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Climb the Wind
Pamela Sargent
HarperPrism Books, 436 pages

Art: Carl D. Galian
Climb the Wind
Pamela Sargent
Pamela Sargent was born in 1948 in Ithaca, New York. She attended the State University of New York at Binghamton. She now lives in Albany, New York.

Pamela Sargent Website
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Past Feature Reviews
A review by Greg L. Johnson

Pamela Sargent spent the 80s on the wrong planet. Her novels Venus of Dreams and Venus of Shadows quietly told the story of a multi-generational effort to terraform Venus. Although well written and entertaining, the books didn't make a huge splash in the SF sea. Then, in the 90s, multi-generation epics involving the terraforming of another planet, Mars, were suddenly all the rage. If she had written them a few years later and changed the setting, Sargent might have been competing with Kim Stanley Robinson for the yearly Hugo.

Instead, she turned to history. First came Ruler of the Sky, which told Genghis Khan's story from the viewpoint of the women around him. Now we get Climb the Wind, an alternate history novel in which an American Indian named Touch-the-Clouds, inspired by hearing of Genghis Khan's achievements, seeks to unite the plains tribes and stop the expansion of the post-Civil War United States.

It is a Russian, Grigory Rubalev, exiled from Alaska and wandering the American West, who relates to Touch-the-Clouds the story of how Genghis and his horsemen came out of the Mongolian plains to conquer the empire of the East. Climb the Wind tells us how events conspire to provide Touch-the-Clouds with the same opportunity that Genghis Khan had.

This is not, however, a novel full of battles and military intrigue. This is underscored by the fact that the story is seen mainly from the viewpoint of two characters, Katia Rubalev and Lemuel Rowland, and not from that of Touch-the-Clouds. Katia and Lemuel Rowland have both lived on the plains and in the white man's world.

Lemuel was orphaned and raised by a white family. He became an aide to General Grant and friend of Ely Parker, the Seneca Indian who wrote down the terms of surrender at Appomattox. After the war, Lemuel travels back to the plains, but is unable to feel at home among either the Indians or in the cities of the East. He fears that the might of the U.S. Army will soon be turned on the plains tribes.

Katia was one of only two survivors when the blue coat soldiers attacked her village. The visions she experiences afterwards bring her to the attention of Touch-the-Clouds, who entrusts her to the care of Grigory Rubalev. It is through Katia and Lemuel that we learn of the events that distinguish their history from ours.

Those events, including assassinations, mis-placed loyalties and mis-guided decisions, form the backdrop for the lives of the characters in Climb the Wind. Sargent tugs on the strings that so loosely held the United States together after the Civil War and we watch as it all threatens to fall apart. The narrative is convincing because it relies not on one big event, but instead relates a series of changes from our history that are small in themselves, yet in the end add up to a different world. Part of the fun is the changes in the lives of characters we know from history, including Theodore Roosevelt, Calamity Jane, and George Custer, to name three. My personal favourite is the re-location of the Edison Laboratories to Bismarck, North Dakota.

The historical background and the characters come together in the visions of alternate worlds that are experienced by several of the characters, including Katia, Sitting Bull, and Crazy Horse. These visions, much like the one granted to Mr. Tagomi in The Man in the High Castle, add an extra layer of richness and depth to the novel that bring it closer to Philip K. Dick than Harry Turtledove. It's the subtle historical changes, combined with honest characterization, that set Climb the Wind apart. Instead of any overt political statement, Sargent makes us see through the lives of the characters how things might have been different. Indeed, while the references to Genghis Khan raise one set of expectations regarding Touch-the-Clouds, by the end readers may find George Washington to be just as appropriate a comparison.

Alternate history has grown immensely in popularity over the last 10 years. Climb the Wind is an outstanding example of alternate history, one that should appeal to both history buffs and fans of a good story well told. Climb the Wind is in the right time and place to be Pamela Sargent's most successful novel yet.

Copyright © 1999 by Greg L. Johnson

Reviewer Greg L. Johnson lived the best years of his childhood on the edge of Paha Sapa, the Black Hills that play an important part in the story of Climb the Wind. His reviews also appear in the The New York Review of Science Fiction.

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