Oakland, California, 1946. Ex-soldier John Rolfe, newly back from the Pacific, is about to make a fabulous discovery. It happens with a flip of his shortwave radio switch, a thunder crack of sound, and a blinding light. He blinks his eyes to discover a portal to an alternate world where Europeans have never set foot on the land he knows as America. Able to return at will to the modern world, Rolfe summons the only people with whom he is willing to share his discovery: his war buddies. And tells them to bring their families . . .
I am a native Californian who left the state many years ago--for one reason because I was sick of the damage to the state caused by people pollution, just too many people. S. M. Stirling's novel Conquistador provides a researched look at an environmental alternative, not a utopian alternative, but at least one with a greater regard for the environment and a "second chance" to do a better job of preserving the original beauty and variety of California. This new look at a familiar landscape is a major appeal of this novel, as it may be in any alternative history novel. Conquistador provided me with an imaginative alternative to my recent reading of John Muir's (see blog excerpt posts One and Two) My First Summer in the Sierra, which I read over this winter.
Most of the action of Conquistador takes place in current times, though, with flashback chapters that describe the colonization of the new, alternate world and the foundation for the conflicts that fuel the action of the novel--because the new world, the Commonwealth of New Virginia, does have its issues, mostly fueled by the fact that colonization of the world has been accomplished by recruiting people who have been displaced by political upheavals--people who have cultural and ethnic issues.
These issues lead two California game wardens to become "involuntary colonists" to New Virginia, where they meet the colony founder's grand-daughter, a dynamic and independent young woman in a culture that has somehow missed the feminist revolution, along with several other cultural revolutions in the world. The strong and interesting characters of the novel add to the book's power: gun-toting Game Wardens, a red-headed adventurous feminist (from a '50s culture), and minor characters of Native and African Americans who are characterized as real individuals and not stereotypes.
When the hides, feathers, and ivory of endangered species show up on the black market in California, two California game wardens begin an investigation that lead them to a surprising discovery. But when specimens of extinct animals are found, they find themselves no longer investigating but the objects of investigation--by an organization rich beyond belief, wealth gained from the gold fields of an alternative universe.
With humor (an authentic photo of ancient Aztec priests decked out in Grateful Dead T-shirts), research (the New World epidemics brought with the White Man), and compassion for our culture's achievements and foibles, Stirling writes a tale that provides a different possibility for our world. If you like this sort of thing, you'll enjoy this book.
Copyright 2011 by Thomas L. Kepler