Pamela Sargent, editor,
Conqueror Fantastic
(DAW, 2004)

The blurb on the back cover of Conqueror Fantastic says that the contributors were challenged by editor Pamela Sargent to "choose a conqueror" and "reexamine the 'what might have beens'." Casual bookstore browsers might be forgiven for thinking they're picking up an alternate history anthology. What they'll actually find is a strange collection of political bedfellows, stolen from the pages of history, myth and superstition.

Sargent did an excellent job as editor of the Women of Wonder series and is a rightly well-known author. Still, the more constrictive concept behind Conqueror Fantastic seems to have hampered her, for there are quite a few stories that don't seem to fit the book. It's hard to see how LBJ and the Kennedy brothers were "conquerors" -- what did they conquer? Space? The polls? Even the stories in the book that focus on them don't render them conquerors, merely characters, and without establishing any particular insight into their time or personalities. "Martyrs of the Upshot Knothole," centered on John Wayne, at first seems an even less likely inclusion, but James Morrow manages to use the slightly altered ciphers of an old actor and a very bad movie to examine the very notion of triumph, and the sometimes subtle shadings of power between the winners and losers. It's not that these unexpected stories are bad -- one of my favorites in the collection, a fantasy about Cotton Mather's boyhood called "Observable Things," seems as though it's become horribly misplaced from a horror anthology. They just don't quite fit, and their inclusion suggests that the subject of conquerors was not quite as rich as it seemed at first glance.

The decisions to focus on the unexpected "conquerors" might make for an interesting collection, but several of the expected names do show up. Alexander the Great, Napoleon and Hitler all put in double appearances. These stories mostly add little to the knowledge or mythology of their main subjects, although "To the Gods Their Due" adds a chilling undercurrent to the known story of Alexander. There are some names puzzling in their absence, like Julius Caesar or any of the world's better-known royals. But overall, the book provides neither enough surprises nor enough consistency to justify the inclusion of the most aberrant stories.

One unexpected thread running through the book is the prevalence of homosexual relationships between the heroes and their friends -- or in the case of Genghis Khan, their former friends. It's hard to imagine a similar collection from 20 years ago even acknowledging the often varied gender politics of the classical Greeks or Khan's Mongols, and while the relationships are rarely treated with the ease that would probably accompany a similar heterosexual relationship in the stories, it's nice to see some acknowledgment of the different social structures in worlds before us.

Most of these story leads are well-known, expected players in the realm of the conqueror. But two of the best concern women whose very existence is a subject for debate, and whose power comes in far subtler ways than the political overpowering and brute strength of their famous male counterparts. "The Empress Jingu Fishes" partakes of the fantastic, spending a few quiet moments with a woman so cursed with prophecy that she lives all her moments in the present. "Del Norte" captures the moment when New World was subsumed by Old, seen through the eyes of an Aztec princess and early convert. Both women may well be real, in the sense of having existed, but the fine details of their history are lost in time or ignorance. But their recreated voices give life to the conquered and the conquering in one breath, lending humanity to a subject that almost insists on making itself grandly abstract and untouchable.

Conqueror Fantastic isn't without its merits. Many of the stories it collects are unlikely to be anthologized elsewhere, and aside from an overly experimental misstep or two, all are least pleasant reads. But taken as a whole, it's a strangely meandering collection, lacking a sense of purpose or unity. A suitably ambitious effort, Conqueror Fantastic, like so many of the subjects in its pages, seems to have fallen short of its ultimate ambition, but the attempt to meet the goal is still sometimes impressive.

- Rambles
written by Sarah Meador
published 23 October 2004

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