Thursday, June 21, 2007

Review of Fitzpatrick's War -- Theodore Judson

Fitzpatrick's War is a future historical fantasy loosely steampunk in flavor. The main narrative, set in a future earth, concerns the post-hoc confessions of a high ranking soldier in a corrupt world-spanning empire. This soldier, named Sir Robert Mayfair Bruce, is befriended by the deeply psychotic Lord Fitzpatrick the Younger in their days together at the War College. We learn of their early friendship and the slow development of Bruce's complicity in a war of genocide. Much of the fictional memoir is a confession of guilt he feels over what he knew to be wrong but lacked the courage to oppose.

This central narrative is perhaps a bit conventional in its features, but the author has given us an additional and charming twist. The whole of the narrative is presented within a sort of outer wrapper: a fictional Doctor Professor Roland Modesty Van Buren writes an introduction to this "Annotated Edition" of the memoirs of Bruce. Even better, our historian-narrator wastes no time attacking Bruce relentlessly, claiming that the memoirs scandalize the wondrous name of Fitzpatrick, a celebrated hero of world history.

Put simply, the effect of the book is thus: the world of the fictional reader who might receive a copy of this "annotated edition" is presumably caught up in the massive historical coverup which has conspired to glorify the machinations of Fitzpatrick and his empire. All public writings eulogize and sanctify the life and accomplishments of this great person--save this scandalous piece by Bruce. We, the real reader, are meant to see right through the "historian's" attempt to discredit Bruce, seeing his future time for the fascist, puritanical, misogynistic culture it has become. In fact, the book's whole project fails if we do not sympathize with the "immoral creature" that Bruce supposedly reveals himself to be.

One World, the Yukon Confederation, and the Timermen

At the time of Bruce's memoir, the world had not yet been fully united beneath the Yukon Confederation, a large North American nation of little population but great military might. The United States remains a dim and scandalous memory, having descended into chaos long hence. The Yukons are portrayed essentially as an English society of Puritans in the late 19th century in terms of their speech, attitudes, religious affections, and family structure. Elsewhere in the world are other powers, most notably the Chinese.

Above all this are the Timermen, an enigmatic group of people who maintain a rigid enforcement upon the advances of technology. Since electricity is blamed for a history of great evil and suffering, the Timermen maintain a vast network of satellites that detect and destroy any major electrical contrivance on the face of the earth. They are supposed to be egalitarian in their application of this limit, but it turns out that they favor the Yukons for purposes I will reveal later.

Judson draws for us a detailed world which surpasses our own in terms of genetic engineering, chemical engineering, and a few other sciences, but who is locked in the age of steam. Imagine world wars being fought without a diesel engine, without radios, but with huge steam-powered bombers dropping incendiary fluids which make napalm look like kool-aid. Along with the usually believable mannerisms and set pieces of a Victorian-era world, Judson's future earth is well fleshed-out.

"The Rigorists Always Win" [spoiler alert]

The narrative-within-the-narrative structure plays out conventionally: we come to love Bruce and the woman he marries, we come to loathe Fitzpatrick the Younger as he descends into megalomaniacal madness, and we shudder at what Fitzpatrick manages to build--one world, united under the military might and oppressive cruelty of the Yukons. But this is not all Judson is attempting to tell. Ultimately, this book proves to be a work of science fiction proper, since Judson reveals his hand at the very end of the book in a conversation between Bruce and the Timermen. It turns out the whole of the book, conceits and all, was truly just a social experiment played out in fiction as Heinlein or Asimov might have done. Observe:

"To crown everything, I am about to tell you the last secret of the world."

"Hood already told me two," I said [Bruce speaking]. "The first is that the Yukons can never lose a war. The second is that we will one day have to lose; our guilt will bring us down."

"What guilt" laughed Dr. Murrey [a Timerman]. "Way back when I asked you that question during the oral exams, I could tell you were not cut out to be a Timerman. Oh, you're smart enough, more than brave enough to make the grade. Your problem is that only a few weaklings among the Yukons feel any guilt--call it 'regrets' or 'shame' or whatever you wish. The great majority of our countrymen believe the beautiful lies History tell them. None of the Timermen regret anything.

"No, Brigadier Bruce, the last and only secret of the world, the thing that lets the Timermen keep the Yukons in the first stage of civilization and never will allow the Confederacy to pass into empire and decadence is this: rigorists always win. I do not need to adorn that truth. The great Arab Historian might have said: 'The faction that maintains its solidarity of purpose always is the victor.' The Roman Republic beats mercantile and superstitious Carthage, hungry barbarians beat degenerate imperial Rome, Mongols beat decadent Sung China, Roundheads beat Cavaliers, fire-breathing abolitionists beat genteel southerners, Bolsheviks beat moderate Russian Reformers, and Yukons beat Americans. Rigorists always win."

Judson goes on with the conversation from here, revealing how the Timermen manipulate events up and down the castes of society to ensure the eternal supremacy of the Yukons (and above them, themselves). The whole of Judson's narrative turns out to be chiefly an experiment to see if "the Arab Historian's" premise be true.

History and Meaning in Judson's Future Earth

Ultimately, Judson's work leaves us empty. He explores his hypothesis and leaves us with a sense that the Timermen will endure and the Yukons will indeed go on forever. There are no subtle indications that the Timermen are wrong, or that forces beyond even their control might assert themselves someday. Even Hood's assertions that eventually guilt will bring the Yukons down has been effectively nullified by the structure of Judson's narrative.

In Fitzpatrick's War, we are given an intensified glimpse of a soul-wrenching modern truth: that not only is History dependent on the observer, but the History is not the common man's friend. He gives us no glimpse of alternatives (such as a utopianist might), rather leaving us to stew in our postmodern angst, shaking our heads in clenched reservation at our plight. Judson goes so far as to end the book on a note which attempts to bring into focus the only possibility for goodness or happiness: a brief glimpse of Bruce's love for his wife, a moment in which they flout cultural norms and kiss each others' hands in a display of public affection.

This book is clearly the product of our culture, one in which loneliness and feelings of angst at our own powerlessness pervade our every interaction with the institutions around us. Even more, this is a product of modern Western guilt at a past which is seen only in the negative: government, social institutions, moral boundaries, religious faith, and even academia are complicit, tools of empire in the hands of wicked power brokers. A bracing vision indeed.


This is an interesting book, most interesting to those with a penchant for political or philosophical theory. Anyone who has studied at the graduate level in history, theology, or philosophy will probably enjoy it more than most. Buy this book if you enjoy your steampunk in less than all its dystopian splendor, but dislike actual Victorian literature because of its cultural sensibilities. Otherwise, get it from the library first.

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