This is considered to be one of the seminal works of alternative history; often mentioned alongside The Man in the High Castle
Instead of the Axis forces winning the Second World War, as in Dick’s classic, the break point is Queen Elizabeth I being assassinated, which leads to the Spanish invading England (Scotland’s situation is never mentioned) via the Armada, and so the Catholic church becomes the dominant force in the world (at least Europe and the Americas) for centuries.
Most of which is told in a short prologue. The body of the novel (which a I believe is a fix-up, and certainly feels like it) consists of four short stories with some overlapping characters, which tell the tale of how rebellion against the Church comes to England.
I quite enjoyed it, but was put off at the start, because frankly the nuances of the workings of a traction engine running the freight across the country through a frozen winter night, were not all that interesting. In fact, it was downright boring. Would it have been less so if it were about a spaceship, instead of a traction engine? Obviously; anything is more fun with spaceships in it. But that’s not the point.
In fact, the point is largely our old friend “show, don’t tell.” I don’t automatically hold with that myself; there are plenty of examples of good stories working by “telling.” The problem is that if you rely entirely or mainly on telling, it’s easy to lose either or both of the characters and the action. Certainly you can tell us what’s happening; but it’ll have a much stronger impact if you make us feel it.
The second section, for example, starts with a young man bleeding to death in the snow, and then jumps back to his training as a signaller. A much more gripping way to handle things.
The time period appears to be from around the sixties through to the eighties, but the Church’s dead hand has so stifled technological progress that semaphore and steam remain the height of technology.
And there are fairies; old English magic that the Church hasn’t quite managed to wipe out. But they are kind of abandoned after the second (maybe third) story.
Anyway, after that initial hump it was enjoyable enough, but it’s a pleasingly slim book. If it had been the size of a modern novel, I’m not sure it would have held my interest.
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