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Guest Fiction Review: The Domination of the Draka
Totalitarian & Illiberal Alt-History
Foreword by Aristo: I have some friends who write over at a traditional Catholic focused publication called Middle Earth Magazine (@MiddleEarthMag). They are avid fiction readers, and one by one, they keep reading and raving about this series, The Domination of the Draka, and one of them wanted to guest review it. Draka was published by my friends at Baen Books. They’ve stayed incredibly stalwart against all odds throughout the madness of the last 10-20 years and when I rag on traditional publishers, I never mean them. Check them out at their website, or their authors on Amazon.
The writer goes by “Lycurgus of Sion” (@lycurgus_83)
This series is a cult classic which could never be released to acclaim in the current year. Draka unapologetically handles issues like Totalitarianism, Slavery, and Colonialist Expansionism. It is a time capsule representative of the acceptable spectrum of discourse in fiction during the 1980’s, and while I haven’t gotten around to reading it yet, each of my friends that has read the book loved it. Enjoy!
Whatever political label one chooses to use, the political aims of any sort of dissident movement really must be an alternative to the current way of things. An alternative for how we live, an alternative vision for where we’re going. And yes, even an alternative for our history.
While fictional alternate history isn’t quite what we want to teach in school rooms, the big questions such works propose - What if Napoleon III had defeated Bismarck? What if Mary I’s child had survived? What if Theodore Roosevelt had won a third term? - force us to break out of the current sense of inevitability and offer us a chance to rethink what could be.
Even if what could be may be a horror to most.
SM Stirling offers just such a challenge in his Draka Series. Released at the end of the 1980s, its primary focus is a reimagined South African state, one changed early on to become an empire that, by the time of the books, is a world power and ultimate conqueror of the globe.
Before discussing the books, one must comment on their obvious inspiration. The 1980s were bookended by a pair of radical changes for the peoples, especially the white Boers and African British, of Southern Africa. 1980, after the tragic end of Rhodesia, saw the beginnings of the Mugabe regime - minority rule was ended, mass democracy ushered in, de facto dictatorship inaugurated, and the white settlers who had built the nation expelled. On its other end, too late to directly inspire Stirling but pertinent all the same, South Africa saw the dismantling of its apartheid system - the Afrikaaner leaders were set aside, the rainbow nation begun, and integration into the enlightened order commenced.
Both of these events are considered great victories for the liberal world order. The last muscular vestiges of European colonialism were swept aside and the great revolutionary values of freedom, equality, and fraternity were more firmly ensconced.
So what if that never happened? What if the opposite occurred?
The Draka series presents an entirely illiberal vision of the world, a society built upon the rejection of revolutionary values and defining itself by virile colonial expansion.
The Domination, the state of the Draka race, as explained in fictional primary texts interspersed throughout the books, is formed by American loyalists and French Royalists after their respective revolutions, joining the Dutch Boers in South Africa. Later, remnants of the Southern Confederacy would find refuge in the Cape and bring along their plantation culture. To this mix, add a love of Greco-Spartan society, a good bit of nationalistic fervor, aristocratic decadence, and some of the writer’s favorite pulp tropes, and you have a fever dream of a South Africa which not only survives but becomes the final society of the human race.
Did I mention they were slavers? Called serfs, the Draka conquer not only for territory, but also for human chattel. Not a numerous people, the Draka can only enjoy their aristocratic life on the backs of others. First Africa, then the Middle East, then Asia, and finally Europe and America come “under the yoke”.
The historical possibility of such a people as the Draka arising is seemingly nil. The internet of the early 90s, when the books made a splash in the burgeoning alt-history community, is littered with usenet essays describing why it’s insane and proposing ways it could have been more plausible. For my money, worrying over such a thing is to miss the point. Stirling is not examining “What could have been?”, but rather the more direct “What if all the guys ostensibly on the wrong side of history built an empire? What would it be like?”
And it is a fascinating, astounding, and uncomfortable experience. Stirling isn’t wholly ambivalent to the apparent evil of the Domination - he does not hide the fact that these are slavers and the sorts of brutal oppression and denial of human dignity this requires. However, he puts us in the position of often sympathizing, and sometimes even rooting for these slavers. The majority of characters we follow - through moments of high adventure and in slices of life - are Draka. And the Draka do not see themselves as evil. They simply are the Draka.
The first novel, Marching Through Georgia, is a straightforward war story. The Domination, only recently independent from Britain, joins what amounts to World War II on the side of the Allies. They don’t quite disagree with the Nazis, as much as they see an opportunity to remove a major obstacle in their long-term plan of world conquest. The allies are aware of this, but the Reich is a current threat, and the Draka a future one.
The basic narrative of the novel - a battalion of Draka paratroopers, dropped into the Caucasus while cut off from their support, seek to survive an oncoming onslaught of Nazi armor - is simple and could have been told in a novella. What makes it interesting and worth one’s time is less the story and more experiencing what it is to be a Draka.
