Have you heard the one about how readers don’t cross genres, and so authors should pick one and stick to it if they want a large readership? Apparently, neither has Robert Kroese, because his Dream of the Iron Dragon breaks every rule in the modern playbook, and always to good effect.
The time-travel subgenre of science-fiction has a long pedigree that stretches back to H. G. Wells and arguably beyond. A few well-known works hand wave away most of the science-fiction and instead focus on the historical fantasy that arises when the time-travel introduces anachronistic technology to the past. The Conrad Stargard/Crosstime Engineer series by Leo Frankowski drops a modern engineer into Poland ten years before the Mongols arrive, for example. More recently, Eric Flint flung a West Virginia mining town into the heart of the Thirty Years War. Some authors drop the modern men into a fantasy realm to see how knowledge of black powder might change things. Examples include H. Beam Piper’s Lord Kalvan of Otherwhen, in which a Pennsylvania cop slips into an alternate history where a priestly caste rules using the arcane knowledge of the sacred charcoal/sulfur/saltpeter recipe, and William R. Fortschen’s Lost Regiment, which plonks a Civil War era regiment of troops onto a wild planet ruled by hordes of iron age, giant nomadic aliens. In each of these cases, the focus of the narrative revolves around the aftershocks of high-tech advances on low-tech societies, politics, and wars.
While often classes as alt-history, these time-travel stories differ from pure alt-history in that they don’t change a historical event – as Harry Turtledove is wont to do – but drop modern man and his engineering knowledge into the past, or a near enough facsimile. Instead of watching small changes ripple outward (or simply re-writing actual history with a few name swaps), these time-travel stories grapple with issues such as paradoxes, how the travelers’ knowledge of history can help or hinder their cause, and how the lack of modern infrastructure hampers any attempt to introduce high-technology into the low-tech world.
Robert Kroese’s Dream of the Iron Dragon takes things one step further by presenting a decidedly hard science-fiction universe where one unfortunate accident throws a starship back to Viking age Scandinavia.
The full first half of the novel owes far more to the Campbellian style of science-fiction than to the meticulously researched historical novels where some digital tech thrown into the mix. Our intrepid time-travelers don’t even set foot on Old Earth until a third of the way into the book, and they don’t start thinking about how to use their knowledge of advanced tech to build a way off Old Earth until the last quarter of the book. All of the creative MacGuyver-fiction – the clever ways to work around the limitations of iron age tech and resources – that one might expect from an alt-history/time-travel novel don’t take the field until late in the game. Most of the action on Old Earth takes the form of Vikings fighting over the sorts of things Vikings fight over, and the marooned space farers delicately balancing how to use of their limited supply of tech.
Which leaves Dream of the Iron Dragon as a strange mélange of genres. It isn’t really hard sci-fi, and it isn’t really time-travel, and it isn’t really historical fiction, and it isn’t really MacGuyver-fiction. It’s a narrative that slides back and forth across all three, and it does so in a natural and seamless manner that will please any open-minded reader who doesn’t sneer at works outside of the usual carefully proscribed genre boundaries. It has enough “men with screwdrivers solving problems” to satisfy the Campbellians. It has enough “modern men blasting screaming, charging Vikings” to satisfy the pulpsters. It has enough “actual historical figures doing what they should when they should and where they should” to please the historical fiction crowd. Dream of the Iron Dragon has enough of each to satisfy fans of any of those genres, but hidebound readers who can’t break out of their usual ruts should probably pass on it.
The glimpse at the earliest days of the Vikings packing up and moving south to warmer climes makes for an interesting central conflict. The wash of civilizations back and forth across northern and western Europe at this time has always been a dark and foggy part of history classes where time-pressed teachers gloss over just how a few boatloads of Vikings can turn the backwaters of Normandy and Britain into powerhouses ready to take on Constantinople and the great Mediterranean powers just a few short centuries later. Seeing that happen in real-time, and packaged in a fun adventure novel like this, provides a better handle for understanding the past than the usual dry history books.
As nice as that aspect is, for my money the meat of the novel comes in the last few chapters when the time-travelers finally decide to get serious about showing the primitive screw-heads how to use boomsticks to full advantage. The struggle to pare down technology to its essential salts, to find those basic and easy tricks that can make the greatest impact on the past, that’s the sort of fiction that provides insight to the problems of engineering and chemistry as implemented on a practical scale. Instead of a slow sweep of gradual improvement in tech, a novel like this can leapfrog generations of struggle, thought, and experimentation, to show the evolution of scientific advancement. Instead of a dozen small steps of invention, the natives are presented with a great bounding change that relies on all of those little steps.
As the first in a planned trilogy, Dream of the Iron Dragon ends on a high note, despite the fact that the crew – remember this book is the first in a trilogy so it doesn’t really spoil anything to tell you this – the crew doesn’t return to their own year by the end of the book. Nor does it spoil anything to warn readers of a significant twist at the ending of the novel that does a great job whetting the reader’s appetite for the next novel. Speaking as a huge fan of the sort of MacGyuver-porn (you know what I mean, don’t be gross, all you commenters) that features prominently in the latter stage of the book, I didn’t need the introduction of that little element – the prospect of another kitchen sink style book featuring smart men finding paths around technological limitations was all the enticement I needed to follow this series through to the end.