Wednesday, February 06, 2008

4. Conquistador by S.M. Stirling

Conquistador pictureMt. Benson turned me on to this author. I suspect he has a contingency of nerdy fans who like his combo of cool ideas, detailed technical specifications and manly action. Conquistador is about a WWII vet who accidently opens a gate to another dimension in the basement of his Oakland phone in the late '40s. He goes through it. 70 years later, in a near-future bay area, a forest ranger discovers an impossible california condor in a bust on some endangered species smugglers. He follows up on the case, eventually discovering a complex conspiracy. It turns out the vet has discovered an alternate dimension where colonization never took place. He slowly builds up an empire there. His empire is having it's own political problems and they are spilling back out into our world. The alternate dimension is an ecological paradise, never having been touched by progress. The forest ranger, who is the protagonist gets caught up in their war.

The set-up is cool because the whole thing takes place in northern California, in both worlds. And Stirling has done his research. So you get stinky, crowded, polluted, modern Bay Area juxtaposed with the untouched version. It's not totally untouched, though, as the newcomers bring with them the same kind of diseases the original colonists brought, with the same effect on the native populations. They also have an old-school white male mentality and maintain a society that reflects that. It's hard to tell where Stirling stands on this issue. Sometimes you get the sense he is being critical of it, but other times there is a conservatism there that one often finds in the nerd world.

And speaking of nerdy, this book is definitely for the geeks. There is an excessive attention to detail and an exaggerated emphasis on the main hero's manliness. The two paragraph, detailed description of his weightlifting routine was a great example of where the author was trying desperately to let us know that he knows all about weightlifting by telling us about things that a real weightlifter doesn't even pay attention to. But hey, I'm a geek myself and I mostly appreciated the attention to detail. I'm getting older, though, and I have less time. Stirling is just pushing it. I imagine if the details went a little longer, I might not have had the patience to make it through the end.

As it was, though, it was an enjoyable read with a really cool setup. I think I'll probably get around to his post-apocalyptic trilogy because if he applies the same kind of attention to a world without engines, it could be quite interesting.


Jarrett said...

interesting. reminds me of Ecotopia a book about a breakaway republic of Oregon and Northern Cali.

I'll trade you a White Mountain for a Conquistador...

dsgran said...

I kept picking up and putting this book down in '06, and never got all the way through it (which is why it never made my list). The reason was definitely that strange sense of white male superiority- but I found it a little more oppressive and predominant. Maybe I was reading too much into the book, but I eventually just had to give up on it. I couldn't shake the feeling that Stirling had a strong affection for this "good old boy" world that he created, and it just creeped me out.

Maybe if I'd stuck with it it would have all made sense in the end, but as you mention, there were other reasons I'd lost patience with it.

I found his "Islands in the Sea of Time" a little more engaging, enough to actually finish, but not enough to pursue the sequels (or alternate series,which is a pretty cool concept).

I think overall that - aside from the *possible* racist undertones (i think the jury is out for me) -Stirling has very cool concepts for his books, but he gets too wrapped up in minutia and doesn't build the action well enough to sustain the initial idea.