Theodore Judson, Fitzpatrick's War (DAW, 2004)
I have found few fictional characters as distasteful as Professor Roland Modesty Van Buren.
Van Buren is a major presence in Theodore Judson's novel Fitzpatrick's War. As the book went on, I found each and every utterance of Professor Van Buren more and more frustrating and even infuriating. It's been a long time since I've felt so viscerally about a fictional character in a novel.
And to think that Professor Van Buren doesn't even actually appear in the novel. He only comments upon it, within the footnotes on nearly every page, from his vantage point of nearly 150 years after the events of the novel have taken place in the twenty-fifth century.
Fitzpatrick's War presents a world in which the United States has been destroyed, replaced by the Yukon Confederacy in a global conflagration of war called the "Storm Times." Electric power can no longer function, and thus the industrial world is powered by steam. Society is constructed around an even stricter set of Victorian mores than the Victorians themselves followed. Over the course of the novel, a young and charismatic aristocrat named Isaac Prophet Fitzpatrick comes to power, and then to conquest, and then to glory. According to official history, Consul Fitzpatrick never comes to the ruin typically expected of such men; indeed, he is still revered over a hundred fifty years later. An epic poem about his exploits claims that he "set men's hearts and pagan cities aflame," and even after one hundred fifty years, the same history text that originally celebrated him is the accepted account of Fitzpatrick's life.
At odds with all of that, however, is the memoir of Sir Robert Mayfair Bruce, a man who personally knew Fitzpatrick, who was in the Consul's innermost circle up to the mysterious end of his young life. Bruce's account stands sharply at odds with established history: he depicts a Consul Fitzpatrick who is erratic and paranoid, and who commits acts of murder and genocide. Fitzpatrick's War presents Bruce's memoir, edited with an introduction, afterword, and footnotes by Professor Van Buren.
If Judson had simply written the first-person narrative of Robert Mayfair Bruce, Fitzpatrick's War would have been an excellent book. It is the framing device, the ongoing commentary of a historian editing the narrative over a century later, that elevates Judson's novel to something special. This device changes the book into an ongoing meditation on the idea that history is written by the victors, and it is a pretty daring thing for Judson to do. He has Professor Van Buren informing us that Robert Mayfair Bruce is an untrustworthy man and a liar before we ever even get into a single word of his narrative. This sets up an expectation that Bruce's narrative is going to be an over-the-top depiction of Fitzpatrick as evil.
However, in the course of actually reading Bruce's memoir, we start to see that this isn't the case, and this becomes more and more clear as we contrast Bruce's writings with Professor Van Buren's increasingly scathing commentary. We are told, again and again, that history is the most revered subject in the twenty-sixth century (it is always capitalized as "History"), but we quickly realize that "History" is truly hagiography. Equally it becomes quickly clear that the worldview of Van Buren's time, and of Van Buren himself, is a sexist and racist one. For example, when Bruce decribes a non-caucasian people as being "as Christian as we," Van Buren interjects with a footnote to inform us that this is "another of Bruce's lies; no foreigners, especially darkie foreigners, could be as Christian as the Yukons." At another point, Van Buren interjects with a footnote to warn the reader of an impending "quasipornographic passage" in which Bruce merely dances with his wife. Characters in Fitzpatrick's War have middle names like "Christ's Blood," "Hopefilled" and "Charity."
The manner in which Professor Van Buren, and by extension the Yukon Confederacy, practice History is clearly at odds with what we consider to be history. Van Buren does not hesitate to pronounce Bruce a liar whenever his account differs from the received wisdom of the established histories (which he admits are personally handcrafted by Fitzpatrick himself). By the time I was halfway through the novel, I was finding Van Buren's preaching tone more and more annoying, which is no mean feat by Theodore Judson. It's one of the most ingeniously executed framing devices I've seen.
The novel does suffer slightly from some very slow pacing, and there are places where Judson interjects references to twentieth-century life that threaten to evict the poor reader; he is occasionally too sly for his own good here, but the key word here is "occasionally." I also had difficulty believing in all of the things Judson describes as being possible with steam-based technology. But I would be remiss if I did not note that Fitzpatrick's War has one of the most artfully done infodumps I've ever read in an SF novel. (An "infodump" is where the author of an SF or fantasy novel brings the narrative to a halt in order to establish a bunch of backstory.) Here, the infodump takes the form of Robert Mayfair Bruce's oral examinations at University. By the time I recognized that I was reading an infodump, it was almost over, and the question-and-answer form kept it from becoming a dry recitation of backstory.
Fitzpatrick's War is a fine work of historically-themed speculative fiction, and I look forward to seeing what Judson produces in the future. He is a writer to watch.