Monday, June 01, 2009

Roma Eterna

You know, on paper, Roma Eterna by Robert Silverberg should be my kind of book. It's counterfactual history, something that I really enjoy. And it's based around the Roman Empire, a subject that I'm fascinated by. And yet this book sapped my will to live. If it hadn't been for our home computer acting up, I might not have ever finished it.

It's an interesting premise: Silverberg posits a world where the Roman Empire never fell. It just kept on going. And yet the way Silverberg tried to tell this story fell flat in so many ways.

First of all, there's the structure. Rather than pick one time period and stick with it, Silverberg keeps jumping through time. The book is essentially a series of unconnected short stories, the only thing in common being the setting. Just when you're starting to care about the characters in the story, that story ends and they're never mentioned again. Or, if they are, it's an off-handed reference that really doesn't go anywhere.

Second, there's the repetitious nature of Silverberg's backstory. If he told me one more time that Maximilianus III subdued the barbarians once and for all, I'm pretty sure I would have torn my hair out. He did this time after time after time. And I kept thinking, I know, I know, you told me this ten pages ago!.

That's another problem. Lots of telling, not a lot of showing. It made for weak storytelling.

But the thing that really bothered me the most was Silverberg's point of historical departure. He posited that the reason why the Roman Empire never fell is because Christianity never existed. Now I've got theological problems with that that I won't go into here simply because those reasons aren't the reason why my suspended disbelief kept trying to unsuspend itself. I know that historians have suggested that Christianity brought about the fall of the Roman Empire. Given that possibility, it's within the realm of reason to believe that a lack of Christianity would mean a longer lasting Empire. The merits of the argument are beyond the scope of this book review and I leave that particular debate to people with more abbreviations behind their names than I.

No, there are two major reasons why I didn't like this point of departure. The first has to do with the idea of trajectory. Silverberg removes Christianity from the historical scene by having the Exodus fail. No Exodus, he reasons, no Isreal. No Isreal, no Jews. No Jews, no Christianity.

So that might work, but my problem here is that that leaves 1,200 years (at least) where things would be substantially different. No Exodus, no kingdom of Israel, right? Well, that leaves a power vacuum in the ancient world that would have to be filled. Who knows what might have arisen in the land of Canaan. A Philistine Empire? Would Egypt, who was the nominal overlords of the region at the time, maintained their hold, thus allowing them to resist the Assyrians and Babylonians? Who knows?

Silverberg's premise of removing the Exodus and only removing Christianity is far-fetched to the point of ridiculousness. It's entirely possible that by undoing the Exodus, the Roman Empire might never have arisen. The butterfly theory and all that.

The second reason why this point of departure is so ridiculous to me is because of what Silverberg does in his introduction. He has two Roman historians meet and discuss ancient history and one of them says something along these lines: "Well, what if that Moses guy had succeeded? Well, then, a religion may have arisen, based on resurrection, that would have appealed to Roman society and radically changed our society."

Um, excuse me? That's an awfully big intellectual leap for someone to make. Too big of one, if you ask me. Sure, Silverberg is trying to explain what's missing, but that could have been made pretty clear in short order rather than with the ham-fisted way he did.

According to Silverberg's biography, he's an award-winning author. Quite frankly, based on this book, I can't imagine why and I don't really care to learn. For me, if I want to see some good counterfactual storytelling in this same vein, I'll re-read Harry Turtledove's Agent of Byzantium. Much better and not quite so ludicrous.

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