(S M Stirling, 2003)

Review in brief

This book tells the story of John Rolfe, son of an old Virginia family whose fortunes have declined, who leaves the army in 1946 wounded in one leg and with no obvious future, and rents a house in Oakland, California.

By pure luck, he finds in the house a gateway to another world: an alternate world of lower technology, in which the Americas have never been settled by Europeans, and remained inhabited only by Red Indians and wild animals.

Quickly seeing much personal opportunity in this discovery, he reveals it only to selected friends and family members.

They go over and find gold in the alternate California, naturally occurring wherever it was found historically in our own world.

Rolfe christens his new country New Virginia, and his happy band begin to refer to their original world as FirstSide.

Converting raw gold from New Virginia into FirstSide wealth isn't straightforward, but it can be done, and they find ways to do it. With their FirstSide wealth, they can buy equipment and hire employees to settle very comfortably in New Virginia, while keeping the whole operation unknown to anyone on FirstSide.

Most of the Red Indians are killed by infectious diseases to which they have no resistance (as happened in our own history), and the survivors don't represent a serious threat to New Virginians armed with twentieth-century weapons.

What turns into a threat in the course of the book is from within: more than six decades after the founding of New Virginia, some insiders are planning a coup. The book is the story of the coup, and of a couple of FirstSiders who get involved and pass through the gateway.

I enjoyed this book, especially on second reading, although I found it slightly disappointing after The Peshawar Lancers, which is excellent and a hard act to follow. Conquistador is somewhat slower, with less plot; parts of it are little more than a guided tour around New Virginia.

However, the scenario is great, the descriptions of an unspoilt half-wild California are imaginative and vivid, Stirling is a good writer by sf standards, and some of the characters are quite sympathetic (I rather liked Roy Tully, the hero's amusing sidekick). As for the guided tour of New Virginia, well, it's interesting and worth seeing.

The feeling lingers that the book is a bit of a missed opportunity, and that Stirling could have made an even better book out of such a great scenario.

The world that Rolfe made

In the book, John Rolfe is given a new world to settle; what he and his friends choose to do with it is very much up to them, and it really depends on what sort of a man Rolfe is, because he chooses the others. As written, Rolfe is a Virginian wannabe aristocrat, who proceeds to set himself and his friends up as aristocrats. They become the Thirty Families of New Virginia: between them, they own all the land, most of the industrial base, and above all they own the gateway. The other people they bring in are known as Settlers, but they're basically peasants, expected to do the low- and mid-level jobs and not cause any trouble. For security reasons — in order to keep the gateway secret on FirstSide — they're not allowed to use the gateway, so none of them will ever see FirstSide again.

The remarkable thing is that they never seem to cause any trouble. With the exception of a few outcasts who run off to live with the Red Indians, and a few who live within the system but grumble mildly, they all seem quite content with their humdrum jobs and rural/suburban lives. Rolfe grants them an elected assembly (apparently as an act of benevolence), but the real power remains with the heads of the Thirty Families.

The New Virginians aren't all-American: even some of the Thirty Families come from other countries, generally with some particular reason to want to escape from FirstSide. But Rolfe deliberately imports only white people, with a few accidental exceptions; he decides that he can do without interracial tensions in his New Virginia.

Perhaps his most bizarre decision is to import lots of large animals not native to North America — including lions, tigers, elephants, and hippos — and release them into the countryside. He likes hunting, and treats New Virginia as his own safari park.

Bearing in mind that Stirling could have made Rolfe any kind of man at all, and could have had any kind of political setup in New Virginia, we can well ask ourselves why he chose that kind of man and therefore that kind of political setup. Although some characters briefly voice criticisms of the political system and of Rolfe personally, overall the book treats both him and his system with considerable sympathy. Much of it seems designed to convince us how attractive New Virginia is and how happy everyone is there.

Stirling could have shown us:

But none of this appears. Instead, the main conflict in the book is with some members of the Thirty Families, who like New Virginia as much as anyone, but want even more power over it than they have already.

John Rolfe himself is presented as a sort of lovable-rogue type: he's ruthless but kind-hearted at the same time, and look at the results he gets.

My own reactions

As a libertarian, I originally reacted to New Virginia with a certain amount of distaste. However, thinking about it further, I'm not sure that it would be worse in practice than a conventional representative democracy (which itself doesn't fill me with enthusiasm). There will always be centres of power in society; what's important is not to concentrate all the power in one place, because any centre of power can go bad. Arguably, our conventional governments concentrate power too much, while in New Virginia it's more dispersed among the Thirty Families. The plot of this book demonstrates (deliberately, I suppose) that the other Families can successfully fight back even if more than one Family goes bad.

The Families are not separate countries. Any Settler can easily choose where to live, which Family to be associated with and to work for. A Family that treats Settlers badly will lose them to other Families; and labour is valuable in New Virginia, which has a low population and no slavery.

The problem with Rolfe's political system is not that it's bad, but that it's not sustainable, for two reasons.

  1. In the short term, it's semi-plausible that Settlers might be content with a system that gives them a better life than they had FirstSide. However, in the long term it's not plausible that people will tolerate a system in which most of them have zero chance of rising to the top, except by marriage or adoption. Rolfe occasionally creates new aristocrats by invitation (so the 'Thirty Families' are thirty and rising), but he recruits them from FirstSide, not from within New Virginia.
  2. The Thirty Families may work well enough in New Virginia while its population is around 150,000. But some new system will be needed as the population grows and spreads out to cover the rest of the continent, and perhaps ultimately the rest of the world. I don't think the system described in the book will scale up successfully.

There's considerable scope for another book showing the later history of the New Virginians, which is indeterminate and could go in many different directions. Indeed, Stirling is accustomed to write novels in series, so perhaps he'll come back to this world in time.

If I had to write about the future of New Virginia, and in an optimistic way, I'd introduce some system for promoting Settlers to the aristocracy. Politically, the easiest to introduce would be the club system: a candidate would have to be proposed by one or more existing aristocrats, and accepted by a majority of the others. Alternatively, or additionally, perhaps a Settler who manages to get rich could pay for admission.

There should also be a mechanism for removing a Family from the aristocracy, for treason, criminality, or bankruptcy.

About the problem of scaling up, I think division into separate countries would eventually occur, amicably or otherwise. Some of the countries would probably adopt a non-Rolfean political system. In time, there would be wars. Gradually, with the Founder dead and his heirs losing control, the alternate world would probably come to resemble more closely the one that we know — whether you regard that as a good or a bad thing. There remains a possibility of some significant differences persisting, but establishing their plausibility would require some persuasiveness.

Stirling's disclaimer

Stirling has added a little note at the beginning of the book:

“There is a technical, literary term for those who mistake the opinions and beliefs of characters in a novel for those of the author. The term is ‘idiot.’”

If he means that we shouldn't take any particular character in the book as a self-portrait of the author, I'm not that kind of idiot. Specifically, I don't imagine that Rolfe speaks for Stirling, or that Rolfe does what Stirling would do in that situation. Rolfe is a fictional character.

However, on a more general level, the book insistently plugs the idea that aristocracy could be a Good Thing. And other books by Stirling seem to carry roughly the same message.

So it seems to me that Stirling is fond of the idea of aristocracy (consciously or subconsciously), because it would surely be weird and perverse to invest a lot of time and effort plugging something you don't believe in.

I don't really mind him plugging aristocracy. It's not what I believe in myself, but in a work of fiction I don't find it objectionable. Just a bit odd.

Written in February 2008, modified in March 2010, May 2010, and January 2012.