The Sign of the Thunderbird by Ron Montana
Manor Books, 1977
Price I paid: $7
FINDING HELL IN A HOLOCAUST…
…Captain Eason and Private Fox are blown from present time and space and hurled into the past.
Trading plutonium bombs for bows and arrows, the two fight their own army to lead an Indian uprising. They know the violence of yesteryear has led to an annihilation of the future and learn blood spilt for peace is blood spilt in vain. But they battle against history for justice and survival, knowing they can never win!
So this is yet another epic tale that owes my reading it to Joachim Boaz and his recent acquisitions posts. This book popped up in my feed and I had a pretty good idea from the moment I saw it that it would be one right up my alley. For one, it’s published by Manor, a publishing house whose record on this blog is pretty spotty. I’ve read only two of their books, but one of them was so bad it completely undoes the fair-to-middlin’ of the other one.
But moreover, it’s a time travel story, and I like time travel stories. Especially stories where people go back in time and help win battles or something. Those tend to turn into alternate history stories, and I like those too.
And then there are books where the time travelers help a marginalized population achieve victory. Those can go a lot of ways, and it’s hard to guess which way they’ll go. When that population is Native Americans, the whole thing is fraught with danger. There are so many stereotypes and myths and outright lies floating around that it’s safe to assume that a book like this will involve our heroes learning how to become one with the land with the rest of the noble savages.
In short, I was kind of expecting this book to be a lot more like Dune, but just in the bad ways.
I don’t know very much about author Ron Montana. I can’t find anything saying definitively whether he is of Native American descent, but I do know is that his early work was featured in Craig Strete’s fanzine Red Planet Earth, which was dedicated to Native American science fiction. Strete himself was of Cherokee descent. What I don’t know is whether the publication was meant for authors of Native American descent, or if anybody would write for it as long as they incorporated Native American themes.
I just don’t want to make any assumptions.
Montana and Strete had a spot of trouble with each other in the ’80s when Montana accused Strete of plagiarism. Eventually there was a settlement.
And that’s all well and good, but what about this book? The Sign of the Thunderbird is Montana’s first science fiction novel, according to the SFE. It’s also a book very much of its time. What is or is not cool with Indigenous American people either then or now is very far out of my lane, so I’m not going to declare very much in this book “offensive” on their behalf.
Having read it, I’m happy to report that I wouldn’t have to? Yeah, there were some moments that made me wince, and I’ll address those, but on the whole, this was a pretty solid novel!
We start out meeting a guy named Fletch Eason. He’s a fighter pilot in a war that has not gone well for the United States. In fact, it probably hasn’t gone well for anybody. It’s the all-out thermonuclear heck our mom’s all warned us about, and to cap it off, China has also decided to invade the West Coast of the United States after throwing their own nukes at the Russians. I don’t know what their logic was, but it seems to have worked. Now there’s a ground war in the Western US.
While flying on a mission, Eason gets shot down, along with the rest of his squadron. He bails out and finds himself drifting toward a little town in New Mexico. It’s there that he comes under fire from the ground and manages to escape with the help of his new friend, Johnny Fox.
Johnny is several things. First, he’s an Army mechanic. He is stationed on a US Army Juggernaut, a tank that is absolutely gigantic. It’s essentially a rolling base with guns. He’s also the last surviving member of his tank crew. He was inside working repairs when some kind of sonic weapon killed the rest of his group. And last, though it’s not exactly an important plot point yet, Johnny is a Mescalero Apache, although the text spells it “mexcelero” and Google doesn’t give me any results for that.
Despite their differences in background and rank, Eason and Fox become fast friends. It’s interesting because their friendship and interaction became my favorite part of the book. Their reparteé is pretty snappy and it seems like they genuinely care about one another. Conveying that kind of friendship well is pretty rare in a lot of the genre fiction I’ve read, so I appreciated seeing it here.
It sometimes gets into a murky bit, though, where it becomes what you might call good-natured racism? Like, Eason will call Fox something like “you dumb Injun” and it’s clearly out of affection, so Fox isn’t offended—or at least doesn’t indicate that he is. Sometimes Fox will respond by leaning into it, repeating some old stereotypes from Western films and the like.
I think I’m just gonna come right out and say it: this is gross to me. Now, there may be plenty of interracial friendships where this kind of thing is totally fine between all members of the friendship group. But when I read it in a book like this, it comes across as White Fantasy “but my so-and-so friend lets me say it.” But again, I don’t know Ron Montana’s background, so I can’t make that call.
So Fox and Eason survive a bit in this gigantic tank. Finally, they get ahold of someone on the radio, who more or less tells them to say their prayers, a whole new battery of nukes is on the way. Right on schedule, the duo are disintegrated in a nuclear explosion.
They awaken to find themselves still alive. The paint has been completely stripped off of their mega-tank, but other than that, things seem to be okay. It doesn’t take them very long to realize that things aren’t right, though. The town is missing, for one, although I guess you could put that down to it being blasted to hell. But there’s running water nearby, and what appears to be a Native encampment.
Note: Because this book is from 1977 it consistently uses the word “Indian.” I’m trying to avoid following suit.
Almost as soon as the duo spot that encampment, it is set upon by United States soldiers, who ruthlessly begin murdering the people there. Eason and Fox fight back and manage to save one woman, who escapes. The soldiers are either killed or flee. Eason picks a piece of paper off of one of them, which turns out to be the soldier’s orders, signed and dated. The fellas have found themselves in the merry old year of 1860.
