S. M. Stirling’s Alternate Histories

by D. A. Madigan

part 1 of 4


First Pillage, Then Rape, Then Burn:
S.M. Stirling shows us terror... in a handful of alternate histories

S.M. Stirling regards himself as ‘quasi-famous’. Perhaps he has a point. He’s one of the more prolific writers in modern SF/fantasy, yet much of his work is out of print. His creative output is currently at 40+ novel-length works, counting all his collaborations and work on series originated by other creators, and his own original work ranges from the undeservedly obscure and little known Fifth Millenium series up through the more recent The Peshawar Lancers, (which all of you should also be snatching up and reading right this second ), includes the intrinsically flawed but still vital and brilliant Draka series, The General, a series he did over some plots by David Drake, and his rather better known Islander trilogy.

However, probably the only mention I’ll make of Stirling’s couple of Terminator novels will come right here, since, while they’re well written, they’re still Terminator novels, based in the truly stupid revised continuity established by the truly stupid Terminator 2 film, which I personally believe to be one of the most egregious violations of trust between an audience and a work of fiction since Spock was resurrected.

Having said all that, let’s get to the goodies...

I’ll take the Fifth (Millenium, that is)

According to the introduction to Baen’s revised, mid 1990s edition of Stirling’s Snowbrother, Stirling had created his own sword & non-sorcery, barbarian adventure type setting for fantasy/SF novels, and had set one book, Snowbrother, there already, when he met Shirley Meier and Karen Wehrstein in college. Meier and Wehrstein had each created their own separate fantasy settings, with their own separate main characters, and it occurred to one of them, or all of them at once, that these separate settings could be combined into one elaborately detailed future world, where all their various protagonists could meet and interact, just like, you know, Spider-Man and Captain America and the Fantastic Four, back in the Silver Age Marvel Comics universe.

From that rather fannish idea was born the Fifth Millenium series, one of the most elaborately detailed, consistently intriguing, atmospheric and entertaining fantasy settings since M.A.R. Barker’s Tekumel.

In terms of the themes Stirling would continue to explore over the course of his career to date, it’s most interesting to note his apparent early infatuation with the fundamental concept of sadistic evil. While the Kommanz barbarians of North America, of which Stirling’s protagonist (she’s certainly not a heroine) Sh’kaira is a renegade member, are pretty much anarchistic slackers compared to the Draka, Stirling’s later, more successful attempt at embodying sheer literary evil in one primal distillation, it’s very much worth pointing out that in Snowbrother, Stirling’s first novel, he spends the entire book setting up a basic, fairly standard dichotomy between good and evil... and then, in the end, brutalizes his audience’s perceptions, expectations, and emotions, by having the unambiguously wicked villain, the rapist/reaver Sh’kaira, triumph over the gentler, much more acceptably heroic victim, Maihu the Mintzan.

Since the Mintzan folk are cheerful, pleasant, highly civilized forest dwellers who attempt to live in peace with everyone and who only fight in self-defense (making them classic examples of socially positive characters), the typical reader simply assumes that Maihu is the heroine of the piece and therefore assured of an inevitable victory. Especially when one contrasts Maihu, and her folk, with the vileness embodied by Sh’kaira, and her people the Kommanz, a tribe of more or less sociopathic landlocked Fifth Millenium bikers on horses who take the Nietzchean concept of the strong ruling the weak to such seemingly contra-survival extremes as culturally encouraging adult Kommanz to rape Kommanz children, when the whim takes them... something that pretty much guarantees all adult Kommanz will continue to be sociopaths, unable to love or trust to the slightest degree, effectively ruined for any kind of social interaction more complex than master/slave.

Given the assumption anyone from our culture would make as to who was the hero, and who the villain, having Sh’kaira emerge from the book’s climax as the victor, leaving Maihu and her people behind as slaughtered victims of the apparently superior Kommanz culture, was kind of stunning.

Not stunning in a good way, either.

Stirling’s first version of Snowbrother, which someone gave me a copy of back in the early 1990s, is almost gloating in its tone as it sets us up for this really wrenching twist of an ending. All along, Stirling has no compunction about rubbing our faces in Sh’kaira’s truly disturbing and disgustingly cruel immorality. Sh’kaira, like the rest of her people, steals and plunders, slaughters and tortures, and pretty much rapes anything she can hold down long enough, whenever she feels like it... not just the adult ‘heroine’ of the novel, but Maihu’s 12- or 13-year old son, as well.

