Friday, February 3, 2017

Review of Journey to Fusang, and Some Problems with Alternate History

This is cross-posted at the Late Enlightenment.

I'd had William Sanders's Journey to Fusang on my to-read list for years, and I finally got around to it. As much as I enjoyed the book, it exposes some of the problems common to the alternate history genre and even those specific to what-if-the-Mongols-invaded-Europe stories. It also made me wonder which historical branchpoints are most valued by "the academy". Each of these is covered herein.


Part I: Review of Journey to Fusang

After five centuries of European cultural domination of the world, it's difficult not to be fascinated by the now almost fantastic idea of non-Christian non-Europeans conquering parts of Europe. Of course this did happen in three corners of Europe - the Moors in Spain, the Ottoman Turks in the Balkans, and of course the Mongols. And if there were an award for depth of impression per years occupying European territory, the Mongols would win hands-down. Their advance beyond Russia lasted just a few years. And in the territory they actually held onto, modern Russia, they were there for a scant two centuries. Even in the East the dynasty they established (the Yuan) fell apart in about the same length of time, despite some useful innovations - among them, the world's first adoption of paper money, not to mention an honest attempt to change the Chinese writing system to a sensible phonetic one.

The Mongols' western high water mark was Poland and the Balkans, where they achieved several characteristically cunning and blitzkrieg-like victories before making winter camp. In the spring of 1242 they decamped just as suddenly and faded back into Central Asia. The reason typically cited for their withdrawal is the death of Ogedei Khan; in the Mongol institution of selecting a new khan, the kuriltai, you get a vote only if you're physically present at the succession talks, and the sub-Khans leading the European campaign did not want to be left out of the decision. As with most things in history, the reality is probably more multicausal and complicated. For example, Europe was littered with well fortified castles and their sieges were making for frustratingly slow going.  What's more, Mongols were not all-weather super-men, and they didn't do well in cold, wet, marshy areas, e.g. Europe.

But simplifying history for the sake of a good story (this is after all a novel, not a textbook), in Journey to Fusang, Ogedei's sickness does not lead to his death, and the spring of 1242 sees the Mongols conquer Europe from the Vistula to the North Sea and the Mediterranean. England and Ireland are spared the ravages of the grim horsemen, as there is apparently no western Khan ("khan of all the Germanies") as enterprising as Kublai (or there is, but England is protected by the same divine winds that defend Japan.) In the late 1600s when the action takes place, England and Ireland both call themselves Catholic though each has its own Pope. Milton is a gambler in London, and Shakespeare escaped to Ireland and wrote light comedy. Though, as a result of the conquest, nothing like the Renaissance happens in Europe, nor any Reformation, and there is certainly no European discovery of America. The European continent remains a cultural backwater stuck in a Malthusian trap of subsistence agriculture and ignorance, leading the protagonist at one point to make a comment about French women rearing litters of children named Pierre and Temujin. The East Coast of North America is being colonized by Moors and various other Islamic people, and the West Coast by the Chinese - the crown jewel of whose possessions is sunny Fusang and its colonial capital, a hilly metropolis by a bay. Somehow amidst all this the Aztecs not only survived but prospered, accumulating guns from Muslim traders, and they're a constant concern along the colonists' borders.

The protagonist is Finn, an Irishman, and a trickster and con-man extraordinaire, who finds himself captured by a Moorish slaving ship, which he escapes with a similarly-minded Hebrew indentured crew member. They find themselves in the great city of Dar Al Islam (New Orleans). The book does rely on incredible turns of fortune (in one moment the protagonist is in deep, the next he's on top of the world) and the plot is rarely predictable. Eventually our hero makes his way to the interior where we meet Comanches with names like Muhammad Ten-Bears. The large, dull English slave whose dumb luck brings him along for the adventure is a clear parallel to Lewis and Clarke's black slave York (the natives are amazed at his size and complexiion and, as York did, the fellow takes advantage of their fascination by fornicating with scores of their women.) Eventually the group of Islamic frontiersmen end up in Taos, where they encounter Chinese colonists for the first time. I particularly liked the description of the strange energy of Taos - I'm about as un-spiritual as they come but I find the place oddly unsettling. They also hole up in Acoma for a siege, which would be as good a place as any. In the real world, Acoma Pueblo, which is a cliff dwelling that's been continuously occupied since well before Columbus. I should point out that the breathless description of the ninja they encounter is one of the few things in the book which marks it as a work of the eighties.

