I’ve read Leo Frankowski’s The Cross-Time Engineer series (later dubbed The Adventures of Conrad Stargard) more times than I’d care to admit, having fallen in love with the series after finding my father’s first edition of the first (eponymous) book when I was about twelve or so. I’ve written my share of criticism of some of Frankowski’s later works here before; I’ve also reviewed the Conrad series for this meme back in 20071, but following Frankowski’s death at the end of 2008, I’d been meaning to re-read it for some time now.
The Cross-Time Engineer is, as the title suggests, a time-travel yarn, told in the grand tradition of Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court; a more apt comparison would be to L. Sprague deCamp’s Lest Darkness Fall, insofar as the latter involved more 20th-century science and was less social satire than solid science fiction. It is the story of Conrad Schwartz, an engineer from Katowice, who is transported to Medieval Poland (1231) ten years before the Mongols invade and tear it apart. Schwartz just happens to be a socialist (of the typical 1980s Polish sort) and a devout Catholic, which are polar opposites of Frankowski himself. The author rewrote his original manuscript in order to make Conrad more than simply Frankowski’s idealized version of himself, but there’s no shortage of points where Frankowski’s own leanings come through: pro-capitalism, pro-military, ever-so-slightly bigoted, and sexist to an extraordinary degree.
There’s a lot of sex in The Cross-Time Engineer (and even more in later books), though it’s never of a graphic or particularly vulgar sort. Its most disturbing attribute is that it involves 30-something Conrad hopping into bed with one or more girls as young as 14. This is distasteful to us, and it’s easy to turn out discomfort and wrath on Frankowski, assuming that he’s simply a perverted old man fantasizing about swiving barely-pubescent girls. In his defense, however, Frankowski was attempting historical accuracy in this regard, when women were married (before or after sexual activity) as young as 14 years of age, usually with a somewhat older male. None of Frankowski’s other books, dealing with more modern timelines, contain any indications that he’s some sort of sexual deviant. None of this is to say, of course, that Frankowski’s writing in this regard wasn’t ridiculous. In a move very much in keeping with the accusations of wish-fulfillment fantasy, most or all of the women (or girls) in The Cross-Time Engineer are as slutty as he can write them; they are not only exhibitionists but nymphomaniacs as well, jumping two or three at a time into the bed of belted knights.
Conrad becomes just such a knight by dint of his service to Count Lambert, the ruler of Okoitz, for whom he not only kills a renegade knight/highwayman, but also builds windmills, beehives, and lucrative cloth factories. The Cross-Time Engineer owes the most to the canonical Connecticut Yankee story, because Conrad is equipped with camping gear, miscellaneous doodads (including toilet paper), and even a bar of milk chocolate, which the world would not known for another 600 years2. Such contrivances don’t last long, and in fact it would be disappointing if that’s all the book consisted of. What’s so entertaining about this book (and indeed, the whole series) is that Conrad, like Frankowski, is an engineer, and resolves to “fix” medieval Poland within 10 years, in order to fight off the Mongols who will invade at that time and wipe the place out. Some of that is technological: Lambert’s looms may be a showpiece for him, but to Conrad they represent a tremendous drop in the price and cloth, and thus the availability of warm clothes. The windmill, too, represents mechanical power for heavy industry, plumbing, and an ice house to store vegetables throughout the year. Other parts are social: Conrad, good socialist that he is, is by nature egalitarian, and chafes against the rigidly hierarchical feudal system, though he doesn’t make very much progress in changing this any time during the first book.
Along they way, he is helped by his Uncle Tom, a distant cousin who is responsible for the technology which sent Conrad back in time. Since Conrad was not observed until 1241, there is no way to go back and “make it didn’t happen”, but via a number of technological contrivances, he equips Conrad with good armor, a diamond-edged sword, and a “neohorse” named Anna which has near the intelligence of a human and the strength of two horses. I found these devices to be an easy way out for Frankowski, though their usage here is not particular egregious; it is not until later that the casual use of these deus ex machina start to degrade the quality of the story.
When I first read this book so many years ago, besides being titillated and not a little scandalized by the sex (remember I was about 12), I was hooked enough by Frankowski’s “The pen is mightier than the sword, but why not have both?” approach that I had to dash out and read the rest. It’s not the best science fiction to ever be put to paper, but it sure is a hell of a lot of fun.