Fitzpatrick’s War, by Theodore Judson

Fitzpatrick's War
Fitzpatrick’s War

This book has been sitting on my shelf for a while. I picked it up originally because I was going through a steampunk/alternate history phase and Theodore Judson’s Fitzpatrick’s War fit the bill on both counts. Well, when I decided earlier this week to read some other books to let the other people in the Anna Karenina reading group catch up, this was the fourth book I read.

I had tried to read the book once before, but I was a little put off by the introduction to the text. Hang on, let me back up. Fitzpatrick’s War is the fictional autobiography of Sir Robert Mayfair Bruce, a military man in the eponymous Fitzpatrick’s government. In Bruce’s fictional world, his autobiography was unpublished until 100-odd years after his death. Because of the historical circumstances, the book was introduced and annotated by a later scholar. Again, because of the history, this later scholar doubts substantial portions of Bruce’s story and feels the need to make comments in footnotes throughout the text saying things like, “Here Bruce is mistaken” or later in the story, “From here until the end of the narrative, Bruce gives up all semblance of credibility” or something like that.

There is a really excellent plot summary (with maps) of this book, in this Wikipedia article so I won’t talk too much about the plot. What interests me is that this is one of the few works of fantasy or science fiction that I’ve read that really tackles the idea of historiography and revisionist history. In the world of this novel, all the Yukon characters are serious students of history. Presumably they’re following the idea that those who don’t learn history are doomed to repeat it and their culture had just survived about 150 years of apocalyptic social collapse and war. The problem, though, is that these characters don’t have the whole story of their history. The idea that history is written by the victors appears over and over again in this novel.

Given that I was (an still am) a student in a time when historical revisionism and postmodernism are the dominant modes of academic thought, this was a fascinating read for me.  We are taught to seek out primary sources, to get the accounts of people close to historical events, in order to get closer to the truth of what happened or is happening. But we’re also taught to take everything with a grain of salt because people are biased and are limited by their perceptions of things. You have to always wonder how much of the big picture that witness had, or what they might want to cover up in order to make themselves look better. Essentially, we’re told to be aware of the flaws in the historical record, and to seek out additional evidence. Historical revisionism, at its root, asks us to examine what we’ve been told about history and to not take everything for granted.

In the world of Fitzpatrick’s War, revisionist history does not exist. The historical record is as fixed as you can make it. Yukon students are taught to memorize passages and facts from standard works of history and are taught not to question. As you read this book, you get the story of the rise and fall of Fitzpatrick, who managed to conquer the world, first hand from Bruce, who was a friend and confidante. But the text is pepper with comments from the latter day scholar, who’s been taught all his life about how wonderful Fitzpatrick was and who refuses to think that there might be a darker side to his hero. This scholar tries hard to explain away all the ethical dilemmas and moral issues that Bruce has with the way the Fitzpatrick conquered the world. Like I said, it’s fascinating and thought-provoking read. I really hope that Judson revisits this world in the future.

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