Tension builds as both the Chinese and Muslims discuss nameless troubles in the north, which turns out to be a Russian Khan and his horde that crossed the North Pacific and invaded from - not the soft underbelly, but the undefended top half of North America. What results is very much a recapitulation of Mongol sieges and brutality, but in the American heartland. (Among other towns, Taos is completely destroyed.) The Russian khan's ultimate goal is the conquest of the Aztec empire from which he can invade the settled parts of the continent, which would precipitate a kind of world war. Of course through a combination of cunning and luck, our hero is able to stop the invasion, and after recovering from the injuries he sustains in doing so, he migrates to Fusang.

For me, what really sets this apart from other alternate histories was the scoundrel protagonist's cynicism, insulting descriptions and occasional misleading narration. For instance, as he and his Hebrew companion are traveling up the Mississippi to their frontier outpost (and not helping with the work at all - remember, these are escaped slaves that people are tolerating!) the manager of the expedition has finally had it with their shiftlessness:
Ibrahim had discovered Yusuf and myself standing in the shade of a cypress tree, overseeing the work and occasionally calling out useful suggestions, and had delivered a lengthy and surprisingly emotional speech in which he listed various discrepancies and points of dissatisfaction with our general performance to date. It worried me to see a man his age and weight get so worked up in that hot climate.
The Irishman abounds with politically incorrect observations of the many people he meets, although usually not without self deprecation. Even the people in whose colony he finds himself are not safe:
Arabs, on the whole, are an amazingly mendacious people; they will lie even when the truth would serve their purposes better, and show no shame even when caught at it. Among themselves this does not harm, since they never believe each other anyway; but it can be annoying for a man brought up in a scrupulously truthful country such as Ireland.
And near the end of the novel in Fusang, the protagonist and his sidekick, having made the acquaintance of a member of a shady Fusang organization, are recommended to one of the city's underground bosses, who deals with them thus:
He said, "Lu Hsu says you wish to work for us. He says," he said, rattling the letter, "that you are a pair of liars, cheats, seducers, and thieves, and cold-blooded killers if need be. He says that one of you would steal a hot stove and the other would sell it to a man dying of sunstroke. He says only a fool would trust either of you within a thousand li of his cash box, his stable, or his wife, and that even for Europeans you have set new marks in treachery, fraud, and deceit. Gentlemen," he cried warmly, "I have never seen a finer letter of reference. I am prepared to offer you immediate employment, early promotion, and full benefits."
In short, the book works as a historical thought experiment about the impact of Europe on North American cultures, the protagonist is hilarious, and it's a solid adventure novel to boot. Highly recommended.


Part II: Problems of Alternate History, and of Mongols-Conquered-Europe Stories Specifically

There are really three main problems (or assumptions) that alternate history novels have to address to succeed, and this novel is an excellent vehicle for exploring them. But it's useful to compare to three other alternate history novels, because you'll see some repeated motifs.

Book, AuthorBranchpoint and Changes
Lion's Blood, Stephen BarnesHannibal defeats Rome; North America colonized by Egypt in north and Ethiopia in south using European slaves, with Aztecs getting guns and flourishing
Conquistador, S.M. StirlingAlexander the Great does not die young; Europe and Middle East merge into millennia-long superstate, scientific progress retarded
Years of Rice and Salt, Kim Stanley RobinsonBlack Plague kills all Europeans; Americas settled by China and Islamic world, history becomes a struggle between the two
Journey to FusangMongols conquer Europe , leaving it a backwater; Americas settled by China and Islamic world, with Aztecs getting guns and flourishing


Alternate History Problem #1: What is the point? Why would you read a book about a history that never happened? Do you just want to be shocked by strange people in familiar places (mosques in frontier-era Arkansas, and Native Americans named Muhammad Ten-Bears), or are you trying to isolate historical cause and effect (did Chinese and African colonization of North America only fail to occur because of European domination?) I couldn't shake the feeling that Sanders wanted a Mongol-like horde in the American plains just for the sake of it. Granted, a Mongol horde on the American prairie is kind of cool, but that could not have carried a whole novel. At the same time, even the shocking reversal of oppressors and slaves here or in Lion's Blood was clearly written in the service of a thought experiment. Was there something about various human cultures that predisposed one people to enslave, or be enslaved by, another? Or is this something we would've all done to each other given the chance, and it's all just random, and history really is just one damn thing after another? (These days we get very uncomfortable saying that one culture might somehow be "better" than another, but here's a fact: either culture has some impact on human flourishing, or it's meaningless background noise. There's no middle ground; we have to pick one of those, and being uncomfortable with the choice doesn't make it go away.)

