So I have just finished Theodore Judson's Fitzpatrick's War, a book I mentioned having bought a few weeks ago and that I took onto the holiday trip. It was very well written and deserves its accolades, but I also found it profoundly disturbing. Which is why I am writing about it. Be warned of SPOILERS ahead.
The book describes a 25th century, steampunk future from the perspective of an army engineer. To summarise the setting, after the collapse of our current civilisation the world has largely recovered with slightly changed political boundaries. The Anglo-Saxon realm is called Yukons and is now fundamentalist Christian and quasi-feudal. Latin America and Africa are more or less the same as now, as is China only it is painted as fanatically communist and rules all of East and Southeast Asia. Moslems have conquered and converted continental Europe except Russia, now called Slavic Remnant.
Technology has advanced in chemistry (polymers and explosives), medicine (Yukons regularly live beyond 100 years) and biology (GMOs galore) but has to make do without any electricity, as the Yukons are running a satellite network that disrupts electric currents across all the planet (including nearly all of their own realm). This means no computers, no wind or solar power; machines are all steam-driven and run on biofuels.
The story has three main topics:
First, how basically decent people end up committing atrocities. We see the protagonist supporting everything from political assassination to genocide first because he does not want to risk his career, then because he is afraid of being punished, and finally because he is afraid of putting his loved ones in harm's way. Those are plausible motives, and so at every step it remains believable that he is, individually, a good person.
Second, it explores how a small nation (the Yukons number only 30 million) could militarily dominate a world of several billion people if they had a sufficient technological edge, the satellite network mentioned above.
Third, it explores how a small conspiracy could manipulate events so that their favoured nation (the Yukons, duh) remains (a) militarily dominant and (b) locked in feudal stasis for centuries, so as never to become "decadent", while (c) knocking all other peoples of the globe down periodically with the long term end goal, at least as stated by the agent of that conspiracy, of genociding them all to the degree that they are reduced to a smattering of "cavemen".
I believe that the book shines in the first of these themes. The other two are a bit more difficult. This is not even because those are the parts that disturbed me, per se. The war atrocities are deliberately described in a voyeuristic and graphic manner, yes, but they are meant to unsettle and challenge the reader, so this quite simply excellent writing.
The problem is really that I do not consider those two remotely plausible as described in the book - it is a question of being unable to maintain willing suspension of disbelief. Not just because of one detail either, there is a whole list of issues sticking out:
It seems hugely impossible that a nation of 30 million could militarily and economically dominate the world described in the book. Let's assume, for the same of simplicity, that Yukons can work from 15 to 90 years of age, and that they die at 100. That means 75% of their population, or 22.5 million, are working age. The book repeatedly states that two thirds of them are farmers, leaving 7.5 million to produce and maintain an army, navy, and air force that cannot only effortlessly trounce what one billion Chinese throw at them but also maintain a technological edge. On top of that, those 7.5 million will of course have to do all the peacetime manufacturing, education, trade, construction, repairs, arts, and research for the Yukons, all while frozen at a quasi-feudal social structure where factories of more than 120 workers are explicitly stated to be forbidden. Oh, and of course women in Yukon society are limited to being teachers, authors, maidservants or housewives, so we are really talking about 3.75 million people doing all the rest.
The problem is of course that the author could not have made the setting more plausible by increasing the Yukon population tenfold, because clearly then we would not be looking at a plausible feudalism any more.
The conspiracy mentioned above maintains its grip on world events over centuries without suffering infighting, corruption, defection, espionage, serious conflicts with the government, mission creep, or just plain mistakes. This means that whatever we are talking about we are not talking about a setting inhabited by believable human beings. Which is doubly jarring given how believably the people outside of that conspiracy are written.
The conspiracy can also apparently maintain a space program and a satellite network with what seems like a few hundred (maybe at most a few thousand) members and whatever resources it can divert from the aforementioned minuscule, non-electrified agricultural society. All from one Pacific island. Right.
