A couple of posts ago I wrote about Solar Express, by L.E. Modesitt Jnr., and mentioned that I have Of Tangible Ghosts and The Ghost of the Revelator by this author, but could recall nothing about them. I have now read them, and soon realised why I couldn't recall them – I hadn't actually read them before! At some point, they must accidentally have been put on the wrong shelf.
These are alternative universe stories, but of an unusual kind. The setting is vaguely similar to the present day, but there are many differences. The USA does not exist in its present form; instead there is the smaller country of Columbia (very much dominated by its Dutch heritage) which includes part of Canada (the remainder being French Quebec); New France occupies most of the southern states, and Maximilian controls Mexico. Further afield, the Austro-Hungarian Empire under Ferdinand VII dominates Europe (one ironic touch: their ambassador to Columbia is called Schicklgruber), while Japan and Chung Kuo have divided up eastern Asia.
Other minor differences: Babbage mechanical computers and Stanley steam cars feature, and the histories of some well-known people are rather different: e.g. Mozart obviously lives much longer, as music from his "later period" is mentioned.
These differences are never directly explained, readers having to glean what happened from odd comments (e.g. concerning "William the Unfortunate" who invaded England). However, it gradually becomes obvious that the political differences exist because major international conflicts have been smaller and less frequent; in particular, the colossal disruption of the two World Wars of the 20th century never took place. The reason for this is down to one key factor: ghosts are real and wander round for a while after death, being visible and even being able to communicate with the living. The human population is uncomfortable with this, so the existence of many ghosts (as results from warfare) devalues the areas they haunt. So warfare, and in particular mass destruction, has been restricted. Futhermore, the technology had recently been developed to to create ghosts (by a mysterious process) by separating them from their bodies; the uninhabited bodies, known as zombies, can carry out simple manual work so this is used as a severe method of punishment.
Despite all of this, these stories are not really about an alternative universe, the plot just happens to be set in one. The only specific reference to this is the well-worn trope of the principal character finding an alternative world novel in which there were no ghosts, and a much bigger Columbia was known as the United States. Nothing much is made of this, however.
So to the story in Of Tangible Ghosts: the principal character is Johan Eschbach, a former agent of the Spazi (the Columbian internal security service) and previously a government minister, who for political reasons has been retired to a lecturing position in a provincial college. He has a considerable back history which is revealed only gradually and obliquely, but it becomes clear that his wife and child had died as a result of his previous roles. He becomes involved in investigating the murder of another member of the college staff, and realises that he is being set up by his political enemies in the government. He will need every ounce of his considerable ingenuity to survive.
The author makes the reader work quite hard: it requires concentration to keep up with the complex plot or to work out what might happen next.
The Ghost of the Revelator picks up Eschbach's story about a year later. During this time, he has married the French soprano Llysette duBoise, his occasional girlfriend in the first story. She takes on a much larger role because of her battle to re-establish her singing reputation after arriving in Columbia as a refugee from Austro-Hungarian persecution. She is invited to perform in Deseret, effectively the Mormon Utah, which is a separate country in this world. It becomes obvious to Eschbach that there is a lot of complex plotting going on, including various attempts on their lives, and once again his ingenuity is tested in saving them both. As before, it is his specialist knowledge of ghost technology – for both creating and destroying them – which is key to the plot.
The second novel is as unusual and creative as the first, though it has some curious aspects. In particular, the author really goes overboard in stressing duBoise's superlative singing ability, time after time (I felt that he seemed to be falling in love with his own creation). After all of the complexity leading up to the climax, Eschbach's final success seemed to be surprisingly straightforward.
These stories are very different in style as well as content to Solar Express, not too surprising as they were written some 15-20 years earlier, but are equally worth reading. Given the vast and varied output of this author, I think I shall try sampling some of his other types of work.