It was the contention of one galactic historian that similar planets must have similar histories. It was the contention of another that this did not imply identical histories. The challenge could only be settled by actual testing in the infinity of the cosmos.
The computer came up with the story of Joan of Arc on the Planet Earth. Programmed anew, it produced a similar world, the Planet Noldaz of Sigma 32, with a human race rising from medievalism among whom a maid would appear to lead her country’s knights on a war of liberation.
The question: was she inevitably doomed to die at the stake, as Joan had before her? Did identical situations always mean identical conclusions?
Pierre Barbet, master of alternative histories and parallel worlds, spins a marvelous science fiction novel out of one of the great enigmas of history.
DAW Books, what in the flying butt are you talking about in that jacket copy? Seriously? Who read this book? Did anyone? Am I the only one? Am I literally the only human being to have read this book?
WHAT ARE YOU TALKING ABOUT
Joan of Arc is anything but one of the “great enigmas of history.” There’s no mystery. She was a woman who thought she heard God and then she did some cool stuff and then she got burned alive for the ancient sin of being a woman. She kicked ass and got killed for it by the people whose asses she kicked. If she were alive today, Joan of Arc would have been burned alive in the name of ethics in games journalism or some shit. Nothing’s new.
But what it’s not is an enigma. It’s no secret that men are scum. Sorry.
All that aside, we’ve got an interesting little book here. I’ve read Pierre Barbet before, and the last time he came up I believe I wasn’t impressed. That other book had no story or plot so much as a guy who just kept winning because of his Space Army Knife that solved all the problems. We get that again with The Joan-of-Arc Replay, but this time it had a little more going for it, mainly on the grounds that it didn’t pretend to have a hero who did anything heroic to solve any problems. This was more or less one of those books where a bunch of stuff happens and it’s mildly interesting so I ended up following along.
It did have a guy behind all the stuff, though. His name was Celsar until he came down to the planet and adopted the name Tiadann. I gave up on trying to keep that straight.
There were a lot of things, name-wise, that I gave up on in this book.
Celsar is an intergalactic grad student. His mentor/advisor/whatever is Professor Iern’an, who holds the chair in galactic history. They have a bit of a disagreement going when we first meet them, and it’s amusing to me because it’s so freaking dumb.
Iern’an has a theory about civilizations. It is called Hodgkin’s Law of Parallel Planetary Development, except it’s not, because that comes from Star Trek, where it was also stupid. What makes it different here is that there was actually a reason for it to be a thing in Star Trek—namely budgeting—but in a novel there is absolutely no reason for anybody to posit that this is even remotely possible.
The book sums it up thus:
To identical stars, similar planets and comparable histories.
So let’s start off by saying that no two stars are identical. From there we get the idea that these non-existent—but let’s run with it for the sake of story—stars will have similar planets that will develop similar humanoid life that will in turn go through history in much the same way we did. That is the premise behind this book. From the very beginning I’m ready to give up on it.
Never mind the incredibly large number of variables that will influence literally everything about how the life forms on a planet develop.
Pierre Barbet, you have been accused of crimes against imagination. How to you plead?
Celsar contests Iern’an’s findings and says “Hey, find a planet where something is happening similarly to something that happened on another planet, and let’s see if I can futz around with it and make history happen differently.”
And Iern’an says, “Cool. If you can make things happen differently there, you owe me a space-coke.”
These two guys find a planet where the story of Joan of Arc is happening again, because this weird space law that doesn’t make any sense might as well get stupider and mean that history happens on a person-by-person basis except that it gets to happen very slightly differently because the names are all different, which again doesn’t make any sense to me because names are just one more little butterfly in the infinitely complex tapestry of history that if you change even that small detail you end up with such a radically different developmental pattern that you might even end up with a civilization that doesn’t care how badly I’m mixing metaphors in this sentence.
Joan on this planet is named Liane. She heard a voice from the Archangel Lignel in 1428 (yes, they even use the same years) that told her to rise up and save her country, Lonk, from the evil clutches of their longstanding foe, the Incl.
These names are stupid.
So she does that and she gets joined by Iern’an and Celsar who have taken on human flesh (they were previously energy beings) and adopted the names Alterdo and Tiadann, respectively. They have set themselves up as learnéd astrologers in the service of Liane.
Before long, Celsar betrays his teacher, turns him in to the authorities as a devil worshipper or something, and then takes over the reins. He joins up with Liane and eventually becomes her right hand man. He institutes some advances in Lonkian technology. Nothing too crazy, this isn’t Guns of the South, but it still gives the Lonks an advantage over their enemies.
The upshot of all this is that yes, you can change history—except you’re NOT because this is a DIFFERENT PLANET—if you are a super-powerful energy being from space with infinite resources. Celsar declares himself the winner of the bet and then goes on to futz up this planet even more.
In his defense, his motivation is never personal gain. Celsar believes that he’s doing the right thing for this planet. He thinks that there’s no reason at all for planets to go through the destructive phases that all civilizations go though in exactly the same way. His goal is to use Liane and his high technology to unite the entire planet in a peaceful confederation so that technology can advance more rapidly.
