Golden Reflections (Mask of the Sun & stories) edited by Joan Spicci Saberhagen & Robert E. Vardeman
Golden Reflections is an anthology of stories based on Fred Saberhagen’s Mask of the Sun, the premise of which is the existence of certain goggles that allow the wearer to see events in the future. But it only works sometimes, and it’s unclear what it chooses to show the wearer and why. Golden Reflections includes Saberhagen’s original Mask of the Sun while bringing together several well-known sci-fi/alternate history writers who build on his original concept and its world.
Mask of the Sun is classic sci-fi time-travel, strong alternate history, and richly woven historical fiction. After his brother discovers a mysterious jade mask near the Florida Keys and then disappears, Mike Gabrieli is pulled into a sordid conspiracy and out of time into a far future world that pits 23rd-century Incas against 23rd-century Aztecs. The future-seeing goggles were turned into a religious artifact by the Aztecs before Montezuma sent it to Hernan Cortes as a gift, and then re-gifted it to Francisco Pizarro as a farewell charm on his way to conquer Peru. Gabrieli becomes part of a 20th-century commando team training to defeat a 16th-century Pizarro at his foundational battle with the Incas at Cajamarca shortly after he arrives in Peru.
The 23rd-century Incas and Aztecs are not the same as their 16th-century counterparts. In a historic timeline in which Pizarro did not conquer Peru, the Incas grew to world prominence expanding their already vast South American empire, and not without a little help from superior technologies. The Incas and Aztecs are world empire adversaries. Each is able to pop through time to advance their respective causes. While each is certainly more advanced, the Aztecs still sacrifice individuals and share the sacrificial parts as food (although it’s handled in a much more sanitary and efficient manner than in the past). It’s a little unclear how “good” the new age Incas are, but they seem to be more good than the Aztecs.
Saberhagen’s futuristic landscape is rich and imaginative and his historical descriptions are filled with well-documented details and fleshed out with a master’s flair for color. Mike’s commando team must learn the ways of 16th-century Peru and incorporate their knowledge of history in their plans to change it.
For much of the time, the Mask gives Gabrieli only solitary and unmoving views that Saberhagen uses as foreshadowed clues to a future event. At other times, the Mask gives Mike a moments-ahead view that he uses to escape from one scenario and get to the next. If written poorly, it could leave readers very confused and turned around, but Saberhagen deftly provides an interesting and cohesive visualization.
In this short novel (just over 200 pages), Saberhagen spends very little ink on the particulars of time travel: suffice it to say that he goes with a multiple timeline theory that provides for the existence of a world where Pizarro defeats the Incas and a world where he doesn’t. I was reminded of Stephen Baxter‘s multiple timeline theories written in his Time Machine sequel — Time Ships.
Mask of the Sun contains spaceships and ray guns and there’s no doubting its sci-fi core. However, there are lengthy battle scenes which pit Pizarro and his Conquistadors against the Incas, and post-conquest interactions between real and imagined Spaniards and Incas which provide more than a hint of historical fiction/alternate history. The thing that excites me the most is that Saberhagen places his action in the midst of two of the greatest cultures the world has ever known, and two that the worlds of sci-fi and alt/historical fiction rarely touch. It’s a bold and innovative world.
Walter Jon Williams brings Saberhagen’s mask into ancient Egypt in “The Fate Line,” where the displaced goggles are found in a pharaoh’s tomb. An Inca team is sent into Alexandria to eliminate the Mask’s owner who ultimate leads Egypt to world dominance. This may be the only story in the world to string the following words together: “Peru and Egypt have no reason to go to war.”
Daniel Abraham’s “Wax, Clay, Gold” is based in a slave-run metalworking factory during the timeframe when the Aztecs still held possession of the mask, and may be the strongest of the short stories. Abraham weaves a great multi-aspected story that evokes emotion, and builds a compelling tale in only a few pages while developing the myth of the mask’s existence and powers. In this story, the reader is left with a terrifically subtle gotcha ending.
“Remember,” by Dean Wesley Smith, is primarily based in the Alamo. In this diverted timeline, the Aztecs have defeated the Spanish and now threaten to expand their power if they’re not checked at the Alamo. Flashbacks leading up to the primary characters’ delivery to Texas are very emotional and provide a unique layer of depth to the story.
Other short stories written in the Mask of the Sun universe include “The Conquistador’s Hat,” “Eyewear,” “Like the Rain,” and “Washington’s Rebellion,” and come from John Maddox Roberts, Harry Turtledove, Jane Lindskold and David Weber.