S. M. Stirling’s Alternate Histories
by D. A. Madigan
Table of Contents|
Part 1 appears
in this issue.
|part 2 of 4|
Which brings us neatly back around to S.M. Stirling’s brilliant, but fundamentally flawed, Draka novels.
The Draka conceit is a very well conceived one, an alternate history that turns on the smallest and yet most plausible of historical variations. Towards the end of the Revolutionary War, the British take over control of the southern tip of Africa from the Dutch, and use the inglorious colony thereon as a dumping ground and refuge for the Hessian mercenaries and former Tory colonists of North America who find themselves unwelcome in the newly independent United States.
A hundred years or so later, the ‘Drakeland’ colony (named after Sir Francis Drake) gets a fresh influx of Yankee-hating refugees, when the bitter diehards from the losing, Southern side of the Civil War emigrate there, as well. (Bear in mind, there’s no thing wildly unlikely about any of this; the Brits did own the Cape territory for a while, and they also did ally themselves with the Confederacy during the Civil War; not for moral reasons — Britain was one of the first of the civilized nations to outlaw slavery — but for economic ones: Britain wanted cheap textiles from the South.)
‘Drakia’ is a harsh land, one where the former European/North American settlers are perpetually outnumbered and surrounded on every side by murderously hostile African natives. This gives rise to a violently xenophobic, insular, and extremely martial society, which in order to survive must absolutely and utterly dominate the less technologically advanced savages around them, slaughtering the utterly intransigent by the thousands and domesticating the more pliable ‘bushmen’ as much-needed slave labor.
Stirling points out that this sets up an unstable social dynamic, whereby the ‘Draka’ are always in the minority, constantly surrounded by a barely domesticated slave race that could, at any time, rebel against their vastly outnumbered masters and slaughter them all to the last man, woman and child. In order to prevent this, the Draka create and come to believe in, as a culture and as a society, their very own uberman mythos, a self-fulfilling prophecy they set about bringing into being by sending their children off to military boarding schools from near infancy onward, transforming their future generations into training hardened, athletic and intellectually overachieving near superhumans.
More important even than the hardening of their children’s bodies through lifelong martial training, however, is the hardening of the will that comes from the lifelong steeping of the nascent Draka in their poisonous and toxically anti-humanistic ‘Will To Dominate’ mythos. For the Draka to continue to survive in their unstable and untenable position, they must firmly believe that they are an elite race, born and destined to rule all non-Draka the way humans rule the beasts of the field, and more importantly, they must continually impress this mythos on their slaves, which always by necessity outnumber the Draka, as well. If ever the Draka ‘serf’ class rises up in universal rebellion, the Draka will all die, and they know it. Therefore, they have to make this Uberman mythos real, both to themselves and to those they have conquered. It’s not simply a matter of convenience, it’s literally life and death for all Draka everywhere.
Over generations, the Draka truly come to believe that they are superhumans; literally higher on the food chain than non-Draka. To the Draka, all non-Draka are serfs, either already domesticated and useful, and therefore entitled to the beneficent protection and dominance of the Draka ruling class, or feral and savage and dangerous, still not yet brought ‘Under the Yoke’... something that they inevitably will and must be, for the Draka to survive as a people, a culture, and a race.
The Draka culture is probably the best and most utterly hateful embodiment of sheer sadistic evil I have ever seen in a fictional milieu, and Stirling brings them to life in chilling four dimensionality, making them seem to live, breathe, strut, swagger and sneer across the pages of his first three Draka novels, Marching Through Georgia, Under the Yoke, and The Stone Dogs. And beyond simply being one of the most utterly fascinating literary studies of pure twisted loathsomeness ever done, these novels are wonderfully entertaining adventure fiction, as well.
