I consider Stirling one of my favorite authors, but I could never get into this one. The premise is pretty interesting, it was the execution that put me off. The Draka society is truly horrible, and described in detail, but also this series of novels, like the Island in the Sea of Time series, seems to have been an excuse for writing sex scenes that crossed the line of what I'm willing to see in print. The final nail in the coffin was when Stirling included mixed-sex highly effective infantry units. If you want to write a fantasy about that, go ahead, but since Stirling is known for highly realistic military sci-fi, that broke the suspension of disbelief completely, since it doesn't match up with anything that happens in real world combat. Similarly, for the Island in the Sea of time, it was the bit about the peace-loving matriarchal agrarians who practiced free love [who never have gone through the formality of existing] that broke my willingness to entertain the fantasy.
By S.M. Stirling
An Abridgment and Revision of
--Marching Through Georgia
--Under the Yoke
--The Stone Dogs
Baen Publishing Enterprises, 1999
778 Pages, US$24.00
For more information on the Draka timeline, go to here.
Slavery & Sustainable Development
In our world, President Lincoln had this to say at the dedication of the new military cemetery at Gettysburg:
"[O]ur fathers brought forth…a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal…Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. [W]e…highly resolve that…government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth."
In the world of the Draka series, of which the trilogy in “The Domination” is the core, Lincoln is only vice president during the war, and 140 years later that nation does indeed perish from the earth. So do all other nations so conceived, along with the hope of any more ever arising. I am inclined to take this book as a deliberate parody of Francis Fukuyama's “end of history” thesis. The end of this alternative history also comes just before the end of the 20th century, but the victor is not liberal democracy. Rather, it is the Final Society, a global anti-America with a slave-based economy and an ideology compounded of Nietzsche and Classicism. Alternative history does not get any better than this. Though it would be going too far to call the scenario plausible, nonetheless Draka society is so well thought out that it merits an explanation of why it would not work.
S.M. Stirling is best known as a writer of military science fiction. He chose a notably elegant way to launch his horrible history: it was all the fault of the Dutch. It seems that, during the American Revolution, the Dutch sided with the French as allies of the insurgents. One effect was that the Revolution was so successful that Canada was not a secure haven for Loyalist refugees after the war. However, another effect was that the British acquired the Dutch outposts at the southern tip of Africa. The Loyalists went there; since many of them were southerners, they took along their slaves. The Hessian mercenaries who fought for the British went, too. Land grants in a hostile and inhabited wilderness were the best London could do for them at the time. Other early immigrants included refugees from Iceland, which had been plagued by volcanic eruptions. (I might remark that the Icelanders did indeed consider abandoning their country in the 18th century.) The early Dutch settlers and their language were simply absorbed.
All these people were incorporated into the new Dominion of Drakia, named after Sir Francis Drake. “Draka” was a corruption, but the association with dragons was embraced by the new society's iconography. Their enemies in later years called them Snakes.
The 19th century world of the Draka timeline is not so different from our own, though its geopolitics does somewhat resemble a game of Risk. For instance, the US absorbs not only the whole of British North America, but also Mexico. Technology progresses somewhat faster and in somewhat different directions. Military dirigibles begin to appear in the late 1860s, for instance. Armored steam-cars play a role in the US Civil War, which otherwise occurs at about the same time as in our world and proceeds to the same conclusion. However, the Confederacy does receive aid from the Dominion of Drakia, and large numbers of Confederate refugees flee to the Dominion in the final stage of the war.
In Africa, things are very different indeed. The Draka are nominally a part of the British Empire. They even go through the motions of abolishing slavery, but without appreciable improvement in the status of their subject peoples, who are eventually simply redesignated “serfs.” In any case, London is quite unable to inhibit the expansion of its colony. The process is facilitated by the development of a “Janissary” corps of slave-soldiers on the Turkish model. They normally constitute two-thirds of the Draka military; one conquest provides the manpower to make another. By the end of the 19th century, the Draka have overrun the whole continent, including Egypt and the rest of Islamic northern Africa.
