Alaska Republik by Stoney Compton
Cover art by Kurt Miller
Published by Baen Books
Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel
In Russian Amerika, Stoney Compton imagined a world in which the US purchase of Alaska never happened and Alaska remained in (tsarist) Russian hands right into the 1980's. It was a very interesting premise for a first novel, and I was really excited about it, but when I actually sat down to read it, I was disappointed to find major problems with the execution. Most grating for me as a Slavist were the errors in the formation of Russian names and the Sovietisms (both linguistic and political) in a Russia in which there was no Bolshevik Revolution and the Romanov tsars still rule from St. Petersburg on the Neva River. But as a historian I also noticed all kinds of weaknesses in the worldbuilding, with implications not clearly thought out, and things often seeming to exist merely for the convenience of the plot.
When I heard the author was coming out with a sequel, I felt a mixture of excitement and trepidation. On one hand, I wanted to see more of this world based upon such an interesting premise. On the other, I was very concerned that the major problems that had interfered with my enjoyment of the first would continue to plague the second.
When I read Alaska Republik, I found both my hopes and my concerns fulfilled. Thus I have very mixed emotions about reviewing this book.
The beginning has some overlap with the ending of Russian Amerika, since the battle for independence from the Russian Empire is not yet won when Lieutenant Gerald Yamato of the Republic of California Air Force is shot down over hostile territory and has to hike his way out. In the process he encounters Pelagian and Bodecia, as well as their lovely, willful daughter Magda. Not to mention a badly injured Russian soldier, a survivor of the Russian tank column Jerry and his buddies were attacking when he was shot down. Rudi's willing to throw his lot in with them for the simple reason that the tsar's army assumes that any soldier captured in battle must be a coward, a traitor, or both.
Here I want to bang my head against the wall, because it's a perfect example of that cross-temporal carryover of Soviet attitudes from the Primary World into a world in which the Romanovs are still ruling. Yes, the Soviet Union's treatment of repatrated POW's in World War II was appalling, but this was the result of Stalin's psychological pathologies (paranoia? bipolar disorder? alcoholism? a synergy of several factors?) rather than any tradition dating back to the tsars. In other words, treating returning POW's like criminals was an aberration in Russian history, not part of a systematic pattern of abuse of its soldiers.
And the character's name is yet again malformed, to the point that it made me wince. Thankfully he soon was integrated into the group sufficiently that he was subsequently addressed and referred to entirely by a nickname, so it didn't grate nearly as badly as it could have.
Quite honestly, I think that focus on small groups of characters and their close personal relationships and the effects of the broader political and military events upon their personal lives is what really makes this novel work as well as it does. With too much focus on the movers and shakers at the top, it becomes far too easy to allow the storytelling to become diagrammatic, to read more and more like a history lesson instead of a story (take for instance Harry Harrison's cringe-worthy The Stars and Stripes Forever and its various sequels, which frustrated me because it took an idea that was absolute gold and managed to turn it into a story that was complete dross, to the point it's going to be difficult for another writer to do it right for at least another ten or twenty years). But by focusing tight on individual low-level characters, ordinary people like ourselves thrown into extraordinary circumstances, the story will tend toward a level of detail that makes it more satisfying for all that it becomes more prosaic.
The other thing I really like about this novel is the focus on the problems of making a workable society and government after the tyrants have been thrown out. Far too many novels of social upheaval end with the triumphant victory of the oppressed, as if it's just a given that now that the fine and noble victims of oppression are free of the boot on their neck, everything's going to be happily ever after. But even a cursory examination of history makes it plain that such happy endings as that of the United States after the Revolutionary War are the exception rather than the rule (and even our forebears had to get through the touch-and-go period of the Articles of Confederation before a workable government could be put together under the Constitution, and seventy years later we had another close call in the Civil War). Instead, the outcome for a revolution or war of liberation is far more likely to follow The Who's "Won't Get Fooled Again," with the new boss turning out to be just as rotten as the old boss, only in different colors.
And yes, there are plenty of people in the newly independent Alaskan lands who plan to be every bit as tyrannical and corrupt as the Russian forces they've just sent packing. There are the Tlingit chieftans who intend to continue to reap the benefits of their rigidly hierarchial society and want to hear nothing about stuff like equal rights. There are the various mercenary forces whose loyalties are primarily to themselves, who are often little better than thugs that happened to have a reasonable level of unit discipline, and are looking to create a situation in which they can rape and pillage in perpetuity. And then there are the merely venal, who see an opportunity to benefit by influence-peddling, voter fraud, and the entire gamut of governmental corruption. All of whom the protagonists need to find ways to successfully outmaneuver if there is to be a real civil society in the new Alaska Republik they are attempting to create.
Flawed as the book is, the storyline does reach a satisfying conclusion at the end, but leaves doors open for possible future volumes. As a result, I could live happily with just these two books, but I'd love to see more volumes in it, if nothing else just to see the author develop the world and hopefully move beyond the flaws of its original form.
Review posted June 7, 2011.
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