Oh, and Iern’an got burned up on the stake, but that’s okay because all that was destroyed was his humanoid shell. He’s still floating around somewhere, occasionally showing up to praise his student and be annoying.
I stopped thinking about the different sides in this war as the “Lonks” and the “Incl” long before the book was over. It was about page, oh, twenty that I was thinking of them as the French and the English. If that slips through in this review, I apologize, I guess. I’m not at all sure I should.
So Liane stops being the point of the book quickly. She’s a character all the way through—Celsar manages to avoid the whole fire thing—but once he takes over the armies it’s like…what’s the point of this being a book about Joan of Arc anymore? It’s just a novel of a guy messing around with history.
Celsar uses all sorts of FutureTech to accomplish his goals. When he negotiates with somebody, he uses a device that makes them more easily convinced by things. This happens a lot. He uses his spaceship to access maps of battlegrounds and get weather predictions before the battles. There’s no way in hell anything could ever stand against him in this book, and that brings me to a point I find interesting.
When this kind of thing happens, the story of the superhuman that can’t be defeated by his or her primitive enemies, there are two possibilities. Either they just roflstomp their way through the story, bringing out a gadget for every conceivable problem (usually quite specific in its uses, too) and there’s no plot or point to even reading this book because it’s…what? Some kind of wish fulfillment? What is this story even doing? Why does it exist? There’s no drama, no danger, no nothing that makes a story even remotely worth reading.
The other option is that something does happen and our technologically savvy person is defeated somehow. This is usually the case when he or she is the villain. The residents of the planet have some sort of savvy, or unconquerable human spirit, or whatever, and the bad guy is defeated. There is also the possibility that the bad guy has a flaw, usually a cliché one like overconfidence, that leads to downfall. This is more commonly the plot of an invasion story, be it War of the Worlds or Niven and Pournelle’s Footfall which I recently read and was like HOOLYYY CRAAAP YEEEEESSSSS the whole time. So there’s a recommendation.
It’s the belief that the story might turn out to be the second kind that tends to keep me reading, and I am so often disappointed.
Celsar and Liane drive the English forces from France and then go on to prove Iern’an wrong by taking the fight to England, where they win. Instead of occupying the island and forcing it under the yoke, though, Celsar sets up a series of acts of reconciliation that, he hopes, will turn what were once enemies into allies. His plan is to do this to the whole continent. He sets out armies to do that while he and Liane take off across the ocean to spread enlightenment to the New World.
I think this book is a celebration of imperialism? White Man’s Burden, except in this case it’s more like Green Energy Being’s Burden?
In any case, nothing ever stands in the way of our heroes and they succeed forever. Oh, and at some point Celsar and Liane fell in love and got married. Together, they tame the wild lands and peoples of the Western Continent and everybody is happy until Galactic Forces show up and and zap Celsar and take him home.
They tell him that he’s wrong, he explains himself, they go “Haha, just joking, we think you’re right all along” and the book ends. Also Iern’an was there, who retires and Celsar gets his chair.
Nuts to all this.
This is one more case where I was enjoying the book as I was reading it but then, as it came to a close, I decided that I was not actually enjoying it and it was not as good as I thought it was. This is the kind of thing that happens when there’s a good enough premise that just goes in places I don’t think work well as a story. This is very much the case here. I picked this book up because it looked interesting and I wanted to see what Barbet was going to do with the idea.
One thing I don’t understand is why the premise of this book had to be the way it was. Why even go through the hoops of saying that there’s some grand theorem that states that similar planets develop in such a similar way that we can go there and relive history and maybe even try to change it? True, this is a mildly original thought, I guess, except for all the Star Trek episodes that hinged on exactly that same plot, but the fact that it’s not done to death is not a declaration that the idea is any good.
It could have been a time travel book. That way we wouldn’t have had to worry about “Lonks” versus “Incls” and all that and we could have just gotten straight to the meat of the story without having to take a moment every few pages to decide which side is which. If they had been England and France and Joan of Arc I would have been much more down with this book.
And from there the point of the book could have been two energy blobs arguing over whether it were possible to change history or something instead of some dumb idea about parallel planetary development that makes no sense once you think about it for more than, oh, a second and a half. And the worst thing about it was that the Celsar and Iern’an were so smug about it every time some evidence supporting their ideas came up.
No, the worst thing is that that whole idea fell by the wayside about halfway through the book and never really came up again.
And let’s not forget that this book seems to come down heavily in favor of bringing barbarous nations up to the level of their superiors, because that kind of thinking has worked well in the past for everybody since forever.
At least this was a pretty good translation. I’ll give it that. The book didn’t seem as clunkily written as the other Barbet translation I’ve read. And the cover is great. Sorry my scan is kinda crappy. Had some trouble with the sticker there.
Other things this book did right were descriptions of historical weapons like arquebuses and cannon. Barbet obviously did some research on late medieval weaponry and tactics and applied that to the story. He didn’t just assume, like so many authors seem to do, that the entire Hundred Years’ War was fought with swords and longbows and horsies. Those things were there, obviously, but it’s easy to forget that there were gunpowder weapons in Europe that early. I have to give Barbet a lot of credit for his historical accuracy, in fact, even though its application in this book doesn’t make a lick of sense.
I really wanna go play Civilization.