Working my way through the pile of sci-fi paperbacks my father occasionally hands me after digesting them himself, Iâ€™ve finished S.M. Stirlingâ€™s Conquistador.
As the first work of fiction Iâ€™ve read since reading Boothâ€™s book on the rhetoric of fiction, it served to make me more aware of the genre conventions of alternate-Earth sci-fi than ever, though there are some interesting differences. When I think of alt-Earth, I think of Harry Turtledoveâ€™s Guns of the South first; a great book that makes more than one appearance in this one (Andres Rhoodie and his errant band of South Africian mercs make a cameo, and the book is on the reading list of two characters).
Whereas Turtledove escaped the usual characterization problems of scifi by using mostly historical characters – his Lee and Lincoln are biography-worthy in particular –
The book escapes this flaw partially, though, by making the society in this alt-California a problematic one. Itâ€™s a neofeudal agrarian paradise with bickering, mob-flavored dynasties, overseen by an aging dictator; in other words, essentially the same politics as your average fantasy novel. The main character debates a bit over which world is best (his 2009 is smoggy and post-Iraq) but is easily distracted by the clean, pollution-free (and mostly Indian-free, victims of smallpox again) landscape, the intrigues trying to kill him, the joys of heavy weaponry and big game hunting, and the kind of incredible, mind-numbing sex that only happens in between paragraphs. You can guess which world he ends up staying in.
Rhetorically, the book feels like an argument for environmental conservatives and a blend of feudalism and libertarian thinking, delivered with a wink, enough melodrama and bloodshed to satisfy all but the most thirsty, and several 55-gallon drums of salt.