No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Thursday, December 11, 2003

Roma Eterna -- Robert Silverberg

This review originally appeared in Vector, the critical journal of the British Science Fiction Association, in January 2004.

In the Prologue of Robert Silverberg's latest novel, Roma Eterna, Celer - the Roman Empire's leading scholar of Eastern religions - speculates about alternate histories. He wonders what would have happened if the Hebrew Exodus from Egypt had succeeded, and imagines "a new religion under an invincible new prophet." "Well," (says his friend Aufidius, yawning) "all that is sheer fantasy. It never could have happened …"

If you haven't already spotted that the world (or at least the history) that Celer is speaking of is our own, then this novel may not be for you. Roma Eterna presents a world in which the exodus from Egypt failed, and Christianity never happened; and the Roman Empire did not fall.

The novel consists of ten chapters, most of which have previously appeared (in some form) as standalone stories. The chapters are dated AUC - ab urbe condita, 'from the founding of the city' (Rome, of course) in 753BC - and a little mental arithmetic will prove most useful, as will a working knowledge of the major events of our own world history.

Each chapter is a vignette, a slice of everyday life from a past which differs from our own so subtly that the distinctions are never explicitly stated. Silverberg's protagonists are the little people, the ordinary folk who are never mentioned in history books. They don't know about the latest technology, or the political machinations of the Senate, or the fate of the expedition to Mexico. Leontius Corbulo (AUC 1365) is far more concerned with the peccadillo for which he was exiled to Mecca than he is interested in the religious beliefs of the local tribes. Lady Eudoxia (AUC 2206) is bored by her lover's talk of Roma's 'divine right' and the burden of ruling the world, and cannot understand why he has to leave her to become Procurator of Constantinople.

Silverberg teases out the strands of history in a strange but recognisable world, and he packs his narrative with teasing allusions to (and reflections of) our own history. An unwilling heir becomes Emperor, and casts aside Faustus, the ageing buffoon who's been his companion in mischief; two children accidentally discover the last survivor of a murdered royal house, who fled the massacre as a child; a great adventurer's record is tarnished by rumours of cannibalism. Meanwhile, the greater issues - such as whether or not the Empire can expand indefinitely, and whether democracy is inevitable - are played out in the background, between the chapters, and between the lines.

It's like a massive game of Civilisation - except that Silverberg sketches in those little lives with loving attention, dwelling on detail and choosing a different voice and style for each protagonist so that these voices from an imaginary past ring true.

The final chapter of the novel, 'To The Promised Land' (AUC 2723) brings the novel firmly into the category of science fiction. I wondered, when I read it, how long ago it was written: was it a response to actual events in the real world, or did it spring entirely from Silverberg's fertile imagination? In either case, I found it a moving finale to this understated and thoughtful alternate history.