Monday, April 04, 2011

 Alternatives For the Aztecs 

Book Cover

You've been warned!!

The above novel The Other Time1 combines two interests of mine, Science Fiction and Pre-Columbian America. So of course I wanted it.

I originally came across it in a used bookstore in Ottawa c. 1984. I didn’t buy it at the time although I remembered it. I subsequently was never able to find it. I encountered it again in 1991 at what was then called The Spaced Out Library2 of the City of Toronto Public Library system. I then finally read it all the way through. I found that it was out of print and rather hard to find. It wasn’t until last few years that I was able to obtain a copy through the Internet. (Yeah Amazon!)

Science Fiction, like Detective / Mystery stories, Romance and Horror has a very high turnover of books; most often do not stay in print long and once out of print stay that way. Further traditionally in order to make a living in those areas of writing writers have had to usually be fairly prolific unless they were people like Isaac Asimov or Agatha Christie.

So we get writers like Mack Reynolds (1917-1983), who during his career wrote 51 published novels and 71 published stories. He died after a long illness, and before he died, in order to provide an income for his wife he tried to write as much as possible. To make it easier he wrote outlines of novels to be completed by others. After his death seven novels were completed by writer Dean Ing.3

Mack Reynolds was mainly interested in the sociological effects of technological change and developments. Hard Science Fiction did not interest him very much. The result was that frequently the future societies imagined were quite creative and frequently rather interesting in terms of how they functioned. Dean Ing, (Born 1931), is mainly a Science Fiction and Thriller writer and is attracted to what is called “Hard Science Fiction”.4

The Other Time is the story of Donald Fielding and it takes place during Cortes’ conquest of the Aztec Empire.5 Donald Fielding is an Anthropologist who specializes in Mesoamerica and speaks both Spanish and Nahuatl, (The chief language of central Mesoamerica at the time of the conquest.). Now Prof. Fielding likes to take his vacations in Mexico and one day, without being aware of it, he steps through a break in the space-time continuum and ends up in Mexico in 1519 near Veracruz only a short time after Cortes has arrived. Prof. Fielding has a Swiss army knife, his clothes, some matches and a Beretta with a small box of ammunition and his wits.

Thus this book belongs to the genre of time travel fiction and not necessarily to Science Fiction given that as is most common in these sorts of books little to no explanation is given to how the actual time travel happened, although there are hints of what is called the many worlds hypothesis. The many worlds hypothesis theorizes that if time travel is in fact possible then the “past” you enter is not in fact your past but another past and your past remains unaltered hence it is “The Other Time”.6

A classic example of this type of story is Lest Darkness Fall7 by Science Fiction and Fantasy writer the late Lyon Sprague de Camp, (1907-2000) which is about a University Professor who ends up in Italy c. 535 C.E., just before Justinian’s invasion of Italy devastated the country and made the dark ages that much darker in Western Europe. Our “Hero” Martin Padway dedicates himself to saving civilization. In many respects this book is like the current one under review. For one thing both “Heroes” are Anthropologist / Archaeologists and Profs at a University and technical whizzes and both are out to save a culture. It is rather obvious that Mack Reynolds borrowed from this book.

Our “Hero” Professor Fielding, who works at the University of Texas in Austin one of the most prestigious institutions involved in the teaching and researching about Pre-Columbian America, quickly figures out where he is and when and has no idea how he got there. Now our “Hero” is only interested in staying alive and at least initially strains every effort to do just that.

Soon Prof. Fielding runs into Hernando Cortes who imprisons him and after questioning him finds out about Fort Knox and decides that after the Aztecs he will conquer the USA. Prof. Fielding doesn’t tell him about the time factor. Our “Hero” anxious to stay alive and convinced, rightly, that Cotes intends to kill him least he warn the USA of his i.e., Cortes’ plans for conquest. Our “Hero” escapes and runs into a delegation of Aztecs or more accurately Mexicas who have just finished visiting Cortes. There he meets Cuauhtemoc a young man of the Eagle clan that rules the empire of the Aztecs. With his help our “Hero” escapes the Spanish and goes to Tenochtitlan, (Later Mexico City), and meets “Emperor” Montezuma who is afflicted by raging superstitious fears regarding the arrival of the Spanish. Montezuma thinks they are the return of Quetzalcoatl and is basically paralysed with fear.

Well to make a long story short our “Hero”, although convinced he cannot change history introduces changes into Aztec society, like the wheel. He gradually comes to like the Aztecs and his friends among them. Soon he is an advisor to their leaders. He also, when Cortes arrives in Tenochtitlan, falls in love with Cortes’ interpreter / mistress Malinche (Called by the Spanish Donna Maria).

