07 January 2011

Never a wasteland

At a loss of what to write, I turned to my library. Here, then, is a relatively new book of mine: Land of the Dead, by Thomas Harlan. Not at all what it sounds like, fortunately; no zombies here. Instead, think Alternate History Space Opera...it's easier than you might think. I'll cover that later.

In any case, this is the third of a series, long-delayed and indifferently touted as such, much to its loss, I think. There's a lot in this book that I feel comes directly from the previous books, less in information than in tone and feeling, and given the dense nature of the universe it inhabits, you need as much guidance as it can spare. Even in the first book in the series, Wasteland of Flint, you the reader are tossed into a universe in media res, a universe that never quite stops grinding on around you.

The basics are thus: the Aztecs dominate the world, and have done so for many, many years. At their side are the Japanese--forced from Japan by a successful Mongol invasion--in what seems to be an unequal but still potent partnership. Countries never formed, or were conquered in their infancy, and the last remaining forces of the European world are either subjugated, destroyed, or on the run and fighting a hopeless guerrilla war. These books take place long after, when this world is reaching out to a small interstellar empire, and keeps bumping into things far larger and far older than it, and no less dangerous despite being the artifacts of long-gone precursors. There's other things hinted at, and internal issues of politics and religion, but the most dangerous things are also the oldest...

Given any thought, the alternate history is an essential part of the tale, despite it being something that could have taken place in a more normal universe with a more normal Earth. Not so much the external events, of course, but the interpretation of them, an obsession not with science but with science as a tool of mysticism, science that is no less advanced than perhaps ours would be, but functions with a distinctly unobtrusive edge. You end up feeling that these Aztecs would make spacecraft-temples designed in the styles of their ancestors, complete with torches and incense and everything short of sacrifices.

I am pretty sure that Thomas Harlan is not the originator of the alternate-history-future-SF genre, but it's not one that has a massive library behind it. The concept is heady and the execution excellent, as Harlan explains a lot but gives both subtle and unsubtle pointers towards what he doesn't tell. As I said, this is a universe already in motion, and he uses this conceit like a bludgeon when he must, to accent the utter inevitability of some of his situations, In the same vein, you are often left with a sense that there is a lot of detail missing from your abbreviated view, that the stereotypes that you see are not all there is to see, which I think is used mostly to provide what the writer might not have, filling in the gaps, as it were. It gets used a lot to fill in characters, I feel, as the characters are often relatively flat and simple. It's the situations that matter, ultimately.

The touch of the author is heavy and light, stiff and flexible, all in the right places. If only more could capture me in this way.


Adam Wykes said...

Assuming you've read this, what did you think of the alternate history novella called "Missile Gap" by Charles Stross?

Geoffrey Wykes said...

I worship at the feet of Charlie Stross. 'A Colder War' is pure crack.

Adam Wykes said...

He is good, and that's great, lol. But it doesn't answer the question.

Geoffrey Wykes said...

Sorry, I guess I was being opaque...I assumed that it was then clear that yes, I have read 'Missile Gap.' Like damn near everything he writes, it's pretty mind-blowing stuff, but it's so much closer to regular hard SF that it almost can't stand compared to his later stuff.