Stirling weaves an epic, multigenerational tale of a monstrous and yet still palpably human Draka family, the von Shrakenbergs, following Erik von Shrakenberg from his early adulthood as a minor officer during World War II, helping the Draka defeat the Nazis and secure all of Europe for their global ‘Domination of the Draka’, up through Erik’s eventual ascension to the title of Archon, the Draka’s highest elective office and leader of their government. Along the way we see other von Shrakenbergs have their own adventures, including, in probably the most fascinating twist, two agents of the Alliance for Democracy, the American-led social, moral, and political opposition to the Draka, who, although they aren’t really more than peripherally aware of the connection, are actually von Shrakenbergs themselves, due to their mother’s being repeatedly raped in Draka-occupied France just after WWII, before she was smuggled out at the end of Under the Yoke.
That Stirling is fascinated with his viciously sociopathic creations is obvious throughout the series, and not necessarily a flaw for the bulk of it. Where another writer would have been content to let the Draka be flatly black, cardboard, undifferentiated Klingon or Orc stereotypes, investing detail and dimensionality only in their heroic counterparts, Stirling focuses much of his narrative on Draka characters, often making them his protagonists, if not necessarily his heroes. This gives the Draka a truly fascinating credibility, and makes their world a very vivid and credible one... and makes the reader long, through the several thousand pages of Stirling’s stirring narrative, to finally see the Draka crushed into smoking, splattered goo once and for all, in the final conclusion of the epic.
Unfortunately, Stirling proves to be more than merely fascinated with the Draka, he’s enraptured, bewitched, and ensorcelled by them, and somewhere around the middle of The Stone Dogs, he abandons any pretensions he might have had towards writing a moral conclusion to this series and simply (completely unacceptably) lets the Draka win in the Final (nuclear) War between them and the Alliance, chasing the last remnants of democratic, egalitarian human self-government off the near-ruined Earth, setting the stage for the horrors of an utterly Draka dominated globe for the next thousand years... which he then takes ghoulish delight in detailing at great and enormous length for the first several thousand words of the truly reprehensible Drakon.
As a climax to one of science fiction’s better story arcs, the Drakas’ triumph over the Alliance for Democracy is a moral and ethical grotesquerie, and while The Stone Dogs is a beautifully written piece of fiction, and one of the finer pieces of speculative science fiction I’ve ever read, the disfiguring blotch of this completely intolerable resolution makes it impossible for me to fully reread the entire final volume with any real pleasure. In fact, it’s probably the reason Under the Yoke remains my favorite Draka novel, since this is the only one where the Draka arguably lose in the end... and even then, they don’t lose much, and the final resolution of The Stone Dogs makes even that minor victory on the part of the Alliance utterly moot.
In a late breaking newsflash, Mr. Stirling tells me, in response to me sending a first draft of this thing to him, that he wrote Snowbrother in law school.
Now, it shouldn’t surprise me that the evil Kommanz and thoroughly reprehensible Draka were inspired by close association with aspiring lawyers. In fact, that makes perfect sense.
But Steve, you still shouldn’t have let the creepy bastards WIN.
According to the notes from the inside front page of The Hammer, Book II of The General, David Drake plotted this series based on the historical career of the ancient Roman Byzantine general Belisarius. Which is interesting because... well, okay, this isn’t interesting to anyone but me, but Belisarius was also used as an important character in Chelsea Quinn Yarbro’s A Flame In Byzantium.
See? That wasn’t interesting to anyone but me. But I like these little cross connections, and I’m writing this.
Anyway, in Drake’s own words: “I researched the life of the great Byzantine general Belisarius, then wrote approximately 20,000 words of background and plot set on a human-settled planet which had sunk to roughly the technological level of 19th-century America. I outlined in meticulous detail the battles by which my hero reunited his world.” Or, in other words, Drake loosely took the historical story of Belisarius’ campaigns and personal life and based “The General” on it, updating the technology to the mid-19th century or so — cannons, rifles, pistols, Gatling guns, revolvers — and setting his new story on a distant planet, Bellevue, where the starfaring culture from Earth that had originally colonized the world had fallen somewhat into decay.
The primary difference between Earth and this distant planet seems to be that horses hadn’t done well way out there, so people rode around on giant dogs, instead, and they actually painted this on several of the covers, and it looked pretty stupid, too.
