By Ryan Fleming
How much is alternate history just a subgenre of science fiction? For a lot of the history of the genre it seemed as though the two were intertwined, whether through the use of hopping parallel universes (as in “Sidewise in Time” by Murray Leinster) or time travel shenanigans (as in Bring the Jubilee by Ward Moore). These sorts of tales never went away, and one such example of the former type is Conquistador by S.M Stirling. However, its high concept is poorly served by a lack of focus on the literal worldbuilding inherent in the plot, which itself leaves a lot to be desired and is populated by characters that are not given much depth. The high point of the novel is the concept itself, but is it more because of its science fiction characteristics than its alternate history?
We’ve all been there; you’re trying a bit of do-it-yourself electronic repair and accidentally unlock a portal to another dimension in your basement. This is what happens to John Rolfe VI in 1946 and kickstarts the plot of the novel.
The nature of Rolfe’s discovery is revealed through a series of vignettes interspersed throughout the novel. Discovering an alternate California on the other side of the portal generated by his malfunctioning radio, he soon discovers it to be a world in which there was no European colonisation of the Americas and with his Army buddies they soon set up an agrarian, oligarchical society on the other side with fugitives and refugees from various twentieth century problematic sorts to exploit the resources on the other side – calling it New Virginia.
The divergence that led to this alternate world is explained, having been investigated by the New Virginians, as being the result of Alexander the Great living to old age building an Empire to rival the Mongol Empire of our own history. Like the Mongol Empire it eventually collapses into a hodgepodge of smaller kingdoms, but not before forcing numerous westward migrations to the east populating Asia with Indo-Europeans, preventing contact between the Old and New Worlds, and stymieing technological progress to where by the early twenty-first century the world has not moved beyond a medieval level of technology in the Old World.
Both these concepts would work well enough on their own, but together they are oddly mismatched. The parallel universe is not really enriched by the presence of a detailed alternate history, but similarly the alternate history is not explored enough to add much. The real detail comes in the worldbuilding of New Virginia, but even here ideas that really piqued the interest were not explored or just brushed over. For instance, one of Rolfe’s platoon deliberately introduces smallpox to their new world in an effort at biological genocide. It’s treated almost as an aside as opposed to the source of major conflict it should have been. It comes across as trying to make New Virginia fit the alternate history with a disregard to how this makes the former the unquestionable villains of the piece, but more on that later.
Ironically, the very end of the novel reveals a more tantalising possibility that perhaps would have made for a better concept. In trying to re-establish the portal to our own world the New Virginians accidentally create a portal to a North America where the Pleistocene megafauna never existed, ending the plot on a much more interesting concept than the one it portrays.
The portal is destroyed at the climax of a plot that sees the novels protagonists shanghaied to New Virginia for fears that they are close to discovering the existence of the alternate world. Whilst imprisoned they learn of a coming coup from one of the dodgier original settlers, the one that introduced smallpox. Sadly, the plot does not make full use of its possibilities and resorts to the use of moustache twirling villains to make both our protagonists and us see the New Virginians as the de facto good guys.
The main plot begins in the then near-future of 2009 in California. Fish & Game officers are perplexed at rare animal pelts and a living California condor turning up during the course of their investigations. They are further mystified when photographic evidence seems to show a living dodo, not to mention an Aztec ceremony attended by people with modern day heavy metal t-shirts and young people with smallpox scars after the disease was wiped out. Unfortunately, we the reader know the reason for all these incongruities so what should have been a genuine mystery first act is thrown away and reduced to an extended series of hoops for our protagonists to jump through so they can be taken into New Virginia.
The middle section is novel sees our protagonists as fish out of water in New Virginia. It is here we get a lot of worldbuilding and some infodumps as to the state of the alternate world in 2009, almost a gazetteer of the fictitious California as our protagonists travel across the landscape in a series of vignettes guided by Rolfe’s granddaughter. We find out that in addition to Rolfe’s cohort of GIs and their families the alternate earth has been colonised by Nazis, British and French colonials, South Africans, and Russian Communists. Unsurprisingly New Virginia reflects the racial attitudes of its namesake in the 1940s dialled up to eleven and compounded by the addition of many more racist societies, with blacks being forbidden for entry into the alternate world. Though a few have found themselves kidnapped such as one of our protagonists.