Self-declared feminist analysts out there may, if they wish, wax rapturous on the delights of seeing the usual male/female rape-dominance psychosexual dynamic so intriguingly skewed; I’ll simply note that Sh’kaira was, in this book, one of the more convincingly vicious villain figures I’ve read, and the constraints of moral fiction absolutely demanded she come to a grisly end at the conclusion of the novel. That Stirling not only refused to let Sh’kaira get her just desserts, but so obviously reveled in shocking his audience with his calculated moral reversal, was... well, obviously, it was shocking. I also found it very troubling.

Due to the eventual intervention of Meier and Wehrstein’s own individual creative visions, and specifically the influence of Meier’s Megan character on Sh’kaira, the big nasty barbarian bitch does, over time, redeem herself and become somewhat more heroic and acceptable by most basic social standards. However, it’s interesting to note that the differences between the two versions of Snowbrother lie primarily in two areas... first, Stirling has inserted many more topical references to the rest of the expanded universe Sh’kaira inhabits, to foreshadow her future encounters with elements contributed by his collaborators. Second, however, the later version of the book tones down Sh’kaira’s viciousness rather significantly, going to some pains to show Sh’kaira as being comparatively ‘nicer’, for a vicious rapist reaver, than, say, the completely vile tribal shaman who does actually die at the end of the story.

It seems safe to conclude, however, that had Meier and Wehrstein not come along, Snowbrother would have remained an obscure, little-read fantasy novel in which one of the nastiest and most gruesomely, cruelly wicked and viciously violent antagonist characters ever put on paper was, in the end, victorious over the equally clearly drawn representatives of positive, socially acceptable behavior.

Worse, Sh’kaira’s victory is one of sheer, simple strength and athleticism over intelligence and wit... in other words, a savagely Ahrimanesque triumph of base matter over exalted mind, a clear win for brutality over spirituality and intellectuality.

Yay. That’s just the kind of fantasy the world needs now. It’s not like we don’t get enough of it on the news every night...

In the first version of Snowbrother, it was very much as if Stirling set out to create a story that was completely and consciously anti-moral fiction... one in which the bad guy not only won out over the good guy, but did so in the most ethically reprehensible and utterly nihilistic, anti-humanistic manner imaginable, as well.

Snowbrother, like everything Stirling writes (even relatively bad stuff he obviously just did for the paycheck, like his two Terminator novels, or the fairly wretched The Chosen) is stylish, entertaining, and exciting, and the rest of the Fifth Millenium series (Shadow’s Daughter, Sabre & Shadow, The Cage, and the now very hard to find conclusion to the series, Shadow’s Son, which I read once, long ago, but haven’t been able to find since and which no longer seems to be in print; as well as Karen Wehrstein’s separate but set in the same world books, Lion’s Heart and Lion’s Soul) are all very much worth reading and re-reading. Stirling, Meier, and Wehrstein between them create an elaborately detailed, always fascinating, and entirely entertaining world-setting, reeking of atmosphere and intrigue at every twist and turn. And, under Meier and Wehrstein’s influence, the Fifth Millenium books do, for the most part, comport themselves as moral fiction; they celebrate positive social values like love and trust and honor, and the bad people... other than Sh’kaira, who does eventually grow some empathy and become a good guy, kind of... all eventually get punished for their bad deeds.

But a thoughtful analyst cannot help but recall Stirling’s seemingly gleeful exploration of darkness and depravity in the original Snowbrother, while reading perhaps Stirling’s most powerful contribution to alternate worlds sub-genre, the Draka books:

People who own people

I would love to describe the Draka series as “The Draka Trilogy”, because God knows I wish it was so. To my own deviant and petulantly stubborn mind, it is so; the fourth book in the Draka series, Drakon, is just so morally appalling and thoroughly dreadful (despite being written with Stirling’s usual ‘can’t put it down’ style) that I myself refuse to acknowledge it as part of my personal Draka continuity. (But, in that continuity, eventually the Alliance settlement on Alpha Centauri comes roaring back, beats holy hell out of the evil Draka, kills them all, liberates all their serfs, and resettles Earth as a democratic, freedom-loving planetary culture... a sequence Stirling seems far too besotted with the Draka to be able to bring himself to actually write. But we’ll get to that.)

However, before we go into detail on the Draka stuff, let me take a moment to address something that some few in my audience may be wondering about:

Why is it necessary to only write ‘moral fiction’, in which, presumably, wrong fails and right prevails? Why can’t a writer, if he or she so chooses, decide to explore an arguably more ‘realistic’ form of fantasy, in which darkness, violence, immorality, and viciously anti-social violence are shown to be triumphant over gentility, empathy, and those who behave in a more socially enlightened manner? Why should that be so thoroughly objectionable, to the point where I simply insist that Stirling’s Snowbrother, and now, his Draka series, are simply morally unacceptable as works of fiction?