Alternate History Problem #2: Is warfare really the only thing that makes a difference in history? Most alternate history is about what would have happened if some episode of mass violence had transpired differently. Is everything else we do really so meaningless? In the four novels cited here, the branchpoints for two out of four is a war, one out of four is a change in the life of someone who's famous because of war, and one is from a plague. What if the steam engine were developed earlier? What about antibiotics, or intensive agriculture, or monotheism, or electricity? (For example: why no Byzantine industrial revolution? People have asked the same question of China but it should count for something that China developed intensive agriculture, centralized state bureaucracy, literacy, paper money, and gunpowder, some of which happened after getting sacked by the Mongols.)

These questions are far from useless. Economists are constantly asking questions of how developing nations can improve themselves, which invariably become questions about why certain advances occurred certain places, and not elsewhere. You might argue that it's not the wars themselves where the future is set; that Sun Tzu was right, and the outcomes of battles are determined long before they begin, by the culture and technology of the countries that produce the armies. Case in point: a normally clear-thinking friend once asked me seriously about the possibility of Mexico having won the Mexican-American War. Once the American military of the day was fully engaged with its Mexican counterpart, there was no question of the outcome. One question at least implied by many alternate histories is the impact of culture and political situation on the advance of science. Conquistador assumes that a unified Greece-Egypt-Persia would have halted progress, where Robinson assumes it would have advanced essentially the same in the absence of Europeans, merely with name substitutions (qi for electricity for example.) (I would argue the contrary in both cases.)

And here we come to some of the problems specific to Mongols-conquering-Europe stories. It's assumed that a Mongol sack of Europe would have flattened the West and removed it from the world stage. No doubt it would have been an unpleasant time to live in Paris or Rome. But in China, a Mongol conquest is not alternate history. The town of Yamen, a coastal town two hours' driving time from the metropolis of Guangzhou, was the site of the last surrender (or suicide) of Song officials to Kublai Khan, who then established to the heavily occupied and directly administered khanate. If you haven't noticed, China did not collapse into a permanent dark age. You could argue that without the Mongol conquest, China might today be even further ahead (maybe it's time for an alternate history where the Great Wall was a little higher and kept the Mongols out, and by 2017 China has colonized the solar system.) A further puzzle is that in two novels with Europe eliminated as a serious contender for founder of global civilization (whether due to Mongols or plague), why is it that automatically China and the Arab world (both also sacked by the Mongols!) who colonize the Americas? Even in real history, there was nothing stopping the Chinese or Arabs from such voyages, and in fact the famous Chinese treasure fleet was sailing before Columbus, and less than two centuries after Kublai's conquest. It was not because of European oppression or Mongol depradations that they were brought home, but domestic Chinese politics. (Arguments for an age of discovery driven by the Islamic world are even more obscure; despite this, three of the four novels cited feature Arabs colonizing North America's Atlantic coast, with only two novels showing Chinese colonization from the Pacific.)

Finally, there seems a strange urge to describe an armed modern Aztec nation-state, flourishing unmolested by non-European colonial powers who give them guns. In both novels cited above that contain an armed modern Aztec nation-state, their colonizing neighbors came from the Islamic world. The Spanish were not famous for their tolerance of Aztecs or their culture, but it's absurd to argue that Islamic conquistadors would have been more progressive. On the other hand, I freely admit that Barnes's Aztec knights were extremely cool, almost like an alternate history answer to Niven's kzin. In Journey to Fusang, Yusuf describes Tenochtitlan thusly:
He sat down on a coil of rope. "How can I describe it to you? What's the biggest, finest city you've ever seen?"

"Tangier," I confessed. "By a great margin."

"Tanger?" He made a scornful snorting sound. "Tangier wouldn't make a minor suburb of Tenochtitlan. It's bigger than Rome or Constantinople or even Baghdad - why, there are independent kingdoms in Europe and Africa that cover less area than Tenochtitlan alone. And all of it laid out carefully with long straight streets, even canals in some parts like those of Venice, and market squares bigger than most European towns. Flowers growing everywhere, and the people looking so clean and well-fed, even the poor...and in the center, dominating the whole city from wherever you stand, that great pyramid, with its two temples on top - the blue one for Tlaloc the rain god, the red one for Huizilopochtli, he's the really nasty one - with a whole city-within-a-city of lesser temples and palaces clustered at its base. Finn, I've seen the ancient buildings of Greece and Rome and Egypt, and I'd put these people's work up against any of it.

