Theodore Judson,
Fitzpatrick's War
(DAW, 2004)

There should be more books on Fitzpatrick's War.

True, it was a brief period of history, and the effects didn't last long, but it was still important in the development of the Yukon Confederacy. Also true, everything in Fitzpatrick's War, including the entire Yukon Confederacy, is pure fiction, set in time that hasn't even happened yet and so can't possibly have a history. But you'd never know that to read Theodore Judson's first piece of science fiction.

Fitzpatrick's War is, fittingly, a record of battle. On the most shallow level, there is the war of the title, as Robert the Bruce records his participation in Sir Fitzpatrick's war for Empire across the globe. This is a story of straightforward blood and thunder, the sort of thing popular in Victorian pulps. Indeed, the Yukon Confederacy has a very Victorian feel, despite being set in the future. Society has lost control of electricity; steam and clockwork rule the world again. Once more a group of technological fortunates looks for domination over the globe, led by a handful of socially prominent men. And Robert Bruce, a simple engineer in thrall to the charisma of such a man, joins the march to war, to earn glory and regrets he will only reveal at the end of his life.

More touchingly, the memoir records Bruce's battle for himself, fought against the influence of that same war. Even on the winning side, a war demand sacrifices; and the ones Bruce makes are especially painful for being invisible, ignored and denied by his country. If Fitzpatrick was a hero and his war a good thing for the Yukon Confederacy, how can anyone complain of what was done in service of that war?

The denial overlaying the entire story, in the touch that gives Bruce's memoirs a disturbingly authentic sheen of realism, is the war between past and present, observation and propaganda. This war is waged decades apart, and only on the page, as Robert's memoirs are presented to the audience with the footnotes and editorial comments of an approved Confederacy historian. The contrast between the comments of the historian, with their obvious intent on shaping history to flatter a goal, and the confessional brutality of Robert Bruce's firsthand narrative have a drama all their own. Readers will naturally find themselves inclined to favor Bruce's presentation, which is far more human, and the historian's tone throughout becomes a painful condemnation of every whistleblower throughout history. By the end of the tale there is a desperate urge to find other materials that confront the snide footnotes' view of the world. But of course there is only this one bit of material, a tantalizing glimpse into a society far in the future from us and far from utopian.

The characters who populate Bruce's narrative are not given the artificially balanced view of a novelist's omniscient perspective, but the unbalanced presentation that should be expected from a memoir. Culture hero Fitzpatrick is always confusing, sometimes touching and sometimes raving mad. Robert's wife Charlotte is always seen in the idealized fashion that should be expected for memories of a beloved wife. More distant characters are given more depth. The stoic Marshal Hood stands out as a more honorable military man than Bruce himself, and his slow descent into despair is painful to watch. Though only an infrequent character, Fitzpatrick's bodyguard Winifred "Buck" Pularski always seems the most human, and turns out to be rather more than the warm-hearted bruiser stereotype he first appears to be. Though the focus inevitably stays on Bruce, the friends and occasional enemies that slip into his life serve as painful reminders of the war's effect beyond his own life.

Judson also faces the challenge of created worlds, trying to explain the current situation to readers experienced only with reality. Lacking a naive character to ask revealing questions, Judson prompts Bruce to explain the original history of the Confederacy through his college oral exams. It's not necessarily the most effective way of dealing with the need for an information dump, but its appropriateness in the story grows more evident with every chapter. It's a very ordinary, realistic bit of routine in what is after all supposed to be the story of an ordinary life. The exams are in some ways a touchstone for what makes Fitzpatrick's War so extraordinary. This is fiction presented as reality, challenged within itself as fiction again. By the end of Robert Bruce's life, Judson leaves his readers prepared to believe it could be both.

- Rambles
written by Sarah Meador
published 4 June 2005

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