in something less than a complete shambles.

In the end, Conquistador embodies the inverse of M. John Harrison’s statement about the clomping foot of nerdism: it is a science fiction story in which every moment is the triumph of worldbuilding over writing. This is not something that should be encouraged in the genre and this book has warned me off Stirling’s work in the future.


One comment

  1. Pingback: Eat, Rule, Love: Magic Kingdom For Sale – Sold! by Terry Brooks (Del Rey, 1986) « Spin Resonance

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