By Jim Tortolano
We all go through what-ifs in our lives. What if I’d pursued a different career? What about “the one who got away”? What if I’d paid more attention in school?
There are now a fistful of authors who earn their pay by trying to tease out the details of what’s called “alternate history.” What if the South had won the Civil War? What if Hitler was a better painter? What if John Kennedy had not been assassinated?
One of the very best in this genre is S.M. Stirling. He’s an excellent writer who focuses equally well on the human character and technical details. He also tends to emphasize strong female characters, which is sometimes unusual in this category.
His latest work is “Black Chamber,” the first in a series of novels about an alternate world in which Teddy Roosevelt is elected to a third term and leads America into a very different World War I.
The principal protagonist is Luz O’Malley Arostegui, a spy for the titular Black Chamber, a secret American agency corresponding roughly to today’s CIA. In this reality, it’s 1916 and America has not yet entered “the Great War” but the Germans are determined to get in the first punch against the U.S.
Luz is one of Stirling’s strong women. She’s brave, smart, physically capable and beautiful. All of those talents aid her in posing as a Mexican operative anxious to oust the hated Yankees who have conquered her nation and created a “protectorate.”
She is also bisexual; Stirling’s women often show an affinity for alternate lifestyles, such as the lesbian Coast Guard officer Marian Alston in the series begun by “Island in the Sea of Time.”
In addition to insightful and sympathetic character development, Stirling does a – pardon the pun – “sterling” job of getting the technical details right, from the internal workings of a submarine to the geography of rural Germany.
Sometimes, however, that works against the flow of the novel. You find yourself flipping pages to skim the sidetrips to get back to the narrative. It reminds a bit of Herman Melville’s adoring chapters on whale physiology in “Moby-Dick.”
Another small leak in “Black Chamber” involves the point of departure: the pivot upon which history takes a different course. In this instance, President William Howard Taft dies in office. But just how that leads to T.R. becoming a fabulously powerful president despite the efforts of conservatives in his own party, and the Democrats (Woodrow Wilson barely gets a mention).
Also, how and why the U.S. conquers and hangs on to Mexico is never explained, except to suggest that the Americans do a much better job of running that nation than the Mexicans can. Stirling’s characters and plotting are superb; his world-building in this instance is a bit sketchy.
However, this is nevertheless a very good alt history novel with much to recommend it. I will look forward to the rest of the series to get a broader look at this brave new world.
“Black Chamber” is available in paperback and e-book (Kindle, etc.).
Categories: Arts & Leisure