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Shakespeare, like any Englishman of the sixteenth century, was required by law to use the language of the conquerors, but because he was Shakespeare he became a master of the tongue. His lines throbbed with life and vitality. They say that he hated writing plays about the Turkish sultans and their triumphs, that he would much rather have written of Richard III and King John and Henry IV, our English kings before the Turkish Conquest. But he wrote of Turks in the Turkish tongue, and made such a job of it that to this day the Turks revere him and blush to think he was an Englishman.

Robert Silverberg is known as one of the literary architects of steampunk, experimenting with alternate histories in his novels. This book is yet another return to the trough, with a Muslim dominated Europe and the Americas ruled over by the Aztec Empire. It is a slim volume, but one which raised a number of questions for me.

Dan Beauchamp is descended from a proud line of Englishmen who refused to abandon their Christian faith during the Turkish rule of Europe. Making the signs of the Islamic faith in public, but holding mass behind closed doors, Dan is tired of hiding. He decides his fortunes lie to the West and sets sail for the Hesperides. The continent was discovered by Portuguese sailors late in the 16th century, shortly after Europe recovered from a devastating plague that wiped out three quarters of the population. The New World did not prove to be as welcoming as the sailors had hoped and they were sacrificed to the Aztec gods. The year according to the Gregorian calendar is 1985. Mankind has not yet invented air travel.

Dan sails from London, now known as New Istanbul, for Mexico. He has studied Nahuatl in secret for months and is determined to make his fortune and attach himself to a member of the Aztec Imperial Court as a bondsman. During the long voyage Dan happens to make the acquaintance of a high ranking member of Aztec society, who advises him to seek out the rebel prince Topiltzin. After making the acquaintance of a sorcerer who explains that this world is just one of many, Dan is warned that his choice to follow power-hungry nephew of King Moctezuma will lead to tragedy and disaster. Nevertheless our hero sets off to find a new kingdom for his prince to rule, convinced he is close to forging his own future in Industrial Mexico, far from the devastation of conquered England.

There are some similarities here to Silverberg’s novella Sailing to Byzantium, which also featured a traveler from a dominant Muslim superpower arriving in a very different America from the one we know. The Gate of Worlds was written in 1967, which I find fascinating as it is a steampunk work that dabbles in quantum theory, with the sorcerer Quequex explaining to Dan Beauchamp how every decision creates a new world within the multiverse of possibilities. It explores the differences in the timeline, with a far more devastating outbreak of the Black Death leaving the European mainland unable to defend itself from a Turkish invasion. Fewer than nine million inhabitants live in Britain. America is never discovered by Columbus. Africa is free and independent. Asia is under a Russian yoke. I love the idea of William Shakespeare writing epics lauding the Turkish invasion though.

The book also disturbs with its thesis that without an expansionist Europe, significant technological advances would never have been made. The Aztec and Incan civilizations seem happy to retain their tribal natures well into the twentieth century. Cars are unreliable, steam-powered, miniature trains. Given the date of publication I am surprised at the degree to which it resembles the central argument of Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel, which came out in 1997. Diamond argues that a densely populated European population, that had survived devastating waves of disease and internecine warfare, had a greater incentive to become expansionist, defeating the indigenous peoples of conquered lands courtesy of the three elements of the title. Willingness to kill, infectious disease and technological invention.

Beyond all this theorizing, Silverberg has given a steampunk veneer to the 19th century novel of fortune, akin to Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island or Kidnapped. If that’s something you think you would enjoy, The Gate of Worlds might be for you. Personally I left it feeling troubled by its implications.

Now I read the first issue of Brian Wood and Riccardo Burchielli two years ago (cheers Chesney), but only just got the chance to read the trade. What was I waiting for?

Wood imagines a near-future scenario where the United States is torn apart by civil war after years of overseas conflict. The secessionist Middle American states have pushed their way towards the coast, with the island of Manhattan becoming a fortified ‘demilitarized zone’.

Matty Roth is a young photojournalist, who through some string-pulling by his father, has landed the internship of a life-time. Working with award winning journalist Viktor Ferguson, Roth expects it to be a safe cubicle assignment. Instead he is loaded onto a helicopter and flown to Manhattan Island “highlighting what it’s really like for people living in the ‘D.M.Z.”

Turns out the civilians living behind barricades on the island don’t appreciate choppers landing in their neighbourhood. Ferguson and his crew are slaughtered, with Roth barely escaping with his life. Stranded in the D.M.Z. he discovers what he’s been told about the war and life behind the battlelines is mostly lies. Former medical student Zee becomes his reluctant guide and encourages him to write about what is really happening for folks on the mainland. Roth’s status as a journalist opens more doors than he expects, allowing him access to parts of the island only rumoured to exist – the ghost conservationists of Central Park, snipers from the two sides of the conflict who exchange love letters through signs, and the leader of the Free Armies. Just as he starts to find his feet though, Roth’s journalist’s accreditation is stolen by someone looking to impersonate him, leading to a breakneck chase through a booby trapped Manhattan, with no protection from the locals to rely on.