Meanwhile, Draka society developed a sophisticated ideological underpinning. Immigrants from Europe helped. Carlyle was one; Nietzsche was another. So, for that matter, was Oscar Wilde. Stirling is to be congratulated for suggesting a genuinely alien aesthetic. Draka landholders were particularly fond of heroic murals in the long common rooms of their manor houses. Their walls depicted the sort of gory scenes of conquest the Maya might have painted, had the Maya had a bent toward Impressionism.
I gather that Draka political theory has gained the series an audience in some fascist circles. (There is also a lot of gross physical abuse and dominatrix-style sex.) The meaning of the Draka state is not the well-being of the people. Neither is it a divine mandate: the Draka become increasingly agnostic, though there is a faddish pagan revival around 1900. Strictly speaking, it is not even racial chauvinism. Though the Draka are characteristically Nordic and take a keen interest in eugenics, they eventually drop their prejudices and extend the institution of slavery to everyone. For the Draka, the state exists explicitly for the elite. In this case, the elite is the caste of Citizens, less than 10% of the population. Internally, the Citizen caste is an egalitarian “Greek democracy.” A minority can practice the ideal of a landed aristocracy living on self–sufficient plantations. The urban Draka are professionals or civil servants, whose private lives are made luxurious by the attendance of personal serfs. Eventually, the better to distance themselves psychologically from their human property, they stop thinking of themselves as human beings.
There is a private sector in the Draka economy, but it seems to serve little besides small luxury-markets. There is no mass market; slaves do not touch money. Thus, the Draka economy is not fundamentally dynamic. The anti-America also wholly lacks a sense of Manifest Destiny. However, Draka culture does have dynamic features. Principally, they have a cult of the Will. They embrace the idea that to accept a goal is to accept the means necessary to achieve it, no matter what the means might be. One might say that they equate the desirable, the possible, and the mandatory.
This is not to say that they lack a sense of their own vulnerability. The Draka realize that their society cannot co-exist indefinitely with other social systems. Thus, on the one hand, conquest by the Draka is a more radical event than conquest by even the most predatory empires of history. Communities are not taxed or exploited; they are atomized and the individuals are fed into the slave distribution system. On the other hand, the borders of the Draka state have to be continually expanded in order to prevent foreign corruption. The Draka can never be really safe as long as there is an outside.
This problem is solved in the course of the 20th century. The Draka loyally do their bit in the First World War by attacking Turkey. (Again, the war starts at about the same time as in our world, and seems to follow much the same course.) After the war ends, however, the Draka declare their total independence from Britain. They rename their state the Domination of Draka. They also take advantage of the collapse of Czarist Russia to expand their control far into Central Asia, up to western China. However, history only really runs off the rails with the Second World War.
The need of the Soviet Union to defend against the Domination on its southern border is an adequate explanation for why the forces were not available to stop the Germans from taking Moscow in 1941. Rather more explanation is needed for why the Draka were able to defeat the Germans in the Caucasus and go on to conquer Europe by 1945. (The first novel in the series, “Marching through Georgia,” is about an offensive in the Georgia in the eastern hemisphere.) The near invincibility of the Draka has to do with a tradition of physical training and with careful preparation for a Eurasian War. In comparison, even the SS is not quite good enough.
Hitler is assassinated in 1942, and the Germans become briefly what they had sometimes claimed to be, the leaders of the defense of Europe. It does not help. The war ends when the Draka bring nuclear weapons to bear against the Ruhr. Then the whole of Europe is open to settlement by the Domination.
