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.