Saturday, August 20, 2005

The Primacy of History

I'm currently a bit more than halfway through Fitzpatrick's War by Theodore Judson, a much-praised new SF novel just out in paperback.

It's written as a regretful memoir by Sir Robert Bruce, an officer who takes part in the military campaigns of Consul Issac Prophet Fitzpatrick, an Alexander the Great obsessed military and political genius, in a strange, semi-feudal future. The world has reverted to steam after Fitzpatrick's people, the Yukon Confederacy, used EMP weapons to end the Electronic Age. The Yukons have technological superiority in the form of steam-powered fighter and bomber aircraft and the only working satellite network, their Chinese and Turkish Empire enemies have them vastly outnumbered. With war about to break out, it seems certain there will be a huge slaughter, possibly on both sides.

But the novel is also presented as a real historical document. It has an introduction and footnotes provided by a self-righteous and cranky editor, who gives us many of the insights into the Yukon culture. (Despite their name, they aren't from the modern Yukon. They are essentially the descendents of white, mainly Protestant North American farmers, and there is more than a little in their history that suggests they are descended from a militia movement.) The editor provides us with much of the exposition about the history of the period, which seems outlandish, and is definitely self serving. He is a defiantly unreliable second narrator for the book.

It also provides a pessimistic tone to the whole book: we know in advance that we can trust Robert Bruce more than the editor, and that Fitzpatrick is as much a monster as he is a conquering hero. But Judson lets us know that the future will gloss over those crimes, and see only the shining boy-emperor.

It's a brave narrative choice; essentially writing a future in which Hilter or Stalin has won and is remembered for centuries as a great and wonderful man.

I'm looking forward to see what happens next; we know that Fitzpatrick is assasinated, but when and why is a mystery.

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