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Tillabooks: Will's Book Blog

Tuesday, August 12, 2003

Conquistador by S.M. Stirling. New York: Roc, 2003. ISBN: 0451459083

Alternate history is a favorite science fiction theme, as is the notion of alternate universes. This book combines the two concepts, imagining what might happen if someone were to accidentally create a doorway into a parallel universe where the "New World," i.e. the Americas, remained undiscovered, inhabited "only" by Native Americans into the mid-20th century.

The gateway is accidentally created in 1946 by a WWII vet, who recruits his ex-army buddies and their families to begin settling this new land, keeping it secret from everyone else. The location of this gate? Why, southern California, of course. This gives the author the opportunity to exploit what appears to be a favorite fantasy of his, imagining what California would be like today if it were mostly uninhabited and unspoiled.

Of course he can't resist gilding the lily, taking it right over the top by having the new settlers import exotic animals including elephants, hippopotami, rhinoceros, lions, tigers and leopards, not to mention kangaroos and giraffes, plus various large African antelope species, for what reason is never entirely clear, except to add local color, and to create some kind of virtual Eden in which to play. The excessive wildlife certainly contributes nothing essential to the plot.

By the time of the story, set in the year 2009, the original 30 families have created a kind of oligarchy, and recruited enough settlers to raise the population to around 150,000 or so. Most of the indigenous population has died off from influenza and smallpox, just as they did in our history a few centuries earlier. Anyone in our world who comes close to finding out the secret inevitably finds himself shanghaied into permanent residency on the other side of the gate.

There is, believe it or not, a good story line on top of this fantasy playground, involving a faction who want to take over the gate, and impose an even more ruthless regime than the one currently in place, which can hardly be described as a democracy itself. There is a hero and his heroine, plus the loyal sidekick, who also ends up with a gorgeous girl, and enough mayhem, shooting and blowing things up, for any good Hollywood summer action flick.

In short, a book that succeeds admirably in accomplishing its goal of providing a good dose of escapist fantasy, built on an intriguing concept that almost succeeds in capturing our attention as thoroughly as it has obviously captivated its creator.

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