A thing I enjoyed about this book is that it didn’t get heavy on Theory and Practice of Time Travel. The protags spend almost no time thinking about how they were sent back. They don’t worry about whether they’re altering the timeline by doing things or polluting it with technology that didn’t exist then. Nope, they take full advantage of being from the future. At first glance this seems irresponsible, but when you think about it, what future did they leave behind? It was a pretty crappy one, wasn’t it? Not much they do could make the future crappier than it was. I don’t remember them ever explicitly saying those things, but I think it’s a pretty clear subtext.
So what we end up with is a book in which two guys join forces with a group of Apache from 1860 and absolutely wreak havoc across the New Mexico territory. The Juggernaut tank itself isn’t used, but it has plenty of supplies, including lots of guns and a motorcycle.
There’s not much in the way of drama or tension in this book. It’s just success after success. Fox and Eason teach some Apache men modern-day tactics and give them modern guns, turning them into a major force to be reckoned with. If the story had been Eason alone doing all this, it would have been a white saviour narrative and been terrible. Instead, it’s Fox doing most of the work there. Eason mostly winds up leaving and coming back with information every so often.
I guess the most tense bit is when, after riding away from raiding some fort or another, Eason gets shot and Fox has to nurse him back to health from near death. He breaks out some kind of futuristic medkit that has all this technology in it and is able to make that work. But even that’s not all that tense. In another story, you’d have this futuristic device and the main characters would need to prevent it from being seen or whatever. Not so here.
Another thing that made me wince: Fox—who is made Chief after he marries the old Chief’s daughter accidentally—selects the best fighters from the Apache and forms an elite cadre, which he names the Sparrow Squad. Thereafter, it’s called the SS. Hey, not a good idea! Is this intentional, or a weird oversight? I just don’t know. It’s gross either way.
Despite these occasional negative moments, the book itself is pretty enjoyable. Imagining these guys and their elite trained troops destroying the villainous US Army of 1860 is pretty fun, and it helps that the prose is very readable. It’s even more fun when, like me, you read the book on July 4.
Our heroes go from success to success, finally deciding to make the big move and take over Santa Fe. It’s about this time that the book had its final punches in the gut for me.
See, the thing about Eason was that I generally liked him. He and Fox were both enjoyable characters, and when they were together it was even more enjoyable. Not anything spectacular, but they had personalities and fun banter sometimes. I was rooting for them.
Right before the final battle, Eason shows up bedecked in Apache gear, and I’m like, okay, that’s maybe a little appropriative or something but there’s at least context.
And then it says that he’s painted a Confederate flag on his chest.
Now, dammit, that pissed me off bad enough. I knew that Eason was from Georgia all along, but I didn’t know he was that kind of Georgian. Dammit, now I have to contend with the fact that Eason is an asshole.
But it gets worse.
Our heroes take over Santa Fe pretty handily, and then establish relations with the other Apache groups in the area and take over the New Mexico territory. They’ve got numbers, and more importantly, they’ve got advanced weaponry that they’re not afraid to use. I’m sitting here thinking heck yeah. I felt cheated when we didn’t get any kind of flash forward at the end, to see how it all turned out, but I felt even more cheated when Eason made his proclamation at the end.
Instead of hanging around and helping Fox, Eason declares that he’s going to head east and throw his hat in with General Robert E. Lee.
Fuck you, Eason. Fuck you for making me like you and then declaring that you’re a racist piece of shit. And don’t give me any of that “it’s not about slavery” garbage, either. Just get the hell out of my face and I hope to god you get a Minié ball in your skull at the first opportunity.
And Ron Montana, I’m not especially happy with you either. It’s funny, though. I’m more viscerally angry with the character than I am with the author who created him. That’s an interesting thing to think about.
So yeah, this book did give me one of the harshest and quickest face-heel turns to date! That’s an impressive feat unto itself. And up until then, I could almost recommend the thing. It had its negative moments before it really ticked me off, but I could almost write those off as being from a different time. Pull that old “at least now we know better” routine that is probably a cop-out.
Maybe it’s because we’re living in the days we’re living in, but having a character I was, until then, pretty happy with ride off into the sunset waving a banner that says Black Lives Don’t Matter sure does seem like a big Screw You. Maybe it shouldn’t have been that much of a surprise. He was pretty fine with racist jabs against Fox throughout the book, too. But that felt somehow different.
I have to admit that I don’t know a lot about Apache culture and history. In addition to that not being my aforementioned lane, I don’t think I can comment on how respectful this book was. All I can say is that, from my vantage point, it didn’t seem patronizing or ridiculously stereotypical. There were no “Magic Indians.”
One thing I found interesting was that Fox was also pretty far out of his element when he met up with his ancestors in the past. His own knowledge of his ancestors’ traditions was minimal, and he was disconnected from them. At first he related to them through stereotypes and pop culture depictions, much like Eason did. At one point he loses his temper with one of the Apache and yells something like “I thought you people could read Signs!”
Anyway, it was in the final few pages that I switched from “Hey, check out this cool book” to “Nope.” Maybe if you can get past that, you’ll like it. There’s plenty else to enjoy. I might be willing to check out Ron Montana’s other works to see if they get better. But I need to cool off first.