As a long time debater, I’m well aware that the argument ‘just BECAUSE’ is never particularly persuasive. Yet in this case, it seems to me so self-evident that it is a writer’s basic social responsibility to write moral fiction, especially if that writer is aware that they have a large audience who will be reading and therefore most likely influenced by their work, that I’m almost forced to simply default to it.

It’s like explaining why we need a space program to one of these emotional infants who wants to run the government like a business, and who insists that every single thing that gets public funding show a sizable profit. How do you explain to someone with an abacus for a soul, that mankind’s first, best destiny is to be an explorer, and space is the one physical frontier we have left?

Similarly, it seems to me you either get the basic social contract, or you don’t. If you do, then you won’t need to have it explained to you that a writer... a published author... is someone who is so intrinsically dependent on the web of laws, of intricate social mechanisms governing acceptable and unacceptable behavior, on the various economic and moral and ethical covenants that all people of good will, or who possess even the most vestigial level of enlightened self-interest, everywhere, subscribe to, on some basic level, that it utterly behooves them... it is simply such an author’s duty, as well as their responsibility, to the society as a whole that supports them... to not undermine that society and its covenants by creating strongly influential pop culture artifacts specifically intended for profitable mass consumption that will corrupt and corrode the very foundations of that society.

Honestly, it just seems like I shouldn’t have to explain all that. But, there are doubtless some out there who have never grasped the social contract, and for all I know, one or two of them are reading this now. So, the Cliff Note’s Version:

If you can survive on your own, without any help from anyone else at all, without any contribution whatsoever from the efforts or abilities of anyone else, and you choose to do so then, fine. You do not need to subscribe or adhere to any social contract. You may, if you wish to, immediately travel beyond the perimeter of any and every organized enclave of humanity and there, in the anarchistic wilderness, make your own laws, beholden to no other man, engaging in your own personal Manichaean struggle with very forces of chaos themselves. And hurray for you.

If, on the other hand, you cannot create your own shelter, clothing, food and potable water from raw materials, would like to be able to go to sleep while feeling relatively secure that you won’t be killed and eaten by some predator as soon as you do so, and are not entirely confident in your ability to protect yourself while awake in your newly chosen, utterly savage and lawless environment from whatever threats may lurk there to your safety and well being... if you’d like to enjoy something created by the labor and efforts of another person, if you think at some point you may need to make use of the hard-won skills and abilities of another person (like a health care professional, say), well, then, guess what... you’re part of society. Yea, my brother, verily, my sister, I say unto thee, you belong to society, or even if you don’t, you choose to benefit from associating with society, and however much you may dislike the notion, you owe society something back.

That’s why we call it the ‘social contract’. It isn’t necessarily anything as structured (or profoundly unrealistic) as ‘from each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs’, but still, a social contract does basically depend on civilized people of mutual good will all agreeing that they won’t stalk each other through the streets, beat each other over the head, steal each other’s chattels, rape each other’s unconscious bodies, and then either enslave each other, or just pop each other into the stewpot for dinner.

Now, I’m not a social extremist. I’ve never much liked the whole ‘if you’re not part of the solution you’re part of the problem’ idea, because it offends my fundamental desire to be lazy and utterly self-centered. I personally think that it’s perfectly feasible to not be part of either the problem or the solution; to, in fact, be socially inert. But I do think that, since I do not kid myself that I could survive for so much as seven successive picoseconds without the social matrix that surrounds and supports me (my eyesight, without corrective lenses, is very nearly non-functional; I’m vastly overweight, I have bad teeth, my only useful skill is typing, which has no value in a non-technological, subsistence-level society, and frankly, I’m the sort of naturally obnoxious, dislikable person who would be the first one the cannibal tribes chucked into the bouillabaisse about four hours after the fall of civilization), I do owe that basic social matrix, at the very least, the consideration that I will not do stuff to actively attempt to subvert or undermine it. And, as a wannabe professional writer myself, that very much includes, not creating works of fiction in which my protagonists perform viciously anti-social deeds and seem to prosper in consequence.

People read that stuff, and they think to themselves “gee, you know, if Hannibal Lecter can escape from prison, triumph over all his enemies, and in the end kidnap and brainwash the delectable Starling into being his slut puppy, well, my God... why not be a sociopath and run around killing, eating, torturing, and raping people? I mean, shit, sounds like fun to me!”

Which brings us neatly back around to S.M. Stirling’s brilliant but fundamentally flawed Draka novels.


Proceed to part 2...

Copyright © 2005 by D. A. Madigan

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