"And then," he said, still in that quiet, almost toneless voice, "while you stand there trying to take it all in, trying to grasp the wonder and the beauty of it all, like St. John seeing the New Jerusalem - just then you glance across the street and see a priest striding along in his black cloak, face painted black, hair hanging to his knees and matted solid with years of accumulated dried blood, and the stink of rotting blood coming off him like a walking slaughterhouse - and then you remember, and you can't believe it, and yet there it is. The same people. How can it be?"

Note again: in the real world Baghdad was sacked quite badly by Hulagu Khan; while not today the center of global learning that it once was, it was hardly reduced to an irrelevant backwater.

A summary of the motifs across these novels:

Book, AuthorBlacks Enslave WhitesMuslims Colonize Eastern N.Am.China Colonizes Western N.Am.Modern Aztecs w/ GunsBack-ward Europe
Lion's BloodXXXX
ConquistadorX
Years of Rice and SaltXXX
Journey to FusangXXXXX



Alternate History Problem #3: Balancing realism with entertainment. This is fiction. It can usefully explore ideas, but ultimately it has to be carried by a narrative, and if that is lost, the medium fails. If Hannibal had won the Second Punic War, the map of Europe (or whatever it would be called) would look completely different and be populated by people who looked and spoke and worshiped completely differently from how they do today. If a branchpoint is set long ago and still faithfully followed through, it would result in a world so bewildering and unfamiliar to us that its people would be uninteresting. Conquistador's branchpoint was Alexander's surviving his fever in Babylon, but Stirling mostly used that as a way to produce a mostly-empty North America to be settled from our timeline. Of the four novels here, Lion's Blood is the worst offender, but neither is Fusang innocent. In the case of Lion's Blood, there's a fourth century B.C. branchpoint, but Christ - the same Christ - is still born 250 years later, and founds the same religion? And Mohammed more than 800 years later? Of course, a modern world without Christianity or Islam would essentially be invented out of a whole cloth - so such a degree of honesty is inadvisable, unless it's directly relevant to your thought experiment; e.g., whether evangelical monotheism would still inevitably have appeared. Sanders peripherally mentions Shakespeare and Milton but has the good form at least to make their output different.

There is also the problem that people with a different viewpoint would not use the same names for the same places (obviously) or imbue them with the same significance. By putting cities in recognizable locales (the mouth of the Great River, or the hilly city by the bay) you can cheat to some degree. Rice and Salt opens with a Central Asian horseman riding alone through an oppressively silent city of white bone-like monuments under the moonlight, and ascends a hill to inspect the most prominent. Ignorant of European history as you would expect such a person to be, he can only describe it in terms of pure sense experience, and it takes a few pages before the reader realizes he is plodding through the Acropolis. I respect Robinson for this opening, because it risks the unobservant reader's missing the symbolism, but there's a substantial reward to the reader who recognizes the landmarks. (Many writers would have succumbed to the temptation of exposition, with the rider mumbling to himself "Well you know, these structures symbolize the foundational philosophy of this continent...")


Part III: Branchpoints Favored By the Academy

I compiled some stats for the Sidewise Awards. Uchronia's overall list would be a more accurate measure of what people are writing, but this is a better approximation to what people value. Order is by number of entries in category in the novel awards.




The distribution between short- and long-form is clearly different. Possibly, people are more likely to explore new territory in shorter form. Interestingly, from the novels, the post-WWII awards all went to stories set in the Kennedy or early Johnson administration - two of which are about the Cuban Missile Crisis, which terrifyingly could easily have gone differently, and not nearly as well. Also note that the short form pieces were more likely not about war or tragedy, with 5 of 21 titles being about some form of science or technology that developed differently (as opposed to 0 out of 21 of the novels.) Notably, of the ~42 titles I went through, there was a one triple winner author (Ian MacLeod), then two each for Stephen Baxter, Harry Turtledove, Chris Roberson, and William Sanders.

Also notable - the closest any of the branchpoints was to the release of a novel was about 50 years; for short stories, 38 years. Is that because if we don't wait a generation to write our alternate history - until all the stakeholders are dead or out of power - it's mere polemic?

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