This is a science-fiction novel primarily set in the 25th century. It is framed as the memoir of Sir Robert Mayfair Bruce, a soldier in the inner circle of Isaac Prophet Fitzpatrick, a charismatic and ambitious man with designs on becoming a modern Alexander.
A great deal has changed by the 2400s, including the dissolution of the United States we know today. In its stead is the rigidly theocratic and highly disciplined Yukon Confederacy, which has its origins in the 2040s, when the Brain Lords were destroyed. (The Brain Lords being, in Bruce’s words, “a small sect of self-proclaimed superior humans who controlled the large corporations and the government through the use of thinking machines called computers.” Little else is remembered about them by Bruce’s time.)
This led to a period called “the Storm Times,” when an organization of engineers and scientists founded at Purdue University known as “The Timermen” used great “storm machines” (powerful satellites) to disrupt electrical equipment, and brought an end to the Age of Electricity.
(Aside: living as I do in the heart of Big Ten country, I’ve met many Boilermakers in my time, and it would not shock me if there really is a secret society of Purdue grads running the world. Every one that I’ve ever met is exceptional in some way.)
All this world-building is done efficiently and elegantly. The way the info is passed to the reader is really clever, and I actually feel bad for telling it to you in my clumsy way, but I had to in order to go on with explaining the plot, wherein the Yukon Civilization is a rising power looking to assert itself. And Isaac Prophet Fitzpatrick, who early on befriends the narrator and shepherds him high into the military ranks, seems just the man to lead them.
Fitzpatrick is an archetypal Carlylean “Great Man” of history. He wields authority through his bewitching personality and his brilliant ability to understand and manipulate the psychology of those around him. He evokes not just Alexander, but also Caesar and Napoleon, right down to his ability to carefully manage seemingly spontaneous incidents to bend people to his will.
Bruce is one such person and, at least as a young man, is easily convinced to do all sorts of things for the aspiring emperor, despite the reservations of Bruce’s wife, Charlotte, one of the few people who distrusts the Confederacy’s benevolent ruler.
Bruce is sent to India to build airbases in preparation for Fitzpatrick’s planned conquest of China, and later serves in the Great War that results. Bit by bit, as Bruce witnesses firsthand the horror of war and the machinations of his own government, he begins to question his child-like faith in the wisdom of Fitzpatrick.
Remember I said at the outset that the book is “framed” as Bruce’s memoir? Part of that framing device is that it’s presented as a discovered manuscript prepared for academic purposes by Doctor Professor Roland Modesty Van Buren, a scholar writing in 2591. Throughout the text by Bruce, there are annotations from Dr. Prof. Van Buren. And these notes mostly say that Bruce is lying.
You know that the unreliable narrator is one of my favorite tropes in fiction. Naturally, I fell in love with this framing device at once. Throughout the book, the Bruce text will say something about his experience, only to have an annotation by Van Buren state that this is categorically impossible, and cite some academic source as proof.
The great fun of the book is in figuring out who the unreliable narrator is at any given time. There are certainly some facts that the Bruce character misstates and the Van Buren character corrects, like when Bruce speaks of a long-gone statue on the Eastern coast of America as “The Mother of Liberty,” and Van Buren gives the proper historical name. There are other cases where it is not so clear who is right and who is wrong.
This book is many things, but above all, it’s a love letter to Clio, the muse of history. It is not just a fictional future-history; it is an instruction manual for how to read all histories, of any period. Again and again, the book reminds us that we can’t trust those who write either the first-hand accounts or those historians who follow them, eager to present a record that suits their own agendas. Hence why all histories must be subjected to meticulous analysis.
A couple months ago, over at Writers Supporting Writers, I wrote that my dream is to write a book with layers and depth to it. My example of the kind of book I meant was Dune, by Frank Herbert. Fitzpatrick’s War is another such book. Many times, I found myself comparing Fitzpatrick’s War to Dune. There are some similar plot elements, including:
- A messianic nobleman consumed by visions of empire. (Paul in Dune, Fitzpatrick here.)
- A secret society manipulating world-historical events. (The Bene Gesserit in Dune, The Timermen here.)
- A purposeful destruction and limitation of artificial computing technology. (The Butlerian Jihad in Dune, the aforementioned defeat of the Brain Lords here.)
But the last thing I want you to think is that Fitzpatrick’s War is a Dune knock-off. It’s not that at all. I enjoyed it more than Dune, in fact. I attribute this partially to it being told from the perspective of Bruce, who, by his own admission, is just a common, unexceptional, stolid soldier-type, instead of Herbert’s focus on the hallucinating demigod at the center of a personality cult.
This is Judson’s special genius in constructing Fitzpatrick’s War: although the book deals with the grand sweep of history and the place of humanity in the universe, the author never loses sight of his characters. Bruce, Fitzpatrick, Charlotte, and others (especially Bruce’s friend Pularski, my personal favorite) never become mere puppets for the author’s philosophizing. They are well-defined, believable people, swept up in momentous and often horrifying events, and you feel like you’re experiencing all of it right there with them.
I could go on, and on, and on. There are so many things I adore about this book. But no amount of my praise can convey it properly. I’ll just say it’s the sort of book I wish I could write, and it deserves to be widely read.
But that, I’m afraid, is where we come to the sticky wicket.
Unlike nearly all books I review, this one’s not on Kindle. You used to be able to get a paperback on Amazon for twelve bucks. I say “used to” because apparently I bought the last one. As I write these words, the hardcover is going for about $25.
On the one hand, I’d gladly pay that price for this book, if I could experience it all over again for the first time. But I recognize that it’s a steep price to pay for a book, and not everyone will react to it the same way I did.
My suggestion: see if you can get it from the library. Also unlike most books I review, this one isn’t indie, at least not in the sense we normally use the term. It was published in 2004 by DAW Books, which is a reasonably well-known publisher of science-fiction. As a result, there may be more physical copies in existence than of most books I review, and a greater chance that libraries might possess some of them.
About those copies… being the nosy little sneak that I am, I tried to find some way to contact Judson. I failed, but I did find his blog, which hasn’t been updated since 2007. There, I found a post of his where he says that Fitzpatrick’s War:
…may be the least read book ever printed by a major house. I think in hard-cover and paperback editions put together it sold less than two hundred copies world-wide.
I recommend reading Judson’s entire post, and bookmarking it to refer to whenever someone asserts that traditional publishers help with marketing.
No, the fact is, book publishers and reviewers would much rather focus their efforts on promoting reliably salable titles by internationally famous writers. So, if we non-famous people want books promoted, we’ve just got to do the job ourselves. Judson may have written off Fitzpatrick’s War as having “died an ignoble death,” but I think he’s a bit of a crapehanger. (Which is understandable in anyone who has studied history as extensively as he obviously has.) Many now-classic works of literature were lost and forgotten for decades or even centuries before they took their place in the Canons of Literary Art.
If you can somehow get yourself a copy, you must read Fitzpatrick’s War. It’s weird, I know, to have to go to some trouble to enjoy a piece of media in this era of instant content delivery, but perhaps this is fitting given some of the book’s themes.
As for me, I plan to read it again to check for subtleties I may have missed. Then I’ll probably lend it to one or two family members who I think would like it. After that’s done, I’ll certainly consider sending my copy to friends of the blog who may wish to read it and can’t get hold of it otherwise. This book is too good, and people need to read it, and decide for themselves if Robert Mayfair Bruce is a hero or a traitor.