This is the subject of the second book, “Under the Yoke.” By far the most harrowing of the three, it deals with a new plantation in central France. There we see that the Draka system has its bucolic features. The slave “Quarters” of the new plantation, for instance, is not much different from an old-fashioned village. By design, it uses low-level agricultural technology. The forests are gradually returned to their primitive state, including ecologically appropriate fauna. On the other hand, the Draka have decapitated France. The Draka are willing to tolerate some religion; even a bishop is mentioned. However, all the institutions of the country disappear. What remains of the war-era Resistance is hunted down as “bushmen.” When caught, they die degrading deaths by impalement. The Draka are also content that French should disappear as a written language. Education for serfs is highly restricted, and all of it is in the Drakas' slurred version of English. (The author's attempt to represent their imaginary dialect is not the most attractive feature of the book.)
In the Pacific, the war followed a course that was rather more extreme than in our world, but again with a similar outcome. The Japanese occupied not only the Philippines, but also Hawaii. They made landings in Central America. They conquered northern Australia. Still, their position collapsed when the US surface fleet returned to the Pacific. Japan surrenders after a US nuclear attack, though some historians later argued that the dread of a Draka invasion would have brought surrender anyway.
Then the world settled down to the Protracted Struggle between the Domination and the Democratic Alliance. The course and end of that struggle is the context for “The Stone Dogs.” That book is not without interest; there is something to be said for any alternative-history novel in which the capital of the US is New York City, and the exiled pope regularly attends presidential inaugurations. Still, the scenario's technological acceleration is a little unnerving. There are manned scramjets in the 1940s, and substantial bases on the moon by the end of the '60s. The precocious appearance of biotechnology is perhaps appropriate: it would make sense that the Draka would try to become a new species biologically as well as culturally. Still, I for one found the colonies in the asteroid belt to be a bit much. There is good, hard science-fiction in the third book, but I wonder whether deep space really belongs in this story.
The sad course of the standoff with the Draka need not detain us long. The Domination consisted of two-thirds of the world, both in population and land area. No doubt because of Draka demographic policy, the world's population was just shy of three billion before the end of the standoff. Outside the Domination there was only the Alliance, which consisted of the Americas, Japan and Australasia. At first it also included India. However, in 1975, as in our world, there was a major setback for the cause of democracy.
The Draka did not win a guerilla war. Rather, a US intelligence operation backfired that had been intended to keep India in the Alliance. A new government came to power, and India sought neutrality. The Draka took advantage of the confusion to launch a successful invasion. After that, it was all over, bar the shouting. The final conflict came in 1998. A strategy using computer viruses was set against a strategy using biological viruses. Biology won.
There is more to the Draka series than these three books. A wrap-around story in this volume, set in the near future of a world very like ours, alludes to an incursion from the Draka timeline. That is the premise of a fourth novel. There is also a collection of stories.
* * *
The interesting thing about Draka society is that it is simply an exaggeration of societies that have really existed. The political culture of the Domination was not so different from that of some southern states in the United States before the Civil War. In places like South Carolina, the state was little more than a police force. Militias led by local notables controlled the large servile population. The state was also an engine of war; it was always the southern states that were so eager to invade Canada and Mexico. Otherwise, the state did very little.
This style of government achieved sophisticated expression in the work of people like John C. Calhoun. Some unusually foolish southerners sometimes expressed interest in a monarchy when secession from the Union became a real possibility. (The Romanticism of Walter Scott's historical novels has sometimes been cited as a contributing cause of the Civil War.) However, serious southerners did endorse the idea of a highly restricted “Greek democracy,” and not without effect.
The thing to keep in mind is that the no-tax, no-services state proved to be singularly incompetent. The states of the Confederacy, and the Confederacy itself, had been designed not to function. They had grotesquely inadequate fiscal systems, spotty transportation and a dearth of educated citizens. More important, they also had a large population of non-citizens who could not be trusted. Like the Domination, the Confederacy was a callous, Romantic society. It was quite capable of producing dramatic geniuses. What it could not produce was stable administration. To the extent that the Confederacy worked at all, it worked through extra-legal emergency measures.
Of course, the Domination is also supposed to recall the Union of South Africa during the apartheid era. That regime had a tradition of competent administration and some experience of economic management. As with the Domination, there was a market sector, but a surprisingly large fraction of the South African economy was always state-owned. The large enterprises that were not directly owned by the state were monopolies, which were not much different from the parastatal entities familiar to developing countries. The tight rein on the market may have given the apartheid regime a measure of stability. However, the price of stability was a lack of dynamism.
