Bewildering Stories

Leo Frankowski, Conrad’s Quest for Rubber

reviewed by Don Webb

Conrad’s Quest for Rubber
Author: Leo Frankowski
Publisher: Del Rey, 1998
Paperback: 0-345-36850-9
Length: negative
Price: too high
Leo Frankowski began the 5-volume adventures of Conrad Stargard with The Cross-Time Engineer. The premise is that Conrad, a 20th-century Polish engineer who has spent a lot of time in America, is accidentally time-shifted to 12th-century Poland.

He knows the Mongol invasion is coming a decade or so hence, and that gives him just enough time to turn this isolated, medieval country into an industrial society and military power capable of withstanding the barbarian onslaught. With his own extraordinary ingenuity and the enthusiastic cooperation of the locals — not to mention a whopping amount of luck — Conrad manages to save Poland and defeat the Mongol hordes.

The result is an enjoyable though utterly unbelievable adventure that seemed to have reached a satisfactory conclusion with Lord Conrad’s Lady. It’s a mystery to me why the author wanted to continue the series with Conrad’s Quest for Rubber. It reads like a rough draft that was abandoned for lack of new ideas.

The main character, Josip Sobieski, is quite unlike Conrad Stargard; he is a very ordinary individual. His diary lengthily rehashes main events of the previous five novels, but his personal viewpoint is curiously devoid of interest. His main contribution to civilization consists in discovering that he can do his laundry by towing it behind a steamboat in a leaky barrel.

Meanwhile, almost completely out of sight, Conrad invents the submachine gun, which comes in handy in annexing the province of Brandenburg in retaliation for an invasion. Still behind the scenes, he recreates the 20th-century Gdansk shipyards and builds ocean-going steamships. Explorer teams set out in search of raw materials to exploit and savages to civilize.

And that’s where the book’s title comes in: Conrad hankers for an extension cord for his electrical appliances. Tally-ho, he’ll send people to the ends of the earth to search for rubber. Of course, that takes them to South America. And by an incredible stroke of amnesia, Conrad completely forgets that European diseases will have a deadly impact on the peoples of the Western Hemisphere.

Frankowski’s novels all have a dark side in their depiction of women. Throughout the Conrad series, Frankowski’s female characters are not really women but objects of an adolescent fantasy. In Rubber, the tendency becomes downright sinister as women are systematically degraded. The “wench” Maude, a “neohorse” in female form, begins to become somewhat human, but that prospect is only a teaser that leaves us uncomfortably aware of her subhumanity: we’re left to assume she’ll progress somehow. Sobieski can never quite decide whether an Amazonian pygmy named “Booboo” is his wife or his pet cat. The character concept is not only gratuitous but downright repulsive.

Women are not the only ones who are treated in cavalier fashion. Sobieski’s estrangement from his father constitutes a poorly-motivated and irrelevant subplot. It seems merely to serve as an excuse for Sobieski to end his dismal part in the novel by indulging in a burst of cruelty as he imperiously dismisses the old man’s attempt at reconciliation. Lack of relevance in fiction may imply a subtext outside the work. Well, I don’t care if there is one, I don’t want to hear about it. I prefer to chalk it up to bad writing.

At the end, Conrad’s uncle Tom, a kind of time-traveling guru and resident deus ex machina, shows up to rescue a Conrad Stargard who has outlived his usefulness. Would that he had rescued this novel, but that’s beyond even a techno-wizard’s powers.

Copyright © 2003 by Don Webb

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