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Pulp Fiction

Compare and contrast: Peshawar Lancers and Shanghai Knights.

We’ll do the movie first so you have time to skip it in the theaters. OK, that’s a little harsh, but it was really pretty uninspired. Good martial arts from Jackie, good comedy from Owen Wilson, rather lackluster script. I’m a sucker for Victorian pulp adventure, but this was really by the numbers without anything to distinguish it conceptually. I think moving the setting was a mistake. Leave the duo in the Old West where they’re working against our Western tropes, don’t move them to London and run them through the same dull paces every pair of Victorian pulp adventurers goes through.

Peshawar Lancers is decidedly more interesting, albeit still a failure. There are two sizable problems with the book. First, and most fatal, the plot really makes no sense. The entire book revolves around the need to foil an evil plot, and not surprisingly the plot is foiled, but it’s not foiled conclusively. There’s nothing at all stopping the baddies from making another run at the brass ring. The ending, as a result, was anti-climatic since I couldn’t really read it as anything other than a temporary triumph.

The second problem is that the alternate history is pretty flawed. Concept in a nutshell: a comet hits the earth in 1878, causing a second ice age. England survives by moving wholescale to India and points south. Japan builds itself up as a major power, as do the Ottoman Empire and a France that’s moved to Northern Africa. So far so good.

Russia survives by embracing a cannibalistic religious frenzy. Uh? Cannibalism isn’t going to provide enough food for a country to survive the ice age depicted; it’s just not a varied diet. There aren’t any plants growing in Russia. Where’d the vitamins come from, huh?

So what makes the novel interesting? It’d make a really rambunctious pulp setting, once you embrace the improbability of the evil Russians. (Hard to do that with the novel, since there are five appendixes given over to outlining the probability of the alternate history.) Huge swashbuckling fun, and you wouldn’t have to contend with a hobbled plot. If Peshawar Lancers had been an RPG sourcebook, I’d be recommending it.


  1. Ottoman Empire,you say? Color me intrigued- I may have to get the book from the library just to see how Stirling keeps it going.

    If you haven’t read them, Jon Courtenay Grimwood’s Arabesk books (Pashazade and Effendi are the two I know of, not sure if the third is published yet) are an interesting take on an alternate future Alexandria in the Ottoman Empire.

  2. It’s worth going to the library for, I’d say. I haven’t read the Grimwood books — I’ll have to check ’em out.

  3. S.M. Stirling S.M. Stirling

    a) the cannibalism is initially an emergency measure and then becomes religious/symbolic. It’s not a steady diet, as it were.

    b) the Ottomans don’t survive the Fall. What happens is that Anatolia is wrecked, so the Arabs take over, eventually building up a Caliphate from the Danube to Baluchistan, with its capital in Damascus.

  4. Heh, fair enough (and thanks for clarifying). I didn’t pick up at all on the symbolic element of cannibalism, which is likely as much me as anything else.

    I gotta say, Lancers is on my list of books I reread when I want a romp. I would buy a sequel.

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