|Hugo-award winning early fanzine creator and Nebula-award nominated author Richard A Lupoff was a fellow guest at San Diego Comic-Fest this year, so I thought I'd revisit his wild fantasy duology of 'Circumpolar!' and 'Countersolar!' (Click here for review)
'Circumpolar!' was written in 1984 and published in England in 1985, soon after which I devoured it. However, I hadn't read it since and I realize now how this fits into the proto-steampunk retro-futuristic genre that I wasn't aware of at the time. It's set a little late to be truly called steampunk, unfolding in an alternate 1920s on an alternate Earth, but it rewrites the past with the same wild abandon, eschewing the serious approach taken by alternate historians for an energetic pulp romp with real people in fictional settings.
There's some alternate history here, such as the fact that the First World War is merely the One Year War here, begun in 1912, too soon for the Kaiser to win. The characters are real people, for the most part, though their histories depart from the ones we know to various degrees.
The most obvious departure from real history is the fact that this isn't our Earth. It's a doughnut shaped planet, one where the map we know lies on one side but a completely unknown world lies on the other. Mrs. Victoria Woodhull Martin, a rich ninety-year-old, wants to know what's over there on the other side, so she sets up a prize fund of $50,000 for the first team to navigate their way to that half of the planet and back again.
In the Kondor, the German/Russian team is led by Manfred von Richtofen, better known as the Red Baron, who was not killed at the end of the war in this world, probably because it finished three years early. His brother Lothar, another highly regarded fighter ace, is also part of the team, much more arrogant and brutishly violent than his aristocratic but principled brother. Rounding out the trio is an apparently fictional character, the superstitious and histrionic Russian princess Irina Lvova. She doesn't seem to exist in our history, though ironically there is now a real historian by that name who writes about the Tsars.
Of course, they're the bad guys, though the Red Baron is seen with some sympathy, especially when compared to his teammates. Just as unsurprisingly, they're up against a team of American good guys, so we're always going to root for the red, white and blue, whatever country we're from.
The mastermind behind the American team is Howard Hughes, in pre-crazy days, and he chose experienced pilots to back him up: Charles Lindbergh and Amelia Earhart, decades before her legendary disappearance. Both are natural choices for much more than their flying ability. They were both record breakers who took on major challenges for a start, Earhart being the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic and Lindbergh, of course, being the first to do that period. It's notable that he did so in the Spirit of St Louis, while Hughes provides the Spirit of San Diego for them to fly here.
The other angle that Lupoff plays up a little is their different approach to social issues. He pushes Earhart as a strong pilot, regardless of gender, against Lindbergh's initial doubts. Earhart was progressive, an early supporter of equal rights for women; but Lindy was conservative, especially on grounds of race, agreeing with Hitler on the problems facing the white race if not his solutions. In this regard, Lupoff is rather revisionist in framing Lindbergh as apparently open to different cultures and creeds.
The competition is simple: either fly through the hole in the centre of the earth, across the other side and round the ice mountains at the edge to return to the point of departure, or vice versa. The Kondor aims at the hole first, while the Spirit of San Diego takes the opposite approach. You shouldn't be surprised to find that the two meet somewhere on the other side, in a world framed as much from myth and legend as from imagination.
I had a blast with 'Circumpolar!' which betrays Lupoff's long standing fascination with Edgar Rice Burroughs. The cover of my Granada copy may look science fiction rather than fantasy, but it's really the latter, owing much to the Mars or Venus books of Burroughs, merely set on an Earth that's configured in such a way as to make that possible. That opposite side contains Muvia or Muiaia, a take on the mythical continent of Lemuria, and Svartalheim, a take on the world of dark elves from Norse and Teutonic myth translated through Wagnerian opera.
When I read this as a kid, I probably loved the pulp adventure of it the most; the discovery, the challenge and the frequent cliffhangers that it thrives on. At the time, I was discovering many of the authors that Lupoff is influenced by, not just Burroughs but also H. P. Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard. The latter pair would inspire other novels from Lupoff, while this is clearly a response to Burroughs.
Today, I enjoyed it in precisely the same way, but with much more background in history and mythology to allow me to see what Lupoff filtered his imagination through. I also realize just how ripe this is for adaptation to the big screen. This would make a rollicking blockbuster, one that would be much more interesting and visually stimulating than most of what Hollywood churns out nowadays. Sure, it's simplistic good guy vs bad guy stuff, but there's nothing wrong with that in the right setting and this is, emphatically, the right setting. The current state of special effects would also make it totally viable.
Lupoff did write one sequel, but not in the way you might expect. 'Countersolar!' is a direct sequel, beginning years later on the same world, but it doesn't follow the same characters or take a fresh trip to the other side of the doughnut to revisit old friends and make new ones. Instead it takes a further leap, a ratcheting up of the concept to the next level, which is fun but leaves the world we discover here missing the attention it warrants. It's a big enough place to warrant a more focused sequel or ten. Edgar Rice Burroughs would have done it. How about it, Mr. Lupoff, sir? ~~ Hal C F Astell