Uncharted, Kevin J. Anderson & Sarah A. Hoyt (Baen 978-1-4814-8323-0, $25, 272pp, hardcover) May 2018
American history is over five hundred years deep–much deeper, of course, if you venture beyond the European presence. The latest findings put the first human footprint in North America at 130,000 years ago. Given this vast tract of time, populated with myriad fascinating cultures and personages, knowable and conjecturable, it seems silly and shortsighted for SF and fantasy novelists, when they turn their gaze to the past, to focus so relentlessly on the Victorian era and the early twentieth century. The narrative possibilities–especially during the well-documented post-1492 period, when the land began to accrue the components of the “Matter of America” (on the analogy of the fabled “Matter of England“), are endless if you just escape the overpopulated steampunk venues.
And yet, very few writers of fantastika have taken this route. We can point to Orson Scott Card’s Alvin Maker series; Alan Smale’s books that began with Clash of Eagles; John Barth’s The Sot-Weed Factor; C. C. Finlay’s Traitor to the Crown series; Mason & Dixon by Pynchon; and Harry Turtledove’s A Different Flesh. Even counting some unnamed items, not a huge list for a century’s worth of genre SF and fantasy.
And so the new collaboration from Kevin Anderson and Sarah Hoyt, which takes place in the year 1803 on a counterfactual timeline, has plenty of elbow room to do fresh things. And I’m pleased to say that they achieve some genuine greatness here. The book’s credits also acknowledge input from fellow creators Eric Flint, Walter Hunt, Eytan Kollin and Peter Wacks, seeming to indicate that this is the first venture into a new Baen Books franchise, Arcane America. If so, the newcomers will have to work hard to match the quality of this initial volume.
The precipitating novum for this alternate history is an incident known as the Sundering, which revolves around the supernatural destruction of Halley’s Comet in its 1759 iteration. At this time, an impenetrable barrier sprouted in the middle of the Atlantic and severed North America from the Old World. At the same moment, magic began to manifest. And so in the year 1803, America–never really born as a nation–is a patchwork of states threaded with magic amidst a vast ignorance of what lies beyond their explored territory.
The estranging effect of the Sundering recalls such books as Robert Charles Wilson’s Spin, S. M Stirling’s Change series, and Charles Stross’s Missile Gap. Humans as pawns of larger forces, in a universe of revised parameters. Anderson and Hoyt make good use of this vibe, amidst the more naturalistic action, setting up a central mystery that remains unresolved by novel’s end.
Our viewpoint character is the famed Meriwether Lewis, he of that consequential expedition on our timeline. In this continuum too, Lewis will partner with William Clark. But the nature of their journey will be vastly different.
It all begins with Lewis visiting the “frontier” town of St. Louis, hoping to catch a glimpse of Ben Franklin, now a wizard of some hundred years in age. When the city is attacked by a dragon, Lewis helps Franklin fend it off. In the battle, he receives inklings that he too has some magical talents. But these intimations will only unfurl gradually over the course of the challenges ahead.
Impressed by Lewis’s skills and courage, Franklin enlists him for an expedition to chart the unexplored lands between St. Louis and the Pacific, with the ultimate goal of determining if the western ocean features a similar magical barrier. If not, America could reestablish contact with the rest of the world.
In jig time, Lewis has enlisted his old pal Clark and a large crew of tough cookies, all Natty Bumppos and Mike Finks, who are individuated deftly in a few pages. Not all of the men will play major roles, but one who deserves special attention is a black man named York, a freed slave who is “like a brother” to Clark. Lewis also picks up the abused Newfie puppy named Seaman to accompany them.
Once in the wilderness, the crew discover that the dragon attack on St. Louis was merely one manifestation of a deeper, darker malaise that is affecting the whole continent. Native tribes are suffering or debased; zombie-like revenants are on the loose; and timeslip T-Rexes are abroad. The exact nature of the evil proves to be an unconventional instance of a formerly good force led astray by its own nature, a perversion of cosmic balances, and setting it right will be more complicated than mere destruction of an irredeemable bad guy.
When Sacagawea, the Bird Woman, appears very dramatically about one hundred pages into the novel, the full extent of the troubles–and the desperate, brave strategies to meet it–are fully explicated, and the plot moves into overdrive. A very touching short coda encapsulates a lot of post-climax action into a resonant wrap-up that allows for further adventures.
While delivering plenty of action that approximates the best of cinematic fantasy, Hoyt and Anderson also strive for–and achieve–a kind of gravitas that suitably reflects the majesty of an untrammeled continent. Their descriptions of raw nature and its emotional repercussions on the humans are subtly poetic without being overblown. The native tribes are depicted in authentic ways, especially the people of Sacagawea. And in fact the central mystery proves to center on Amerindian beliefs. The characterization of all the cast members is deep and revelatory of human nature. The authors compensate for Clark’s remove from the spotlight by offering his letters back to his fiancée Julia at the start of each chapter, thus opening up his personality for us. There is also humor amidst the seriousness, particularly in the tragicomic doings of “the Whiskey Revenants,” about which I will say no more.
As mentioned earlier, the freed slave York provides a unique perspective on the nature of this fledgling country and its challenges, an implicit rebuke to injustice. At one point another character says, “We are beyond death, and we can see all that could have been in the living world. There is another version of this world, one without the Sundering, where this continent was never cut off from Europe. That land is different, and it has grown into a whole, united land, where all men are considered equal, where every person has the right to liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” Thus does this alternate timeline cleave toward a more equitable future. “York also demanded to be included in the war party, and few objected. He had once been a slave, but had found his freedom, and had served the expedition perfectly in these uncanny lands. Now he would fight for the freedom of an entire magic-infused continent. Meriwether recalled the words of the Whiskey Revenants, their strange vision of a land where everyone was considered equal. Perhaps through some amazing magic that future could actually occur.”
Anderson and Hoyt’s book–whose prose is a clear-eyed, sturdy naturalism meshed with flights of vivid unreality–is filled with not only slambang adventures but also a kind of rational optimism that has become rare in genre works these days. Kim Stanley Robinson addressed this issue in a recent interview, saying, “Optimism is a kind of moral imperative, you have to stay optimistic because otherwise you’re just a wanker that’s taken off into your own private Idaho of ‘Oh well, things are bad.’ It’s so easy to be cynical; it’s so easy to be pessimistic.”
If the “Matter of America” has any central theme, it is one of new beginnings, optimism, fulfillment of potential, equal chances for all. Hoyt and Anderson, a kind of de Camp and Pratt for the twenty-first century, convey these ideals without lectures or sermons, embodying them in principled people doing exciting things.
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