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Fitzpatrick's War by Theodore JudsonThree and a half stars
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If there’s one lesson that history stubbornly insists on teaching us, it’s the folly of empire. And it’s a theme central to Theodore Judson’s impressive debut novel Fitzpatrick's War, an intelligent, sprawling steampunk future history that also drives home Stubborn History Lesson #2: the more things change, the more they stay the same. This is one of the more impressive debuts I’ve read recently, and though I have some reservations about Judson’s execution here and there, I think this is a writer you ought to be keeping an eye on.

It’s the 25th century, and following centuries of war, strife, and social chaos, the world has reverted to a technological state limited to steam power and zeppelins, and ruled more or less by a lone superpower, the Yukon Confederacy. Classism, feudalism, racism, militarism, every ugly thing you could attach the suffix -ism to, has been reborn in the Confederacy, a rigidly controlled society in which men are legally required to marry by 25 and women are kept squarely in the home (though they manage, in many cases, to be the powers behind many thrones). While it isn’t exactly a theocracy, religion plays a dominant role in the Confederacy, and as with all such cultures down the ages, their military adventures are justified as the Lord’s work. Though a few foreign powers — the Islamic Turks, the heathen Chinese — dare to stand against the Confederacy’s might, the Confederacy has one edge over them. A group called the Timermans holds the last remnant of high-tech left over from what’s known as the Electronic Era (our time). Orbital satellites beam Morse code messages around the globe almost immediately (no, telephones do not exist), giving the Confederacy a tactical advantage their enemies are powerless to match.

Judson’s obvious templates for the Yukon Confederacy are ancient Rome, blended with the British Empire of the 19th century and, of course, everybody’s favorite video game villains, the Nazis. Into this mix he has ingeniously sprinkled bits of uniquely American piety. People have middle names like “Purity,” “Noble,” and “God’s Will,” underscoring the hubris and arrogance of a populace supremely confident of their right to rule, while at the same time making them sound as deceptively benign as Puritans. And we all know what they got up to in Salem.

Stubborn History Lesson #3: History is written by the winners. An inspired touch of Judson’s is his decision to structure the novel as the memoirs of one Robert Mayfair Bruce, a confidant of the ruling Consul of the Confederacy, Lord Isaac Prophet Fitzpatrick. (A similar strategy would later be employed by Robert Charles Wilson in his masterful Julian Comstock.) Judson starts the ball rolling with a prologue written by a historian coming to us from near the end of the 26th century, about 150 years after the events in the story. We are informed in no uncertain terms that Bruce is a cad, and his memoirs are a foul fiction designed to sully the reputation of one of the world’s greatest men. Who was the real Fitzpatrick, a hero for the ages or the maniacal tyrant Bruce makes him out to be?

That the novel would even pose this question as its main narrative conceit means that the answer is dead obvious. But in spite of this, the book works because Judson’s framing device is no mere gimmick. He uses it to get us to think about the reliability of history as a practice. What can we say we really know about such figures as Alexander, Caesar, Jesus or Napoleon that is a cold, hard fact? Certainly a number of things — some more than others depending upon the person — but for the most part, we must rely on historians for our facts, and such people have often written through the filters of their own biases or ideologies, just like anyone else. And if someone dares to challenge the Official Story, to tarnish our heroes, should we be too eager to smack them down? One book Fitzpatrick’s War reminded me of was Roland Huntford’s extraordinary Scott and Amundsen (currently in print as The Last Place on Earth) which depicted the 1912 race for the South Pole in terms none too flattering to British hero Scott. Huntford’s vilification by the British press upon his book’s first publication is strikingly similar to what Judson’s fictional historian, who peppers the narrative with indignant footnotes, heaps upon Bruce. 

Still, it would be a fallacy to assume that anyone who challenges orthodox history must be right at all times, simply because they’re challenging it. (Huntford held up because he had voluminous documentary evidence to back up his critique of Scott.) That way lies the delusional realm of the paranoid conspiracy theorist. But the point is, for Fitzpatrick’s War to be the kind of novel that persuades people to think about how we know what we know gives it an impressive intellectual heft you don’t usually find in these kinds of military adventures.

I find this isn’t a book I have to give a blow-by-blow plot synopsis of, mainly because it’s more interesting to discuss its themes. But also because its plot, though rich in content, can be conveyed briefly. Bruce essentially relates his life story from the point at which he meets the young “Fitz” at school, and is invited into Fitz’s inner circle. Though Bruce marries a woman Fitz soundly disapproves of due to her Catholicism, he nevertheless remains one of Fitz’s most trusted subordinates after the young lord assumes the Consulship (by his father’s murder, naturally). Bruce finally begins to have pangs of conscience following his role in carrying out the young Consul’s devastating plans for global hegemony, which results in an appallingly bloody war. Pride goeth before a fall, but how soon will Fitz fall, and will he take Bruce with him? Or will Bruce be the instigator?

It would be easier to take Judson’s plot as the stuff of pure escapism were it not for the fact we live in a time when there are those in American politics who actually think in terms of ruling the world. As a result, Fitzpatrick’s War has a gravitas it wouldn't have if it had been published, say, ten years earlier.

The book only disappoints at its tail end, where, without giving away spoilers, I’ll just say Judson tosses in the notion of secret societies pulling strings from behind the scenes. It doesn’t do the book any real harm. I just think it wasn’t needed to drive home Judson’s most salient points, and in reality, I don't think it’s the way the world actually works, whatever the Illuminati crowd might believe. 

I really admired the story. Though the pacing at times gets glacial, I loved the way Judson nailed the whole feel of a true Edwardian British war hero’s memoirs. (I wouldn’t be surprised to find a well-thumbed copy of T. E. Lawrence’s The Seven Pillars of Wisdom on Judson’s nightstand.) I’m happy to have discovered this writer, and evidently, so is DAW, as they gave him the privilege of a hardcover debut. With this sort of thought-provoking entertainment on his résumé, Judson’s career looks like one to follow.