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Monday, May 27, 2019

Reading List: The Dawn of the Iron Dragon

Kroese, Robert. The Dawn of the Iron Dragon. Seattle: CreateSpace, 2018. ISBN 978-1-7220-2331-7.
This is the second volume in the Iron Dragon trilogy which began with The Dream of the Iron Dragon (August 2018). At the end of the first book, the crew of the Andrea Luhman stranded on Earth in the middle ages faced a seemingly impossible challenge. They, and their Viking allies, could save humanity from extinction in a war in the distant future only by building a space program capable of launching a craft into Earth orbit starting with an infrastructure based upon wooden ships and edged weapons. Further, given what these accidental time travellers, the first in history, had learned about the nature of travel to the past in their adventures to date, all of this must be done in the deepest secrecy and without altering the history to be written in the future. Recorded history, they discovered, cannot be changed, and hence any attempt to do something which would leave evidence of a medieval space program or intervention of advanced technology in the affairs of the time, would be doomed to failure. These constraints placed almost impossible demands upon what was already a formidable challenge.

From their ship's computer, the exiled spacemen had a close approximation to all of human knowledge, so they were rich in bits. But when it came to it: materials, infrastructure, tools, sources of energy and motive power, and everything else, they had almost nothing. Even the simplest rocket capable of achieving Earth orbit has tens to hundreds of thousands of parts, most requiring precision manufacture, stringent control of material quality, and rigorous testing. Consider a humble machine screw. In the 9th century A.D. there weren't any hardware stores. If you needed a screw, or ten thousand of them, to hold your rocket components together, you needed first to locate and mine the iron ore, then smelt the iron from the ore, refine it with high temperature and forced air (both of which require their own technologies, including machine screws) to achieve the desired carbon content, adding alloying metals such as nickel, chromium, cobalt, tungsten, and manganese, all of which have to be mined and refined first. Then the steel must be formed into the desired shape (requiring additional technologies), heat-treated, and then finally the threads must be cut into the blank, requiring machine tools made to sufficient precision that the screws will be interchangeable, with something to power the tools (all of which, of course, contain screws). And that's just a screw. Thinking about a turbopump, regeneratively cooled combustion chamber, hydraulically-actuated gimbal mechanism, gyroscopes and accelerometers, or any of the myriad other components of even the simplest launcher are apt to induce despair.

But the spacemen were survivors, and they knew that the entire future of the human species, driven in the future they had come from to near-extinction by the relentless Cho-ta'an, depended upon their getting off the Earth and delivering the planet-busting weapon which might turn the tide for their descendants centuries hence. While they needed just about everything, what they needed most was minds: human brainpower and the skills flowing from it to find and process the materials to build the machines to build the machines to build the machines which, after a decades-long process of recapitulating centuries of human technological progress, would enable them to accomplish their ambitious yet utterly essential mission.

People in the 9th century were just as intelligent as those today, but in most of the world literacy was rare and even more scarce was the acquired intellectual skill of thinking logically, breaking down a problem into its constituent parts, and the mental flexibility to learn and apply mind tools, such as algebra, trigonometry, calculus, Newton's and Kepler's laws, and a host of others which had yet to be discovered. These rare people were to be found in the emerging cities, where learning and the embryos of what would become the great universities of the later Middle Ages were developing. And so missions were dispatched to Constantinople, the greatest of these cities, and other centres of learning and innovation, to recruit not the famous figures recorded in history (whose disappearance into a secret project was inconsistent with that history, and hence impossible), but their promising young followers. These cities were cosmopolitan crossroads, dangerous but also sufficiently diverse that a Viking longboat showing up with people who barely spoke any known language would not attract undue attention. But the rulers of these cities appreciated the value of their learned people, and trying to attract them was perilous and could lead to hazards and misadventures.

On top of all of these challenges, a Cho-ta'an ship had followed the Andrea Luhman through the hyperspace gate and whatever had caused them to be thrown back in time, and a small contingent of the aliens had made it to Earth, bent on stopping the spacemen's getting off the planet at any cost. The situation was highly asymmetrical: while the spacemen had to accomplish a near-impossible task, the Cho-ta'an need only prevent them by any means possible. And being Cho-ta'an, if those means included loosing a doomsday plague to depopulate Europe, well, so be it. And the presence of the Cho-ta'an, wherever they might be hiding, redoubled the need for secrecy in every aspect of the Iron Dragon project.

Another contingent of the recruiting project finds itself in the much smaller West Francia city of Paris, just as Viking forces are massing for what history would record as the Siege of Paris in A.D. 885–886. In this epic raid, a force of tens of thousands (today estimated around 20,000, around half that claimed in the account by the monk Abbo Cernuus, who has been called “in a class of his own as an exaggerator”) of Vikings in hundreds (300, probably, 700 according to Abbo) laid siege to a city defended by just two hundred Parisian men-at-arms. In this account, the spacemen, with foreknowledge of how it was going to come out, provide invaluable advice to Count Odo of Paris and Gozlin, the “fighting Bishop” of Paris, in defending their city as it was simultaneously ravaged by a plague (wonder where that came from?), and in persuading King Charles (“the Fat”) to come to the relief of the city. The epic battle for Paris, which ended not in triumph but rather a shameful deal, was a turning point in the history of France. The efforts of the spacemen, while critical and perhaps decisive, remained consistent with written history, at least that written by Abbo, who they encouraged in his proclivity for exaggeration.

Meanwhile, back at the secret base in Iceland, chosen to stay out of the tangles of European politics and out of the way of their nemesis Harald Fairhair, the first King of Norway, local rivalries intrude upon the desired isolation. It appears another, perhaps disastrous, siege may be in the offing, putting the entire project at risk. And with all of this, one of those knock-you-off-your-feet calamities the author is so fond of throwing at his characters befalls them, forcing yet another redefinition of their project and a breathtaking increase in its ambition and complexity, just as they have to contemplate making new and perilous alliances simply to survive.

The second volume of a trilogy is often the most challenging to write. In the first, everything is new, and the reader gets to meet the characters, the setting, and the challenges to be faced in the story. In the conclusion, everything is pulled together into a satisfying resolution. But in that one in the middle, it's mostly developing characters, plots, introducing new (often subordinate) characters, and generally moving things along—one risks readers' regarding it as “filler”. In this book, the author artfully avoids that risk by making a little-known but epic battle the centrepiece of the story, along with intrigue, a thorny ethical dilemma, and multiple plot threads playing out from Iceland to North Africa to the Dardanelles. You absolutely should read the first volume, The Dream of the Iron Dragon, before starting this one—although there is a one page summary of that book at the start, it isn't remotely adequate to bring you up to speed and avoid your repeatedly exclaiming “Who?”, “What?”, and “How?” as you enjoy this story.

When you finish this volume, the biggest question in your mind will probably be “How in the world is he going to wrap all of this up in just one more book?” The only way to find out is to pick up The Voyage of the Iron Dragon, which I will be reviewing here in due course. This saga (what else can you call an epic with Vikings and spaceships?) will be ranked among the very best of alternative history science fiction, and continues to demonstrate why independent science fiction is creating a new Golden Age for readers and rendering the legacy publishers of tedious “diversity” propaganda impotent and obsolete.

The Kindle edition is free for Kindle Unlimited subscribers.

Posted at May 27, 2019 23:07