We meet Erik von Shrakenberg, battalion commander and son of a decorated family with thoughts of bringing reform to his people’s institutions. He is no liberalizer! But he embodies the tension of a people who must keep up with the changing world while they enshrine and monumentalize their historic values and practices.
Along with him, we meet Sofie Nixon, his comtech, a cigarette smoking amazon who acts as an interlocutor of Erik’s conscience. She becomes a love-interest, helping us to see Erik’s personal side in the midst of the fight.
And they are accompanied by American war correspondent Bill Dreiser. Dreiser acts as outside eyes, alternating between wonder at Draka nobility and horror at their brutality. In him, you get to be an American asking if this people, ostensibly begun from your same stock, are what you could have been. And maybe answering with a bit of a disturbing, though wistful, yes.
Throughout, we get other characters coming and going to give us various points of view of Draka society. An artillery commander, taken from studies as an engineer, imagines the great marvels her society will build after the war. Erik’s father, a general, ponders the weight his people’s self-directed mission puts on men like his son. A battle-hardened infantry man struggles against PTSD with special brutality. A conquered Georgian is in awe and fear of the Draka, a master he might respect after the Russians and Germans. In the second half, Erik’s sister, a Draka pilot, shows a female of the race - trained in Draka ways, but still a woman - confronting difficult odds behind enemy lines.
The skeleton of the story is a military adventure, but the real meat is found in the laying out of these various characters’ views in conversations, reflections, and depictions of Draka culture.
Prior to the paratrooper assault, in an extended flashback, we see Dreiser discuss with an Afghan serf woman her state of life. In her patois of English, she explains that had she never been made a serf to the von Shrakenberg’s, a noble Draka family, she’d probably have lived a meager existence, married off to a man she didn’t care for in a hut that offered no comfort. As a serf, she’s seen the world and found a way to control her life in learning to be friends, and lovers, with her masters.
Chilling in one way, but uncomfortably sensible in another.
The Draka themselves are cognizant of this tension, and aware that their position forces upon them a kind of responsibility and duty. Erik’s father, seeing a slave at work, reflects:
“I’m one of the . . . oh, fifty or so most powerful men in the Domination; therefore one of the freest on earth, by theory. And they are property, powerless; but I’m not free to spend my life in the place I was born, or cultivate my garden, or see my children grow around me.”
This is not an empire of sociopaths, as comforting as that would be. They take their responsibilities seriously, and the freedom they enjoy is always balanced by a corresponding enchainment to duty.
Throughout it all, Dreiser offers commentary. I find especially poignant his struggle to make the Draka relatable to his American audience. He thinks of moments of play, when the Draka have let their guard down. And describes a scene that is both entrancing and alien to Americans of the 1940 (and perhaps the 1980s… though today?):
This one, the one they called Bill-boy, had started a dance—a folk dance of sorts. It looked vaguely Afro-Celtic to Dreiser, done with a bush knife in each hand, two-foot chopping blades, heavy and razor sharp. He had danced naked to the waist, the steel glittering in the harsh, bare-bulb lights; the others had formed a circle around him, clapping and cheering while the fiddler scraped his bow across the strings and another slapped palms on a zebra-hide drum held between his knees. The dancer had whirled, the edges cutting closer and closer to his body; had started to improvise to the applause, a series of pirouettes and handsprings, backflips and cartwheels, laughing as sweat spun off his glistening skin in jewelled drops. Laughing with pleasure in strength and skill and . . . well, it was a Draka way of looking at it, but yes, beauty.
Wild, exuberant, and alive with skill, strength and a sense of sacrifice. Completely foreign to an America already beginning to do away with some of its own sense of historical destiny. But alluring all the same.
The second novel, Under the Yoke, is a different sort of book. While it contains a bit of military adventure in its first chapters, the majority takes place on a Draka plantation in now conquered Lyons, France. While we follow the story of the plantation owner, Erik’s cousin Tanya, much of the book is about the plight of newly conquered serfs and the adventures of an American spy.
Far more harrowing and disturbing, and so oddly more relatable, Under the Yoke, allows us to see more of the Draka as masters of men. We are introduced to the Polish nun, Marya Sokolowska, as she is purchased for her intellectual skills. Marya is something of a conscience in the book, her religious training moving her to recognize the Draka as fellow sinful humans even as she strives to quietly reject their seemingly demonic way of life.
The French communist Chantal Lefarge, made a pleasure wench for her new masters, is a woman striving to stay above water as the horror of her life engulfs her. Set against her, is the Parisian songstress Solange Lebrune, a woman who has wholly given herself to serfdom, exulting in being the favorite of her mistress.