Gradually the idea takes hold in him to actually change history to save the peoples of Mesoamerica from the catastrophe of the conquest; to save the best of their culture and to use his twentieth century knowledge to do it. Prof. Fielding knows what happened after the conquest, knows about the decimation of the Indian population, knows about the obliteration of Mesoamerican culture, where the population declined by at least 80% and possibly up to 95%.8

How does he change history? Find out by reading the book.

Mack Reynolds did his research for this book. There are many Nahuatl words in the book and they are used correctly. Further the picture of Aztec society presented in the books rings true. Montezuma for example was not in reality an “Emperor”. His power was not absolute and his position was indeed one to which he had been elected. Further Aztec society is characterized as non-hierarchical although beginning to have class distinctions. The superstitious features of Aztec society are not glossed over and neither is human sacrifice. Thankfully Mack Reynolds decided not to have any descriptions of human sacrifice i.e., violence pornography, to titillate his readers.9

As one note about the seriousness of Mack Reynolds research he has Prof. Fielding remark that the term Aztec was never used by the Aztecs to describe themselves.

In many respects the book could function as an easy to digest introduction to Aztec society. Given that it is in general very accurate.

Unfortunately I cannot say that this book is well written. Mack Reynolds’s characters tend to be cardboard although the plot alright. To quote from someone who says it better:

Reynolds's writing was never particularly good. Clever, yes, and imaginative, but don't look for characters you'll care about or plots that will keep you riveted to your seat. (I know, but "riveted to your couch" sounds ridiculous.) Don't look for novels that are free of exposition, either, though that tendency is given freer rein in some books than in others.10
It is interesting to note that Don Fielding’s friend Cuauhtemoc was an actual historical figure who was the last ruler of the Aztecs and ended up being murdered by Cortes after a farcical trial. Lets just say that in this book he has much better luck.

It is frankly the exposition that sells the book, that and the very convincing recreation of another world; in this case Aztec society. Fortunately history provides an exciting plot. Unfortunately at the end things are wrapped up both far too quickly and far to abruptly the result being the feeling that 100 pages or so of the novel have gone missing.

I recommend this novel mainly out my love of things Pre-Columbian but also take into the account this opinion of one of the very best Science Fiction writers of the twentieth century:

I still think Mack Reynolds was perhaps the most under-appreciated writer in science fiction. –Frederik Pohl, email, December 30, 200811
Mack Reynolds

1. Reynolds, Mack, & Ing, Dean, The Other Time, A Baen Book, New York, 1984.

2. Now called the Merril Collection after Science Fiction writer Judith Merril who donated her large collection of materials to the Toronto Public Library system. See Here.

3. Wikipedia, Mack Reynolds HereWikipedia, Dean Ing Here.

4. IBID, Dani Zweig’s Belated Reviews: Archive Belated Reviews PS#29: Mack Reynolds Here. See also special issue devoted to Mack Reynolds, I.E., April 2009, v. 8 no. 2. Here

5. The best recent book about the conquest of Mexico is Thomas, Hugh, Conquest, Simon & Schuster, Toronto, 1993. The book should be used with care though it suffers, despite its over all excellence, from an annoying pro-Spanish bias and a tendency to excuse and justify the conquest as progressive.

6. See Wikipedia, Many Worlds Interpretation Here,
Wikipedia, Time Travel Here.

7. De Camp, Lyon Sprague, Lest Darkness Fall, Ballantine Books, New York, 1949. Mr. de Camp also wrote some non fiction. See Wikipedia, L. Sprague de Camp Here.

8. This is unfortunately based on reality, see Whitmore, Thomas M., Disease and Death in Early Colonial Mexico, Westview Press, Oxford, 1992, Prem, Hanns J., Disease Outbreaks in Central Mexico during the Sixteenth Century, in Cook Noble David, & Lovell, W. George, Editors, Secret Judgments of God, University of Oklahoma Press, London, 1992, pp. 20-48.

9. For information about Aztec society and culture see Townsend, Richard F., The Aztecs, Third Edition, Thames and Hudson, London, 2009, Smith, Michael E., The Aztecs, Second Edition, Blackwell Pub., Oxford, 2003, Aguilar-Moreno, Manuel, Handbook to Life in the Aztec World, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2006, Clendinnen, Inga, Aztecs, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1991.

10. Footnote 4, Belated Reviews PS#29: Mack Reynolds.

11. I.E.

Pierre Cloutier

No comments:

Post a Comment