A short compliation of two short novels (which today are considered novellas) by the one and only L Sprague de Camp, the Virgin and the Wheels combines a Krishna story, The Virgin of Zesh, and the seminal Alternate History story, The Wheels of If.
The Virgin of Zesh is a typical De Camp Krishna story from the early 60’s where Althea Merrick, missionary, finds herself stranded in the spaceport on Krishna waiting for her superior in the church to collect her. Being stuck in a spaceport as a distinctly minority gender, however, leads to Althea being married against her will to the security officer. To escape the unwanted marriage, Althea is forced to go on the run with a poet and a scientist, into the wilds of the alien planet, to Zesh, where a war between rival Krishnans will put them in the crossfire…
The title, then, refers to Althea’s attempts to keep herself intact, as well as a mysterious figure on the island that she and her companions travel to. De Camp has gleeful fun in disabusing back-to-nature utopias in the scathing portrait of Elysion, the commune that the trio find themselves taking shelter in. There is also a scathing rejoinder to the ideas of a certain religion-creating SF writer, too.
Is the novel somewhat dated in its attitudes and mores? Sure, it was written in 1962. And yet, much of that is defused with De Camp’s unique use of Portuguese culture as the dominant one in his future history. Too, while buffeted about by circumstance, Althea in the end is no helpless screamer, and takes action and makes choices on her own, rather than being merely ornamental eye candy for the male protagonists.
As a way to rationalize and regularize Sword and Planet novels, De Camp’s Krishna stories are among my very favorites and Virgin of Zesh is no exception.
The other half of the book I have read many times before, most recently last year when I read Years in the Making, the Best Time Travel Stories of L Sprague De Camp.
The Wheels of If is one of the early and seminal alternate history stories, as Allister Park, lawyer from our world, has his mind catapulted from this one, and into the bodies of corresponding alternative selves in various worlds. While we get bits and pieces of a few worlds, the main one he finds himself in and spends the most time in is De Camp’s AH where Martel lost the battle of Tours, and Celtic Christianity became the dominant strain in the north. Thus, the Americas are a mishmash of Middle english speaking celts who are cheek by jowl to a Native American population who was contacted much earlier in history, and so had a chance to catch up technologically. Park, of course, cares about this only so much as to find a way back to his own body and world.
As for the reader, though, De Camp’s depiction of New Belfast (on the site of New York City) and the world that Park maneuvers in is an inspiration classic to many others. I could see, for example, how Poul Anderson’s alternate NY in “Delenda Est” clearly is a tip of the hat to De Camp’s New Belfast. Harry Turtledove has admitted this story as one of his inspirations, along with Lest Darkness Fall. Turtledove even wrote an authorized sequel to this story, continuing the adventures of Allister Park.
Besides the worldbuilding, again, while the attitudes and mores are definitely a product of their times, De Camp’s writing is still strong and clear, today. He does delve a bit into infodrops, typical of the time. However, before reading this story, for the first time, I never really understood how Josef Stalin managed to gain control of Russia. What does Stalin’s rise to power have to do with Park and why would De Camp include it? That I leave for the reader to discover. De Camp also knows how to do the “good bits”, when the duller time of Park’s adventures are squeezed and glossed over in favor of the more interesting situations.
The Wheels of If is still one of my favorite SF stories, AH or otherwise. Perhaps my love of Stross’ Merchant Princes series is precisely because I was weaned early and well on good alternate history stories such as De Camp’s Wheels of If.