GMO microbes are said to be able to remove salt from the soil. The individual elements making up salt are very reactive, and salt is very inert. The upshot is that it is energetically very expensive to turn salt into something else. I am not a chemist, but as a biologist my hunch is that this is hardly possible. (What might work would be plants that draw salt from the soil and store it so that it can be carted away in their bodies.)
GMO locusts are said to be able to eat every single piece of plant material, apparently without being poisoned by any of those plant species, and are apparently not eaten by humans or other animals, or otherwise fought by a highly organised, populous nation. And apparently one facility in North America, which we should note again is a small agricultural society, can produce enough of them to defoliate all of China. I do not want to minimise the severity of past locust epidemics, but this seems hugely implausible.
All in all the author appears to believe, or at least pretend for the purposes of the story, that GMOs are magic and can achieve anything. Wikipedia tells me that he has written another Science Fiction book in which metal-eating microorganisms are a major plot point, as they destroy all modern technology. If that were energetically possible it would probably have evolved by now, like those nylon eating bacteria did, but even then it would have to be chemoautotrophic and thus grow at such a slow pace that it would we much less of an issue than rust or sunlight.
Similar surprises are in store from chemistry. Not only do the Yukons conveniently have incendiary weapons that can turn a whole square kilometre into "glass", they also even more conveniently have a polymer to spray on all their equipment that neutralises such a super-weapon if used against them. I am reasonably sure that if one is physically possible then the other cannot be. I am not writing all of this because I cannot enjoy reading a book with magic in it, but because it torpedoes any value one might get out of speculating about whether such technological superiority is realistic. Seems as if it isn't if magic has to be involved.
There are also simple internal contradictions. The official Yukon war goal is to get enemy nations to sign the Four Points: Scrapping their air forces; scrapping their war navies, free trade access for Yukon ships, and an annual tribute of 10% of their gross national products. The unofficial war goal of the Yukon leader is to amalgamate all cultures of the world into a single harmonious global culture. The war is conducted by first defeating the Chinese militarily and then, after they have been neutralised as a threat, killing off virtually the entire Chinese population. It should be obvious that doing that is counter-productive to the two last points in the official war goals as well as to the unofficial goal; one cannot trade with, raise tribute from, or culturally unite a mass grave. So obvious indeed that the Yukon leader would not plausibly have gone forward with the genocide. And yes, it is clearly his own initiative and not done behind his back by the conspiracy.
This is before mentioning that the treatment of the genocide is rather self-contradictory across the book. The reader is first shocked with graphic descriptions indicating that China is virtually depopulated, with only a few ragged, sick and starving people left here or there, who will presumably also die over the next few years or at best form the nucleus of scattered villages that have reverted to the late stone age. There is talk of hundreds of millions having died, after it has been established that hundreds of millions is the starting population of that country. The epilogue then talks of the Chinese government, travel through China, a nature reserve being set up with the help of said government, and even a Chinese naturalist. Those two descriptions do not make sense in the same book.
Finally, a minor plot point raised in support of the idea that the conspiracy could work successfully over the centuries is that the commoners of the Yukon nation are happy to accept patriotic lies and feel no shame about what they are doing to the rest of the world. A major plot point in the downfall of the megalomaniac Yukon leader is that (in contrast to the decadent nobles) all the commoners are utterly disgusted by the war atrocities that happen during the story. This is either a major case of wanting to have it both ways or a subtle pointer that we should not believe the conspiracy operative when he brags about their invincibility. It does not seem to me, however, that the latter interpretation fits the rest of novel.
After having exorcised all this, I have to state again that the novel is seriously well written as far as the characters are concerned. A particularly nice touch is the framing of the story as an autobiography annotated by a loyalist historian who considers the protagonist to be a liar. The historian's footnotes lighten up the otherwise at times depressing reading experience. So despite my above misgivings I enjoyed reading it, can recommend it, and may try out other novels by the same author.