As a side note: I’ve never understood the ‘let’s do a fantasy story and have our guys ride around on anything except horses’. In my opinion, it’s just a bad idea. Yes, there are alien worlds and yes, man only relatively recently in historical terms here on Earth began riding on horses, and yes, different cultures have ridden different types of beasts of burden. I don’t care. It’s still a bad idea to do pre-modern fantasy melodrama and mount your troops on anything but horses. The horseman is one of those images that has become deeply rooted in our cultural matrix and it’s an image that carries an enormous amount of emotional tonnage for any modern reader, and when you make a point of putting your heroes on anything else — I don’t care what it is, camels or ton ton or huge eighteen-legged Martian dinosaurs with feathers or giant dogs — it’s just stupid. The points you get towards ‘alien world/different culture’ atmosphere and credibility simply don’t make up for the ‘boy does this look stupid’ factor. If humans can survive on an alien world, so can horses. People like horses, they’d take them along. Let your damn heroes ride horses. End of lecture.
There were a few other differences between Earth and Bellevue (again, the name of the world in these books), like there were monstrous sentient sea creatures that made shipping problematic and tended to keep humans from swimming in the ocean. That wasn’t a major plot point, but it was mentioned from time to time. Other than that, the world was kind of barren, but basically Earth-like.
S.M. Stirling was apparently hired to write the actual text of the series over Drake’s plots, and I assume Drake’s plots weren’t overly detailed, since Drake himself indicates that he emphasized detailing the battles, not the story, and because the story itself is classic Stirling. (That’s a good thing, for the most part.)
Basically, we follow a young officer named Raj Whitehall who, with the help of a still surviving sentient computer from the early days of the colony which is trying to rebuild an advanced technological civilization (and therefore needs a strong centralized government ruling as much of the human settled terrain as possible), pretty much ends up conquering most of the world and supplanting his current ruler as a sort of military-emperor.
Perhaps because he’s working over someone else’s plot, Stirling’s usual predilection for and fascination with Evil, Pure and Simple is pretty much entirely absent from “The General.” On the other hand, Stirling seems fascinated with 19th-century style warfare (judging from this series, as well as the later Nantucket trilogy, and his latest alternate history novel, The Peshawar Lancers) and he does a pretty good job of recreating the military tactics and strategy from that long-dead time here.
Drake’s notes indicate that the 19th-century technology was pretty much his idea. Stirling has shown, in both the Fifth Millenium series, and the Draka arc, that he has an in-depth working knowledge of obscure and little-used historical technologies (obscure and little-used in our timeline, anyway) and a general fascination with past ordnance, so it would seem that it was this series that began the fascination with 19th-century weaponry, strategy, and tactics that continued through his later work, the Islander trilogy, and his current The Peshawar Lancers.
“The General,” it’s also interesting to note, continues another sub-theme of Stirling’s, namely, for having a monogamous, romantically involved gay couple in each of his major works. Exactly why Stirling does this (and why he forwent it in The Peshawar Lancers) isn’t clear, but, well, in everything Stirling has written to date, somewhere or another, there’s a gay couple... Sh’kaira and Megan in Fifth Millenium, Yolanda and... hmmm... Myfwany, that’s her name, in the Draka series... although, to be fair, Yolanda only becomes a character in The Stone Dogs.
However, the Draka’s cultural tendency to fuck anything they can make hold still long enough, of either gender, is well established in the first two books, as well, and, come to think of it, Tanya von Shrakenberg and her little French maid Solange are another gay couple in Under the Yoke, it’s just that Tanya certainly isn’t exclusive in her attentions, nor can you really call a relationship between a Draka and a serf a truly romantic one, however much the two of them may care for each other... it’s much more a master/pet dynamic than it is anything between one human partner and another.
