Ossus Library Index
Science Fiction Index


A novel by S.M. Stirling
(2004, Roc Science Fiction)


A fire at a warehouse holding exotic animals leads a wildlife ranger to love, and the discovery that a civilization is secretly being built on an alternate world, one that has not been contaminated by high technology, and nature is abundant.


-- First reading (ebook)
Read December 31st, 2022 to January 25th, 2023


There was a lot to like about this novel, especially the wonder and awe at an untouched world, and love between the two main characters. Even as distrust tore them apart, the natural alternate world brought them together again. The plot of a coup was almost ancillary to the showcase of the wild lands. The fact that it was stuck in a white, male-dominated-women way-subservient culture, and that the author had them kill off almost all the natives (intentionally) made it hard to like the society from our more modern point of view, but the fact that Adrienne could become so powerful shows that it is in the process of change, despite the patriarchal setup. Unfortunately, I lost interest in most of what was happening less than halfway through, and it took me a very long time to finish. The showcase went on for way too long, and for that middle part of the book, nothing happened. It was a beautiful world, for sure, and there was a lot to show. Maybe if I lived in California I would have cared about the place names and the Firstside comparison, but most of them meant nothing to me. The author had a tendency to drawn on his descriptions for too long, also, listing supplies, or birds, or insects, or grasses, or weapons, or so many other things, for example, through a list of ten, twenty, or more items. By the time the climactic battle took place, it almost seemed like an afterthought, and I was still rushing to get through it. It’s a good thing that the two main characters were so open-minded, that I enjoyed their relationship, when they weren’t gawking and doing nothing except observing nature.

Spoiler review:

It’s too bad that this novel wasn’t half the length. There is so much description that it detracts from the story. I realize that the alternate reality Earth is a chance to do things differently and that while the people who went there didn’t do a great job (they’re still human, after all), they took some of our mistakes to heart and tried to avoid some of them. Part of that is keeping people ignorant, of social progression, of technology and more. How many people on the New Virginia side of the gate know how to program well enough to keep the tracking software working? Some, like Adrienne, went to university, so they must have at least a basic understanding.

Regardless, the jaw-dropping awe the main character feels on seeing every part of this new landscape is mesmerizing at first, but grows old very quickly. Everywhere they go, even if they’ve passed by again, is compared with what exists Firstside (our side of the gate). Worse, though, is the way the character recounts the myriad animals, birds, insects and plants and trees that are growing there, many of which are extinct because of human interference. It might have been better if the lists ended after two or three items, but they kept going for paragraphs, which was tedious.

I was reading the book for a story, not a wilderness guide, and unfortunately there isn’t much of one. The strict patriarchy that exists in New Virginia keeps people in line, but with the ages, more people have gone through the gate, recruited or stumbled upon the secret. Many of those coopted to go through were those seeking asylum from past major events, like ex-nazis or ex-Soviet soldiers, trying to escape war crimes -because they wouldn't be missed. It’s no wonder that they started an illegal trade in exotic animals, and want to profit from it monetarily with no compunction against exploiting the new world.

The plot begins with this trade, as a warehouse burns down but they rescue furs from exotic animals, plus one condor that has no pollutants in its body. It turns out the New Virginians burn everything extremely hot when illegal activities are found out, so nobody on Firstside can suspect even the existence of the gate. But Tom and Tully see enough to make them suspicious, and keep the investigation going. This necessitates intervention by Adrienne, an undercover agent from New Virginia and granddaughter to the one who discovered the gate by his complex arrangement of electronics one day in the 1940s.

The 2009 of this book is a little different from ours, as it seems that there was a war with some Asian countries, who landed on American soil. This allows some more sophisticated facial recognition and tracking software, where Tom is able to use his FBI contacts to find where Adrienne has been, and the location of the gate. I was surprised at how quickly they reasoned out that there must be an alternate Earth, at least until they saw the video footage.

Adrienne has been scouting them, trying to see how she can shut down their investigation. She captures some condors in New Virginia and releases them into California Firstside to show that there was an undiscovered brood of them in the mountains, covering the tracks of the one Tom found. She starts to fall for him, and he for her, in a fast but natural relationship built on common ground. When he finds out she’s been lying to him, he’s very upset, but the land she exiles him to is so much to his liking that it wins him over and he barely looks back, except for the long stretches of comparison with his old world.

Plus, Adrienne is gorgeous, and the sex is great.

She shows him all around New Virginia, from Rolfston (the largest city) to the wild game park (imported animals from Africa and elsewhere), and more. He sees the young and old, including a couple of opposing viewpoints. In these many pages where nothing at all happens, Tom learns about the changed landscape, the near annihilation of the native peoples (sometimes intentionally), the differing beliefs, the lack of many non-white peoples, the belief that women should still be housewives, and more. Adrienne is a huge exception, and while she’s always at odds with her father, her grandfather has a soft spot for her and she gets away with it.

I guess this is how the social revolution begins.

When they find evidence of a plot to take over New Virginia, so the bad guys can profit and turn the lands into something they can exploit for money, Tom and Tully agree to help Adrienne track down evidence, so that Rolfe Senior can take action in the courts and among the Thirty Families. The trek from the gate location (near San Francisco?) south past Los Angeles and then east into the mountains, where they suspect (correctly) that the army is being trained, takes a month. There is some good character development in this part, especially the relationships between Tom and Adrienne, Tully and Sandra, and some others like the scout and his indian companion, and more. It's a good thing the coup was "almost ready", as they state.

They meet an aggressive Indian tribe, but shoot an elephant and give them the meat, so win them partly over. Then they get attacked by another tribe in the pay of the Collettas, and narrowly escape. By the time they get to the army camp, a converted silver mine owned by the Collettas, the army is ready to move. The Collettas have been training Aztecs and Mayans how to fight, using Soviet fear tactics to keep the men in line. With the help of the Indian tribe from earlier, they go on the attack, even as the C130 transports are starting to take off on their way west to take over the gate.

The battle was well-written and exciting in some spots, making it a good climax to the book. Once they’ve overcome the ground base, they take small planes west and arrive at the gate soon after the much reduced army, where Adrienne activates the gate self-destruct. In the epilog, a scientist manages to get the gate open, but it’s to a new alternate world, in a funny but not unexpected twist ending.

There is so much going on in the background that it’s impossible to summarize. The author put enough information to get a sense of the politics, culture and ecology to make the world seem very real, which was interesting to read about. It’s too bad that the rest of the book was so long, because it took me a long time to get through. It wasn’t that the book wasn’t interesting, but that it didn’t draw me back night after night.


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