The two, in the midst of the novel, have a bit of long discourse on Draka superiority, on why Solange has surrendered to be their property. Solange is quite practical about the matter:
““Superiority?” Solange made a moue. “Is the wolf superior to the deer? Superior at what, my dear . . . singing, perhaps? By that standard, I am the superior one on this estate; except perhaps for Yasmin, and she is stronger on the instrumental side. Mistress can paint in a superior fashion; you are superior to me in mathematics. Master race? They are a race of masters, that is plain fact, Chantal. Also that they are stronger than we; that is a better word than ‘superior.’ Stronger in their armies, of course, stronger in their wills and bodies, as well. They are here, are they not?
“That,” she continued, lying back and linking her hands behind her head, “is what I meant when I said that I had surrendered, Chantal.”
Along with them, we also meet born-serfs. Yasmin is the major-domo of the house, helping the newly yoked adjust and even helping to protect them from themselves. She’s kind-hearted, never knowing anything but the yoke. She doesn’t quite love her masters, but refuses to hate them:
“Ain’t sayin’ as everythin’s the way I’d put it, were I God, but that-there position’s filled, last time I looks. Plenty good things in my life; pretty things”—she touched the buttons of her jacket—“ ‘joyable things, like m’work, which I’s good at an’ getting better, my music”—she touched the case of her mandolin—“ ‘n my fam’ly an’ friends. Someday I’s have children of my own, maybe-so a steady man. If’n I doan’ take no pleasure from all that-there, who it hurt? Me, that who. Somebody else hurt you, that fate; hurt youself, that plain ignorant; troubles enough in anyone’s life, withouten you go courtin’ ’em. I ain’t hongry, ain’t sickenin’ to die, never been whopped; plenty folks worse off than me, I saves my pity fo’ them, doan’ waste it on myself.
“The Draka?” She shrugged. “They’s like the weather, they’s jus’ there. I’s known folks, rather cut off they foot than ’commodate to the mastahs; they-all end up churnin’ they guts with hatin’. Hate enough, it make you go’ hateful; it jus’ ain’t worth the trouble, to my way a’ thinkin’.”
“Yous looks like sensible wenches, y’all will learn.”
In Yasmin, we see the serf’s viewpoint. And one that is wholly foreign to our liberal sense of freedom. In fact, discomfortingly enough, you can hear echoes of Socrates in her little dialogue - an emphasis on self-harm through vice, here hatred, as the only real harm.
Along with these serfs, we get to know Frederick Kustaa, of the American OSS. Kustaa first meets up with Finnish freedom fighters before picking up a rebel Austrian physicist, himself rejecting citizenship, and making it down to Lyons in deep cover for a climactic showdown with the von Shrakenbergs. Fred is always on the verge of breaking cover to go on a killing spree among these slaving monsters. And hates himself for it. It is not lost on Fred that the drive to sacrifice everything for a goal, something he’s doing in this deep cover work, is a very Draka sort of thing to do. He knows he isn’t one of them. But could he be? It’s an idea that plagues him.
Under the Yoke may ultimately be the most palatable of the three. Less emphasis is placed upon getting into the Draka psyche (though a few scenes offer us visions which chill and amaze), and more in the experience of living under the empire, whether as collaborator and so reaping its fruits or as rebel and so feeling its boot.
The third novel, The Stone Dogs, is a marked change to the prior books. Where Marching through Georgia covered a short, brutal military engagement, and Under the Yoke, a pair of years on a Draka plantation, the final novel covers about fifty years of time. A new, very different Cold War is conducted between the Domination and the Alliance for Democracy - the America led societies not under the yoke.
In the Domination, we follow Yolande Ingolfsson. The niece of Erik von Shrakenberg (returning as the soul-tortured conscience and leader of his people) Yolande inherits much of the Draka nobility we’ve come to see. But in her, we also see some of the real damage this society can breed. While every Draka female (and a lot of the Serfs) we’ve met have basically been gender-bent English schoolboys (Stirling clearly has a thing), in Yolande we meet our first real lesbian of the race.
And she gets clingy to her partner, is threatened when she’s seeking a husband, becomes a serf torturing, war crime committing psychopath, and participates in bringing about nuclear holocaust. I’m sure Stirling has better examples of noble and heroic lesbians in his other work, but it’s kind of laugh out loud that the first important Draka villain we spend lots of time with is the poster child of a non-traditional family structure.
But she’s not wholly wicked (no Draka is). We see her rise through the ranks of the Domination’s military, visions of new worlds painted along the way, and in her children, born of IVF, we see the transhumanist orientation the race is taking upon its shoulders.
On the other side of the novel, we follow Frederick and Marya Lefarge. Children of Under the Yoke’s Chantal Lefarge, the French commie, the two are trained OSS agents and go from performing espionage to becoming, respectively, the head of the Alliance’s most secret weapon of last resort and a decades-long deep cover agent as a Domination serf.