Wood writes convincingly about this ‘second civil war’, where “every day is 9/11“. Research is one of his key strengths. Seeing as he followed D.M.Z. with Northlanders, a Viking comic, I’m not surprised. These first five issues fly past, with action scenes informed by an incisive intelligence. It reads like John Carpenter’s Escape from New York rewritten by Cody Doctorow. Exploitation cinema meets political subtext, guerrilla activist fiction.

One of the ironies of 9/11 was that this attack on the city of New York unified the United States against the threat of terrorism, while resentment of Manhattan excess, East Coast pinko intellectuals and permissive morality continued. Wood actualizes this continuing antagonism towards the East Coast with the civil war, the hatreds stoked by ‘heartland’ shock jocks, Fox News anchors and opportunistic politicians given full force. Matty Roth discovers a world of greys awaiting him on Manhattan, a multiethnic community scavenging for itself among the ruins.

The art by Burchielli rests somewhere on the line between Scottish penciler Jock and Paul Pope. Scratchy lines and streets drenched in shadows. It’s very kinetic, complimenting Roth’s breathless pursuit by soldiers and gangs.

I enjoyed the story a great deal and am looking forward to collecting the next few trades.

Every time we killed a thousand Bugs at a cost of one M.I. it was a net victory for the Bugs. We were learning, expensively, just how efficient a total communism can be when used by a people actually adapted to it by evolution; the Bug commissars didn’t care anymore about expending soldiers than we cared about expending ammo. Perhaps we could have figured this out about the Bugs by noting the grief the Chinese Hegemony gave the Russo-Anglo-American Alliance; however the trouble with ‘lessons from history’, is that we usually read them best after falling flat on our chins.

Okay, a couple of notes. First off, yes, I snapped this book up because I’m a big fan of Paul Verhoeven’s film. If you haven’t seen it yet I would advise you to drop everything and check it out. It is one of the most darkly humorous sci-fi satires I have ever seen. Plus it has Neil Patrick Harris goose-stepping on screen in a mocked up SS uniform. Secondly, and maybe that last sentence gave you a hint, I’ve made myself a promise of not using the ‘f’ word in reviewing this book. Not that it isn’t…a word beginning with ‘f’ that rhymes with – ascist. Just that, in doing so, I immediately scupper the review.

I plan on doing that anyway, but I’m trying to establish ground rules here, c’mon! Be fair.

Anyway Heinlein’s novel begins with young Johnny Rico narrating to us a military ‘drop’ on an alien world inhabited by a race referred to as ‘Skinnies’. Equipped with large robotic suits of armour that allows soldiers to leapfrog over buildings, the humans bomb sites that will cause the mass amount of panic. At one point Rico throws an intelligent bomb into a crowded building that begins to audibly count itself down to destruction. He is one of Rasczak’s Roughnecks, a platoon that’s known for being mean and fast, dedicated fighters. Once their objective is achieved they pull out and we flashback to Rico’s first days in the army.

The majority of the book itself is occupied with the hero’s training and experiences in boot-camp. This was something of a surprise, but it eventually became clear to me what Heinlein is looking to achieve. Rico is inspired to join up by the example of his stern Moral Philosophy teacher Mr Dubois. Throughout the book Dubois is seen as more of a father-figure than Rico’s own businessman dad, who argues against his son joining up. Only enlisted men are offered the opportunity to become ‘citizens’, meaning only they can vote in elections, should they survive long enough to make it to the next ballot. When Rico signs up he becomes estranged from his father, who wanted him to go to Harvard and take over the family business. He only receives letters from his mother from then on, who tries to intercede between her husband and son. It is Dubois who actually reaches out to Rico, sending him a note to say how proud he is that a student of his volunteered to join the Mobile Infantry.

We are told that 2009 recruits signed up, including Rico. After relentless training, hard discipline, even naked survival treks through mountains – less than 200 grunts remain for graduation. Rico ships out and joins the fight against ‘the Bug’, an enemy race of giant arachnids that operate under a hive-mind and feel no mercy. By the time Rico graduates the human race is at war with the Bug, which has struck Earth and wiped out Buenos Aires. He soon learns that life is cheap and the Bug never quits. We follow his progress up the ranks during the conflict.

Verhoeven received many plaudits for his subversive take on Heinlein’s novel, but the author himself has written quite a work of subversion. In short this book is nothing less than an attack on contemporary liberal values, with the militarist state raised up as an utopia. The Bugs are equated to communists and Dubois dismisses Marxism with a pithy culinary analogy. Social workers and psychologists are blamed for teenage delinquency and ‘the Terror’ is cited as a pan-global 21st century epidemic of adolescent violence.

Basically this future society is a response to hoodies.

What’s more, we never really leave Dubois’ classroom. I expected action scenes, but most of the novel occurs in flashbacks. Rico continually reminisces about Dubois’ lessons on morality. And this is Heinlein’s philosophical outlook, in fictional form.

 

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