Planned economies don't work any better in Africa than they do in Asia or Europe. It is hard to see how a formidable modern power could have been built from scratch, by government fiat, without even the head start that the Czars gave the Bolsheviks. Egypt in the 19th century also had a partially servile economy, which underwent notable expansion under the direction of a dirigist monarchy. It showed no sign of turning into a world power, however.
On a more general level, one might note that a strong state is the enemy of aristocracy. Feudal aristocracies arise in situations where there is no effective central government. The lords must therefore rely on a measure of local legitimacy. That is not the case in the Domination. All the Draka we see on their estates are terrified of possible uprisings. By the middle of the 20th century, there is a huge police and military infrastructure across Africa and Eurasia, ready to spring to the assistance of even the most isolated landowner. Worst of all, there is an appalling secret police. It keeps close watch on the serfs, but an even closer watch on the Citizens, lest they show signs of weakened resolve.
A sophisticated slave society is almost a contradiction in terms, which is not to say that they have not existed. Slaves ran the government of the Ottoman Empire, and to a lesser extent of China in some periods. The Janissary slave corps was the backbone of Ottoman power. The problem is that slavery to the state is actually a kind of immunity, at least as far as free subjects are concerned. We are told that serfs in the Domination might be killed by their owners with complete impunity; a Citizen who killed another's serf was civilly liable to the owner. However, the bulk of the military and civil service is staffed by government-owned serfs. In the ordinary course of things, the serfs would have more control over the Citizens than the Citizens over the serfs. The Ottoman sultans notoriously became the prisoners of their slave Janissaries. Finally, in order to give the sultans the freedom to begin modernization, the corps had to be abolished.
Finally, we should take note of some of the reasons that Francis Fukuyama gave for the success of liberal democracy. Modern, democratic, capitalist societies give people recognition as human beings. Subjectively, people are given the opportunity to act as moral agents, which is a capacity humans want to exercise. Objectively, everyone is acknowledged to be a moral actor. This has nothing to do with equality of talent or achievement. People may behave badly or stupidly, but their choices matter. That is why they can deserve to be punished or rewarded. A society that does not extend this recognition will suffer from tensions that will always threaten to tear it apart.
The Draka deal with the tension by being insane, as some of the Draka themselves are aware. The normal Draka personality requires a degree of sadism. Though the author does not dwell on this, part of the reason they are called “Snakes” is their oddly affectless demeanor. They do not move a muscle unless they intend to do so. People outside the Domination often have a physical revulsion to Draka, probably with good reason.
The economy of the Domination makes it inherently stable, but the Draka understand that their society is also highly artificial. It takes a great deal of energy, continuously applied, to maintain the fundamentally inhuman slave system. By the end of the last book, the Draka have developed a way to segue seamlessly into the inherently stable Final Society. Using viruses to modify the germ cells of human adults, they create two new species, homo drakensis and homo servus. The two species are not interfertile. Homo drakensis really are superior to natural human beings by most objective measures. Homo servus, though healthier and even slightly more intelligent than their ancestors, have a natural predilection to serve. Secret police and attack helicopters are no longer necessary to maintain the system. The system is natural for both species.
This is just the solution that Francis Fukuyama has been worrying about in recent years. In Our Posthuman Future, he observes that the conclusions he reached in “The End of History and the Last Man” apply only to human beings as we have known them historically. Genetic engineering does create at least the possibility of intelligent life, perhaps of human lineage, that would not be human in the way he had previously defined. Liberal democracy might mean nothing to such creatures.
For myself, I am skeptical about the danger. There is much less to genetic engineering than meets the eye. In any case, fans of alternative history may flatter themselves that they were ahead of the curve on this question.
Copyright © 2002 by John J. Reilly
The Domination By S.M. Stirling