Covering fifty years, Stirling posits two societies which not only make it to the moon, but have begun colonizing the asteroid belt and mining the gas giants. The Domination’s emphasis on long-term planning and well coordinated state-society symbiosis drives their exploration and conquest of the planetary system. The Alliance, refusing to give up the fight, meets them tit for tat, attempting to leverage the dynamism of their free-market and liberal society against the well oiled Draka machine.
One might be quick to compare this to the Soviet-American Cold War, though with many more sci-fi bells and whistles. And being published prior to the Soviet fall, this might make sense. But Stirling knows his communism and the Domination is not communist. Priding decentralized decision making, lauding and ossifying a strict hierarchy, and practicing a kind of technological luddism (pre-industrial plantation farming remains the primary model of life, even off world), these are not a stand-in for Soviets. Instead, this is a cold war with a society wholly alien to our own, but made out of the same stuff we are.
Throughout the series, we are not allowed to simply see the Draka as the villain to be defeated. Stirling demands we see them as something real but different, even noble and heroic. Few freedom loving Alliance members die in a pyre of glory. But sacrifice for the society, for the race, is assumed of a Draka and many times over is modeled for the reader’s wonder. Beauty is not something associated with the Alliance, but is part and parcel of the social rhythm of the Domination. Health and well-being isn’t an aspiration for the Draka; it is the assumed normality.
This is all summed up well in a kind of soliloquy by John Ingolfsson, older brother of Yolande. Early on in the third book, he’s asked why he loves his plantation home - the home he is due to inherit. He says:
““It’s . . . home,” he said. “Some people need that feelin’ of creation. I don’t. I love . . . it all; sights and smells and sounds, the people an’ the animals and the plants and . . . oh, the way the sun comes over the east tower every mornin’, the church bell soundin’—Shit, I’m no poet…
He smiled ruefully. “I suspect I love this place mo’ than any individual, which may say somethin’ about yours truly. At least, a community an’ place is longer-lived than a person. I won’t change anythin’ much, when it’s mine.”
He exults in the beauty and the world that’s been placed in his hands. But he always recognizes it as a gift. The conversation turns to why he’s volunteering as an officer - time that will keep him away from this home he loves:
“Down at that school, they’re probably fillin’ y’all up with yo’ debt to the Race and the State.” He shrugged. “True enough. I likes to think of it on a mo’ personal level. A plantation can feel like a world to its own self, but it isn’t. It only exists as part of the Domination. The Race makes possible the only way of life I know, the only world I feel at home in, the only contentment I can ever have.”
He laughed. “Not least, by controllin’ change. It must be powerful lonely to be a Yankee; by the time one of them is middle-aged, everythin’ they grew up with is gone. Like havin’ the earth always dissolvin’ away beneath you feet. Cut off from you ancestors an’ you descendants both. Here, barrin’ catastrophe, I can be reasonable sure that in a thousand years, what I value will still exist.
“It’s here because Ma and Pa an’ others like them fought fo’ it, bled fo’ it. A decade of my life is cheap payment. I wouldn’t deserve this unless I was ready to die fo’ it, to kill fo’ it.”
“Powerful lonely to be a Yankee.” Stirling, in his Draka, finds the weak points of modern liberal life, weak points only grown worse in the intervening three decades, and makes us ask if it’s worth it. The dynamics of constant change and development, of movement and separation each generation, leave us “powerful lonely.” John may be giving his life for his people, but in return he has a settled, rooted place among them, a place not only for himself but for those who will come after him.
We cannot ignore that the world John loves is, from our point of view, clearly horrific - serf-laborers live lives of monotonous drudgery, rebels are staked through the anus, serf women are traded as sexual commodities - but it is also a vision of stark beauty, alluring even as it repels.
I’d imagine more than a few of Frogs can recognize certain themes of import in Stirling’s work. I leave you to discuss those in Aristo’s chat rooms. But even beyond those specific themes, one experiences in the Draka books a truly alternate way of life. Not simply a jaunt through history, but a kind of reimagining of our past so as to propose a wholly different sort of future.
What Stirling attempts here in fiction, perhaps the dissident needs to learn to emulate. Not in his details - I’m not sure a return to slavery is on anyone’s bingo card. But in the audacity to imagine a world wholly different, wholly alien, repellant and beautiful, from our own. Perhaps first in speech. But ultimately, if we are real dissidents, in reality.
Lycurgus preaches Roman Supremacy in the Southern United States, where he imagines himself a Texian Diogenes, grumbling from his crippled barrel that his proficiency, unrecognized by the modern world, is in ruling men. He has mostly taught for a living (sadly having read more than one book) and expounds on the political theories of better times in hopes that one of his students finally understands that, yes, he is quite serious about What Must Be Done.
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