Several years ago a Russian scholar turned up at the academic conference part of Finncon. Naturally I was keen to pump him for information about the Russian SF scene. Apparently it was still thriving, despite people no longer needing to write SF to disguise their criticisms of Communism. But what were Russians writing now, I asked? The reply I got was that alternate history was very popular, particularly stories in which the Revolution never happened.
We don’t get to see much Russian SF in translation, and most of what we do see comes via big publishers so it still may be what is permitted to get out, but there are a few windows that may give us a glimpse of what is going on. Ekaterina Sedia is Russian by birth, and I believe that her parents still live in Moscow. I was intrigued, therefore, to discover that her latest novel, Heart of Iron, is steampunk, and therefore alternate history, set in Russia. Sedia’s history takes place before the Revolution. It does, however, provide a suggestion as to why it may never have been necessary.
Our starting point is to learn that The Decembrists is not just the name of a rock group. When Tsar Alexander died in 1825 his eldest son, Constantine, declined to accept the throne (he had been ruling Poland on his father’s behalf, had married a local girl, and apparently was happy where he was). Succession therefore passed to the younger son, Nikolai. A group of left wing army officers known as the Decembrists tried to stage a coup to restore Constantine to the throne, possibly under the impression that Nikolai had forged his father’s will. In our world, the revolt failed, at least in part because the Decembrist leader, Prince Sergei Trubetskoy, had a last minute change of heart and defected to Nikolai. And here we find our point of divergence.
Our heroine, Alexandra Trubetskaya, is the daughter of the hero of the Decembrist Revolution. Unfortunately her beloved father died when she was young, managing to spend the family fortune on expensive treatments at Swiss spas before expiring. However, Tsar Constantine is still deeply indebted to the family, and thanks to Alexandra’s formidable maiden aunt, Eugenia Countess Menshova, influence can still be obtained. Aunt Eugenia is a determined feminist and modernizer. She persuades the Tsar to allow St. Petersburg University to admit women, and one of the first students is to be young Alexandra.
Thanks to this, our heroine is able to make the acquaintance of a shy and charming young Chinese student, Chiang Tse, and a dashing young Englishman, Jack Bartram. She also becomes embroiled in the unpleasant political unrest caused by Prince Nikolai’s secret police, who seek to wreck the Tsar’s liberal policies and impose hardline nationalist policies. Nikolai is being encouraged in his racism by the British, who are looking for allies in their wars against the Chinese. This leads Alexandra to come to the attention of the dastardly head of the British Secret Service, Dame Florence Nightingale.
And thus we arrive in steampunk territory, including secret Chinese airship designs, massive steam locomotives racing across central Asia, our heroine disguised as a young hussar officer, and the dashing Jack turning out to have some rather unusual abilities.
Much of this is teenage romance fare. Alexandra’s agonizing over her inability to choose between Chiang Tse and Jack Bartram is not too far removed from Twilight territory. But don’t let that put you off. There is plenty in the book to keep other readers interested. The writing is fast-paced and entertaining. There is a wealth of interesting history of far off countries to learn about. (Very little of the Decembrists’ story is explained in the book, for example, but Sedia provides several background articles on her blog: here, here, here and here.) And there is even a little philosophy.
It is inconceivable, even with Jack’s help, than an innocent like Alexandra would survive such an adventure. Fortunately she falls in with a group of hussars led by Rotmistr Ivankov. He turns out to be quite a deep thinker. He talks about his interest in Norse religion (you did know that the Rus were vikings, right?) and in particular the myth of Valhalla where warriors die in battle every day. Lt. Menshov (Alexandra) is dubious.
“…the world is destroyed every day, and then rebuilt anew, so nothing is ever old, ever stale.”
I took a cautious sip of the wine. “But everyone gets resurrected and they’re still the same.”
The rotmistr wagged his thick, calloused finger at me, dirt around his fingernail black as gunpowder, and I suspected that it had become incorporated into his skin and could never be washed out. “No one is ever the same after resurrection. Read the classics, Menshov. Cannot step twice in the same river, and everything changes even if you go away from home for a week. What do you think happens to everything, to the world, if you daily destroy and rebuild it? It changes, because nothing can ever be recreated perfectly.”
Continual revolution, eh? Now there’s a Russian idea.
The Chinese also prompt discussion of philosophy. When Alexandra arrives in Beijing another revolution is in progress. As their airship comes in to land, she sees that the city is burning.
… a few moments later, the giant ship whined and tilted with its nose down, so that I slid on my bench until I was stopped by the comforting solidity of Kuan Yu.
“Easy there, young soldier,” he told me and smiled. There was a sadness in his eyes, in the creases of his eyelids, the smile could not chase away.
“I’m sorry,” I whispered. “I… I forgot that those are your people.”
He looked at me, curious. “Do you mean to say that you experience pain less if it is not inflicted on your countrymen but on someone else?”
“Everyone does,” I said. “Otherwise wars would not be possible — if we felt the pain of others like our own, no one would ever retaliate.”
“I see your point,” he said. “War then is just a failure of imagination.”
And so it is. But one thing that can help our imagination is to read about foreign lands and discover that they are populated by people very like us. In Heart of Iron, Sedia has produced a book that should be very popular with steampunk fans and young women. But she has also written a fascinating story about Russia and China that teaches us a lot about those countries. In consequence it is a book that I would love to see selling very well indeed.
Buy this book from:
The Book Depository