Sunday, 15 November 2015

A timeline of New Virginia

Here is a combined timeline of the two alternative worlds described in S. M. Stirling's novel Conquistador (2003). The timeline is intended as a summary for people who have read the book, and therefore omits explanatory notes.

SPOILER ALERT: If you haven't read the book yet, and would like to be surprised by it, leave this page immediately!

356 BC: Birth of Alexander the Great (as in our history)

323 BC: Alexander the Great recovers from illness (died in our history)

280 BC: Death of Alexander the Great

000 AD: Alexandrian Empire starts to decline

300 AD: Alexandrian Empire no longer exists

1585: Birth of John Rolfe I (as in our history)

1622: Death of John Rolfe I and his wife Matoaka, also known as Pocahontas and Lady Rebecca

1862: Colonel John Rolfe III, Stonewall Brigade, loses a leg in battle

1922: Birth of John Rolfe VI

1942: John Rolfe leaves the Virginia Military Institute

1944: John Rolfe is seriously wounded in the Battle of Okinawa (1945 in our history)

1946-04-17: The Gate opens

1946-12-31: New Virginian population less than 200

1947: Birth of Charles Rolfe

1949: Import of animals begins via San Diego Zoo

1950-01-01: Settler population over 15,000

1950-06-07: John Rolfe first visits Sierra Consultants

1955: Import of animals stops

1962: Sorenson retires, Sierra Consultants closes

1962: Arrival of the Chumley and Devereaux families (29th and 30th)

1968: Hawaii added to New Virginia

1971: Kidnapping of Ralph Barnes

1990s: Arrival of the Batyushkov and Versfeld families (31st and 32nd)

1998: Kidnapping of Henry Villers

2001: Adrienne joins the Gate Security Force

2003: Arrival of Sergei Lermontov

2007: Secret recruitment begins for revolution

2009-06: Capture of condor, Tom meets Adrienne

2009-06: Kidnapping of Tom and Roy

2009-06: 150,000 Settlers, 3,000 in Families, 50,000 nahua

2009-07: Start of Owens Valley expedition

2009-08: Revolution; the Gate closes

2009-12: The Gate reopens, but there's a problem

The birth date of Adrienne Rolfe is indeterminate. In Chapter 3 she says she inherited Seven Oaks in 2001 at the age of 18, but in Chapter 9 the author himself locates that event in 1996. So, either she's lying about her age in Chapter 3, or the author made a mistake in Chapter 9; both possibilities seem rather uncharacteristic; take your pick.

Monday, 19 October 2015

The Commonwealth of New Virginia

The Commonwealth of New Virginia is a country described in S. M. Stirling's novel Conquistador (2003). It exists in an alternative world (let's call it World 2) with a different history, in which Europeans are technologically retarded and never discover America. Instead, a young Virginian ex-soldier called John Rolfe accidentally creates a gateway between World 1 and World 2, in the basement of his rented house in California in 1946.

Rolfe decides to keep his gateway secret and turn it to his own advantage. Accordingly, he recruits trusted friends and relations, and later others, to start his own new country in World 2. Money is not a problem, because there's plenty of unmined gold and other resources in his new country. California in World 2 is still in much the same state as it was before European discovery in our history.

Stirling describes it all in considerable detail in the novel, and from here on I'll assume that you've read the novel and don't need more background from me. I'm writing this to give my own thoughts about the scenario.

  • Recruiting is a problem. The Gate and the existence of World 2 are top secret, so recruits can't be told about it until they're there. How can they be persuaded to come?

    "Would you like to live in another country? No, we can't tell you where it is, and we can't tell you much about it."

    Would anyone agree to this? Stirling suggests that people could be recruited who were keen to escape World 1 for some reason, but they'd have to be very keen to commit themselves to the unknown. I suspect that, in practice, New Virginia would have to look for people unlikely to be missed (but with useful skills), kidnap them, and hope that they accepted the situation on arrival. Of course, people can't be allowed ever to return to World 1 unless they're well trusted.

  • Some of the bad guys in the novel were clearly put there to make Rolfe look good by comparison: Stirling wanted to paint Rolfe as somewhat ruthless but relatively benign, and that comes over better if there are worse characters around.

    However, New Virginia wasn't so desperate for warm bodies that it had to take people however bad they were. Rolfe already decided to avoid possible future conflicts by recruiting only white people; for the same reason, he could have avoided recruiting whole groups with a language other than English, he could have avoided recruiting people accustomed to political power, and recruiting a whole group of Nazis was just asking for trouble.

