By Colin Salt
After hearing about them for so long, I felt I had to read the actual Draka books for myself. Remembering their reputation as an alternate history lightning rod (however much it’s faded away), I decided to check out S.M. Stirling’s infamous works. This article will concentrate on the “original three” of Marching Through Georgia, Under the Yoke, and The Stone Dogs.
In literary terms, they fall into the “read a lot worse, but also read better” category. The initial one, Marching Through Georgia, is just a middling sleazy war pulp story. The finale, The Stone Dogs, is a middling sleazy science fiction story (notice the pattern?). Both the most interesting to analyze and the worst to actually read was the middle installment, Under the Yoke.
Structurally, Under the Yoke is the worst, its plot a clunky jumble and its tale of the Drakian atrocities brought down by the lowbrow nature of the series. Whether it was a sincere attempt at psychological horror/dystopia that was dragged down by the tawdriness of everything else (serious social commentary doesn’t exactly go well with trashy lesbian sex scenes), or just, for lack of a better word, “plantation sleaze” that was later claimed as being more profound than it was is an open question, but whatever the cause, it didn’t work for me.
The Draka themselves come across as Mary Sue author’s pets even beyond the “bad guys win” theme. For all that the later internet telephone games have slightly exaggerated their character and exact technological advantages, they’re still taking tacticool assault rifles and the equivalent of postwar tanks against Germans with Kar-98ks and KVs with stuffed-in 88mms (for all the good it does them). The appendices describing their military prowess amount to a more erudite version of William W. Johnstone’s “The armed forces of the Tri-states ranked among the best in the world, their training a combination of Special Forces, Ranger, SEAL, and gutter-fighting.”
It’s not really criticizing or deconstructing the “Mary Sue heroes win” story type so much as it is taking the most blatant examples of its tropes and applying them to an inherently dubious “protagonist”. A bizarro version of Executive Orders where the villains handily triumph with their superior equipment and dumb opponents is just as shallow and un-profound as the real thing. And if Drakon, the sci-fi fourth Draka book, is any indication, changing the final outcome would just make it go from “Villain Sues crush their inept opposition” to “Villain Sues crush their inept opposition for most of the book and only lose due to a major contrivance”.
As for its implausibility, I was reminded of the classic Vietnam War saying of it being “true but irrelevant”. The rest of the world being near-totally unaffected by a supervillain superpower in Africa, the rapid technological advancement, the “cool tech” (Airships! Steam powered thingies! Scramjets!), all of it made me think that not only would it not stand up to any serious scrutiny, but that one probably wouldn’t even expect it to do so. It’s why I’ve soured on the many fanfic attempts to make the timeline more “realistic”.
So why did this get such attention? Part of it is the legitimate distinctiveness of the premise. Not (just) the “bad guys win” or “bizarro-America, a continent-spanning world power founded on tyranny”, but the very setup of “different superpower with a different basis”. in a genre stuck between easily understandable, obvious divergences in its mass market elements and a high focus on at least nominal plausibility in its more niche installments, taking a geographically and thematically distinct world power and writing several books about it stands out.
Another, less pleasant reason was likely the internet drama, a combination of Stirling’s past online gauntlet-throwing and a fandom focused (and sometimes over-focused) on technical plausibility. But I think another explanation, and one that’s frequently overlooked, is just how early the books were published.
Marching Through Georgia was released in 1988. The Stone Dogs was released in 1990. This is before infamously “soft” alternate history author Robert Conroy’s debut, 1901. This is long before the “weird-tech, weirder background, space filling empires galore” anime Code Geass (first aired 2006). They even predate Harry Turtledove’s breakout Guns of The South, released in 1992.
In this light, it’s interesting to see how many of the genre tropes/annoyances show up. There are the space filling empires, and not just the Domination itself (for instance, the US annexes Canada and Mexico in the timeline’s past). There’s the zig-zagging of butterflies, with a combination of them either not happening at all (the World Wars and many historical figures, a mustached German dictator among them, still show up) or changes for the sake of changes (The Taiping rebellion succeeds, there’s a major Anglo-Russian War in the 1800s, and, oh yeah, the US annexes every other country in continental North America). Then there’s the “cool tech” even before the Stone Dogs sci-fi explosion.
I don’t think the series was that particularly large a direct influence, particularly later on. This is admitted speculation and I could be wrong (after all, they were released and were at their most prominent long before I got into alternate history), but they were never bestsellers in “normal” markets and were remembered, at least by my time, as something criticized more than anything else. I do think it was an early example of the kind of thing that happened in more “loose” alternate history later on, and which splashed into a massively smaller pond.
If, for whatever reason, the Draka books were not connected to alternate history, they’d be barely remembered as trashy pulp in a variety of genres. Yet they are, and I’ll admit there’s something to be said for a series that endured in a way that a more rote “Axis/Confederate Victory” tale with a similar quality of actual writing never could have.
Colin Salt reviews other genres at his blog: Fuldapocalypse Fiction