Later on, in the Nantucket trilogy, Marian Alston and her girlfriend Swindapa are central to the narrative... in fact, gay couples, or at least romantic homosexual relationships are simply so damned common a thread throughout Stirling’s body of work, that it came as quite a surprise when he didn’t have such a couple show up in The Peshawar Lancers, and he skipped over some perfectly good opportunities for lesbian sex scenes in his first Terminator novel, too... which certainly wouldn’t have hurt that last at all.
As noted briefly, in both the Islander books, and in Stirling’s previous lengthy collaboration with David Drake, The General, there is among each contingent of heroic protagonists a monogamously involved, very happy gay couple. What’s even more interesting about both these depictions of homosexual romance is that both of these couples are rather ostentatiously shown adopting children and acting as exemplary parents, as well as world-saving military heroes. This seems like such a shining (and not particularly subtle) exemplar of alternate lifestyles advocacy that one has to wonder exactly who among Stirling’s friends are politically active gays, and just exactly what they have photos of Steve doing to get him to do such obvious product placement for them.
However, when one reflects on just how much shit Steve must have taken from the gay community at large, and any gay friends of his he might have in specific, over the fact that he depicted pretty much all the vile and noxious Draka as being at least bisexual (while arguably the most monstrous Draka character created by Stirling, Yolanda Ingolffson, was pretty resolutely lesbian no matter how hard she tried not to be), while contrasting this with the straightforwardly heterosexual heroic figures in the ranks of the Alliance for Democracy... well... you can see why Stirling would suddenly prioritize putting some positive gay couples (adopting kids, yet) front and center in his subsequent fictional constructs.
Personally, I need only fondly recall Alliance infiltration agent Frederick Kustaa in the following passage from Under the Yoke [pg 323, Baen Books, 1989]:
...it still looked unnatural to see men wearing jewelry. A rueful glance down at his own clothes; loose indigo-blue trousers with gold embroidery down the seams, ruffled shirt, string tie with broad lapels edged in silver-gilt, buckled shoes. He had drawn the line at the diamond ear-studs the outfitting section back at OSS HQ tried to insist on, but there was no alternative to the floppy-brimmed hat with the side-clasp and spray of peacock feathers; the only really comfortable item was the gunbelt. At least he didn’t have to wear that to breakfast.
I look like the most dangerous goddam pansy in the world, [Kustaa] thought...
to realize that Stirling probably still hasn’t dug himself out of that particular hole with his gay pals and will almost certainly need to keep creating detailed alternate worlds with heroic gay protagonist couples adopting children and raising them brilliantly for quite some time to come before he does.
“The General” series is quite worth reading, and if you really want to, Baen is reissuing it (or has reissued it) in two large trade paperback volumes, each, I believe, with three of the six part series in them. Be warned, however; Baen similarly collected the Draka books into one volume (The Domination) a few years back, and I was disgusted to discover, when I skimmed through that rather large trade paperback, that they’d deliberately left a lot of stuff out... all Stirling’s fascinating historical information that he uses as chapter headings and appendixes to each work is gone, and the text itself has been condensed in places. I suppose the essence is still there, but stuff like that annoys the shit out of me (even if Stirling did the condensations himself, it’s still aggravating, and if he didn’t, it’s reprehensible).
So I strongly recommend hitting a used bookstore and looking for the original paperback editions if you’re going to look either of these series up. I also strongly recommend you do find them and read them, both for the Draka series and, less strongly, “The General.” The Draka stuff is, in my opinion, must-read material for SF fans, especially those who enjoy well-conceived and wonderfully detailed alternate history stories. “The General” stuff is solidly well written military/SF adventure; nothin’ wrong there, either... it’s just not crucial to the whole SF experience, like the Draka material is.
I also note, with a sigh, that there are two follow ups (at least) to “The General” series, The Chosen and... something else. The Chosen is, honestly, quite awful, the sort of thing I assume Stirling slammed out because he needed bail money or something, or had a contractual obligation to Baen he needed to satisfy before he could do something he really wanted to do. The other one, which I can’t remember right now, I vaguely recall being okay, but not great.
To be continued...
Copyright © 2005 by D. A. Madigan