Book Review: The Other Time (Mack Reynolds, Dean Ing)

23 May

The Other Time

-Mack Reynolds, Dean Ing

Stories in which someone is sent back in time and starts making changes, for better or worse, have always been a favourite of mine, although the genre is never easy to get right.  It is difficult to understand the technical limitations facing the locals, as well as the simple fact they have a very different mindset.  Slavery, for example, is repulsive to us – and rightly so – but simply part of many primitive societies.  Indeed, it can be difficult to convince people set in their ways (with very little room for manoeuvre) to change on your say-so.  Doing a story in which this happens convincingly is very difficult.

(The Baen cover is better, IMHO.)

The Other Time follows the adventures of Don Fielding, an American archaeologist who falls through a rift in space-time and finds himself in the Mexico of the past, when the Spanish Conquistador had just begun their conquest.  (This neatly solves the language issue, as Don speaks both Spanish and a handful of local tongues.)  Blundering into Cortés’s camp, Don makes the mistake of telling him about the rich lands to the north – ironically, ones that don’t yet exist in Cortés’s time – and finds himself a prisoner, eventually sentenced to death. 

Making his escape, Don flees to Tenochtitlan, becomes an adoptive brother of a leading Aztec nobleman and winds up advising them on how to resist Cortés, eventually becoming the war leader and effective dictator of the Aztec Empire.  Although not a military man, Don’s combination of hindsight – he knows what to expect, before events start to change – and cunning give him the edge, allowing him to leverage the empire’s greater manpower to produce a victory, assimilate the surviving Spanish and set out to build a world where the Americans meet the Europeans as near-equals.  The book does end with the outcome unresolved, but it is clear that history has been changed beyond repair.

Don is, right from the start, a likable character – it helps he has no emotional tie to Cortés and his men.  The book does a good job of showing his earlier befuddlement and while he does make mistakes, they are understandable ones.  He never talks down to the Aztecs or indeed anyone else, despite knowing far more than they do about what is to come.  There are limits to what he can do – and what he can convince them to do – and the book acknowledges this.  The locals find him a little odd, but it generally works.  He serves as the eyes through which we see the Aztecs, a society very different to our own, and allows us to recognise their possession of traits we recognise as virtues.  This is also true of the Spanish themselves.  They may be painted as greedy monsters, which was party true in the original timeline, but they have virtues too.  How well this works out will depend on your point of view.  Don is, at one point, shunned for not leading his men into battle, unlike both his closest allies and Cortés himself. 

The authors show an excellent understanding of both the strengths and weaknesses of the Aztecs, detailing why they lost so badly in the original timeline and altering matters to reshape the future.  Don does not snap his fingers and bring forth modern weapons from the soil to arm his troops.  Instead, he uses his manpower advantage to bait traps and try to force the Spanish into killing grounds, leveraging their weaknesses against them while trying to capture as many Spanish craftsman and horses as possible.  He also starts introducing concepts like the wheel, allowing the Aztecs a chance to take his ideas and build on them.  His insights into how the Spanish think also prove instructive – Don points out, to several Spanish commoners, that they’re not going to wind up rich men, as Cortés and the aristocracy will take most of the loot.  In the end, he uses the promise of genuine wealth to convince man of the Spanish to stay with him.

At the same time, however, the book does suffer from two major weaknesses.  The first one is that the impact of smallpox on the Aztecs is significantly understated.  The disease was so lethal because the Aztecs had no immunity whatsoever, a problem made worse by the demands of the war.  It is possible that a sizable number of newcomers could have made a difference, simply by taking care of the ill before becoming infected themselves, but there just weren’t enough people to handle the task. 

The second is that the Aztecs themselves are, for what of a better term, whitewashed.  They were not nice people.  They were an aggressive empire with a nasty habit of bullying its neighbours, taking their people for sacrifice and generally being thoroughly unpleasant to everyone they happened to encounter.  Cortés had no trouble finding allies in his war against the empire because there were a lot of tribes and cities that loathed the Aztecs and would be happy to side with anyone standing against them.  While in the long term this was disastrous – in much the same sense as Russians who sided with the Nazis against the Soviets; they traded a bad master for an even worse one – it was understandable.  Don does nod to the difficulty of convincing other cities to let bygones be bygones, but I think the book understates it. 

(The suggestion the Aztecs saw Cortés, and  later Don himself, as a god is mentioned, but it isn’t clear how seriously anyone really took it.)

Overall, though, the book does maintain a fun pulpy atmosphere.  The action moves quickly, the infodumps are worked neatly into the text.  It does sometimes get a little strange – there is a suggestion that La Malinche (aka Doña Marina) originally let Don go because he kissed her, something Cortés never did – but those are minor issues.  The book does paint the Spanish as heartless conquerors, which is largely true (although the historical Cortés wanted to present the entire empire to his king, rather than destroy it) and general monsters, although – unlike Turtledove’s The Guns of the South – the primary audience was not composed of people who might take offense at a nakedly hostile depiction. 

5 Responses to “Book Review: The Other Time (Mack Reynolds, Dean Ing)”

  1. PhilippeO May 23, 2021 at 11:13 am #

    Tech-Uplift is fun story to read. Its had difficulty to be realistic. Arturo Sandus, Jozef Kolsko, Konrad Stargard, Casere tales all have problem.

  2. Paul (Drak Bibliophile) Howard May 23, 2021 at 3:39 pm #

    I read it but the whitewashing of the Aztecs badly damaged the story for me.

    Still, your review is a good one. 😀

  3. Fred May 23, 2021 at 9:52 pm #

    Does the main character manage to have the Aztecs stop the mass human sacrifices that destroyed the neighboring tribes? Does he make them understand that all the Spaniards had to do was to open the pens full of future victims and let the rescued prisoners hack and slash the hated Aztecs for them?

    • Paul (Drak Bibliophile) Howard May 23, 2021 at 10:15 pm #

      It’s been a while since I read it but I think the human sacrifice thing is one of the things about the Aztecs that got “white-washed”. 😦

  4. randallberger May 24, 2021 at 8:40 am #

    Young Chris … Do you do book reviews on suggestion? In school, I devoured nearly all of Andre Norton’s books. Much later, I discovered the Magic Series of 7 books, notably “Red Hart Magic.” This book calls me back to reading again every five years or so, much in the same way SIM does. I’d love to get your take on this series.

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