  • The novel doesn't say so, but money is used by New Virginians on World 1 and World 2, so I suppose currency conversion would be routine, and recruits could convert whatever cash they had into New Virginian money.

  • The novel doesn't say so, but I suppose all the creative works of World 1 would be public domain on World 2. New Virginia would have no interest in enforcing World 1 copyrights and patents, the stuff would be freely copyable; which would be helpful to the economy.

  • John Rolfe has a hobby: he imports from World 1 large animals not native to America (lions, tigers, elephants, rhinos, etc.) and spreads them around on World 2. In the novel, all these animals have established themselves in the wild.

    To do that successfully, I think he'd need to bring hundreds of animals of each species through the Gate, which would take a lot of manpower and surely attract attention on World 1. While he's building a new country with scarce recruits, it would be hard to spare the manpower, and it would be really inadvisable to attract attention. So, if he managed to do it at all, I think this expensive obsession would fatally damage his reputation with his companions. It might be feasible to do it very slowly, on the back burner, but that's not what the novel describes.

  • The device set off by Adrienne near the end of the book is dramatic, but poorly designed. It would have been almost impossible to install in secret; it's necessarily untested and very fallible; a simpler and more reliable method could have been used. It's activated from Nostradamus, which was already known to be insecure; it should have been activated by wireless transmission, independent of Nostradamus. And the five-minute delay is unnecessarily long.

Thursday, 5 March 2015

El Ministerio del Tiempo

El Ministerio del Tiempo (the Ministry of Time) is the title of a new Spanish television series, of which two episodes have so far aired.

It's based on the familiar sf idea of a Time Patrol: time travel exists, and a police force of sorts is trying to stop rogue individuals from changing history.

In this series, there's no time machine. Instead, there are doors between different time periods, many of them existing (why?) in a cavern under a building in Madrid (?) belonging to the top-secret Spanish Ministry of Time. Other doors exist elsewhere and are sometimes found by random individuals.

The series concentrates on the adventures of three new recruits to the Ministry who are sent on missions into the past, to preserve history as we know it. The recruits are Julián from 2015, Amelia from 1880, and Alonso from 1569. The strange thing about it is that they don't seem obviously qualified or suitable for their role as intertemporal secret agents: they just seem to be people plucked at random from the time stream. Julián is some kind of medic, Amelia is a university student, and Alonso is a soldier. All of them have some reason to accept employment with the Ministry: Julián was depressed after losing his wife in a road accident, Amelia was an early feminist in a man's world, and Alonso was about to be executed for losing his temper and attacking his superior officer.

We don't see them undergoing any kind of ability test or training, they're just recruited and sent out on missions. What if they fail? I wonder whether some future episode will consider this possibility.

Apart from the strange business of using untrained amateurs for important missions, this is a high-quality series. The actors, the scripts, the sets, the costumes all suggest that no reasonable expense was spared to do a good job. Compared with watching Doctor Who, Blake's Seven, or Star Trek decades ago, this is a leap up in quality. Even the supporting actors are good.

The episodes that have been aired are all available on the Web at

Unfortunately, the series is in Spanish with no translation at all. You can display a transcript of the dialogue in Spanish, and you can even copy it to Google Translate and auto-translate it if you like. There's also a little button for subtitles in Spanish. Subtitles in English would have been nice, but no, at least not at this stage.

If you have some Spanish, it's not difficult to follow. I'm not fluent, but I can follow it well enough, missing some details.

Of the three main characters, I'm most impressed by Alonso, who's fairly convincing as a patriotic 16th-century soldier doing his best for his country in unfamiliar circumstances. Julián is an experienced actor and an amiable fellow, he's fun to watch, but he seems surprisingly cheerful considering that he's supposed to be severely depressed about his dead wife. Both Julián and Amelia seem rather too self-confident, given that they've been suddenly recruited into a totally unfamiliar kind of job and repeatedly moved from one time period to another.

It's interesting to see what the characters contribute to the missions. Alonso is a soldier, capable of dealing with violence and connecting with ordinary people in the past. Julián knows 21st-century technology, has medical training, and seems adaptable. Amelia is presented as intelligent, and seems capable and self-possessed, but she's the youngest and least experienced of the team.

The first two missions are to 1808 and 1588 respectively. I suppose that all missions will be in Spain, which has a good deal of history to explore. I found it helpful to check out a little background info about the relevant parts of Spanish history in Wikipedia. I don't think there will be any missions to the future: we've already been told that there are no doors into the future. Which is rather odd, as years previous to 2015 clearly have doors into the future.