I was trying to think of something to review on the quick and I decided to try out a short story I have been meaning to read: “The Iron Shirts” by award-winning author Michael F. Flynn. Originally published on Tor.com in 2011, its old but it has been recommended by Harry Turtledove and it was a finalist for the 2011 short form Sidewise Award. So it should be good, right?
Set in the 13th century, the story is told from the perspective of David O’Flynn, who is attending a meeting of western Irish clans who want to fight a Norman backed king. Although David thinks the plan is foolish, the organizer has a trump card, red-skinned allies from across the Western Ocean who have iron weapons and armor. They promise to aide the Irish against their enemies, but David questions the wisdom of trading one set of foreigners for another (as a good Catholic, David remembers what happened after the Jews asked the Romans for help against their enemies). Nevertheless, he is right to be skeptic as the newcomers promises turn out to be too good to be true.
So if you haven’t guessed who the visitors from the far west are yet, they are Native Americans, but not the ones we are used to. In this history, various forms of North American megafauna (horses and mammoths) have survived and Native American cultures have domesticated them to build a more advanced civilization (although still centuries behind Europe, as the “al-Goncuin” are analogous to the Roman Empire). They also aren’t great sailors, copying Norse ships they captured that are 200 years out of date to cross the Atlantic. Besides their weapons and ships, they have books, walled cities (Manhattan, I hear, is still important in this world), etc.
“The Iron Shirts” is an enjoyable story. Despite my earlier description, its more of a mystery than a war story, as David tries to uncover the motivations behind these new allies and schemes to use them to his own advantage. I found it amusing to see an Irishman pass on potatoes, but I couldn’t help think that the story was missing something important. Now I am not a doctor and my knowledge of how infectious diseases spread is rather limited, but even I wonder whether Flynn factored in Native American resistance to Old World plagues into his alternate history. Without giving too much away, the Native Americans in this world have more contact with the Vikings than they likely did in our world and thus the chances of some virus running amok in the New World should only have increased. Thus even with their advanced technology, we should see the Americas experience a die off that is equivalent to a zombie apocalypse.
Despite the questions I have regarding the plausibility of this alternate history, I am still able to recommend Michael F. Flynn’s “The Iron Shirts”. It is a quick read that balances the scales of trans-oceanic contact in an entertaining way. The last line of the story fills my minds with possibilities of what could come next, but the story still manages to stand on its own. Go read “The Iron Shirts”. Its fun and its free!