You might be forgiven at this point for thinking the main conflict our protagonists will be engaged in is to escape from this unconsciously satirical take on “I’m not racist, but…” ideas. Nope, you see one of Rolfe’s war buddies had ties to the Mafia and his descendants are looking to launch a coup and supplant them as the preeminent clan in New Virginia. Assisted along the way by those dastardly ex-Commies who are arming the Aztecs and Mayans against the enlightened feudalism of the ruling elite. In this battle between one group of colonists who want to arm the natives to use as cannon fodder and another that forcibly sterilises them in an effort to keep them from understanding their technology our protagonists decide that the latter are the lesser of two evil, by virtue of not twirling their moustaches rather than anything else we see or are told.
The middle section is undoubtedly the strongest of the novel, but even here concepts and ideas are not fully formed nor given an overly critical eye that our two protagonists should have been well-placed to provide. This is just one aspect of a lack of depth in characters throughout the work.
I’ve opined before that a solid story and relatable characters can make up for a lack of plausibility in alternate history. Conquistador falls into a similar vein where it has its central concept, a high one but not execute with particular flare, which might be forgivable if the resulting story and characters capture the imagination enough. The story falls short in some respects, but do the characters stand out in comparison?
By far the most significant character in the book is John Rolfe VI, ostensibly a fictitious descendent of the real John Rolfe and Pocahontas. One has to wonder why this connection had to be made, beyond implying a taste for adventure in the blood. Rolfe’s own segregationist beliefs and love of big-game hunting do much to shape the nature of New Virginia. We encounter the character in his younger days in vignettes establishing New Virginia, and through the eyes of other characters as the elder statesman and father of the nation in the present narrative. It feels as though either of these would have worked better on their own, the dreaming adventurer or the aged semi-monarch. Despite this, he is one of the better developed characters.
The rest of the denizens of New Virginia run the gamut from the original settlers being broadly drawn stereotypes of their nationalities and places of origin, to their offspring seemingly having more in common with the young wealthy residents of 1990s California than anything New Virginia, to caricatures of the Bay Area counterculture movement in those brought to New Virginia against their will. The only one to be given any development is Rolfe’s granddaughter Adrienne, but even then, she is the broad strokes version of her grandfather updated to the modern day (but with the same beliefs) and made female to function as the love interest of our protagonist.
Our two aforementioned Fish & Game offices are Tom Christiansen and Roy Tully. The former a tall Scandinavian farm boy from Montana who falls in love with Adrienne Rolfe because the plot demands as much, whilst apparently abhorring the culture of New Virginia he sides with the Rolfe’s considering them the lesser of two evils. The latter, his partner, one of the few African Americans to find themselves in New Virginia, has little agency beyond the odd wise crack and acting as a moral compass for Christiansen. Neither hold much memory for the reader after the last page is turned.
The characters are not this novel’s strong point, which is a shame because it seems like the novel should have been full of one scene wonders from the smorgasbord of fugitive groups that have populated New Virginia over the years.
On the whole, Conquistador is a great concept let down by the novel in which it appears. It muddies said concept with a need to go into too much detail about the history of the alternate world, at the same time leaving the audience with a stinger that causes us to pine for the same story in that world. The plot does not do the concept justice, and the characters for the most part lack depth and real conflict making them for the most part forgettable. All this is a shame, since the concept is crying out to be given justice. The idea of setting up a new world in an alternate virgin earth is a great science fiction idea pulled from the pages of a pulp magazine. Conquistador is undoubtedly a better science fiction tale than it is an alternate history one, but even here it falls far short of what it could have been.
Ryan Fleming is the author of Reid in Braid, published by SLP