“For the Empire was defunct and didn’t know it. Like some immense dead beast it lay on the soul of humanity, smothering it beneath itself: a beast so huge that its limbs hadn’t yet heard the news of its own death.”
“Roma Eterna” by Robert Silverberg
Having a Bachelors of Arts in both History and Creative Writing, I’m always a little surprised by the fact that I never seem to enjoy speculative fiction very much. Granted, I have not read much of it, but, of the alternate history type of things I have read, nothing has impressed me too much. Roma Eterna has done little to change my mind, either. With a series of vignettes taking place in different eras, Roma Eterna presents its reader with the question of what history might look like should the Roman Empire never have fallen, and basically presents a picture filled with turmoil, some repetition, and a feeling of Roman supremacy that made me feel a little bit awkward.
In this book, we are presented with eleven different tales of the Rome That Could Have Been, a great deal of them dealing with one certain emperor coming into power or another one. They are all connected, and names from other characters are brought up as historical notes in later chapters to tie the history together, but I found that a great deal of them blurred, especially since nearly every chapter involves someone doubting the longevity of the Roman Empire, that that doubt being proven incorrect in one way or another. It’s very repetitive, and some of what seemed interesting at first gets very dry and predictable after about the third or fourth chapter.
One thing that I noticed is that, unless I’m mistaken, all the chapters written from a Roman’s point of view are done in the third person, while chapters from an outsider’s point of view are first person. I find this technique particularly interesting because I felt the whole book contained a voice that seemed to be saying that, despite whatever corruption was in evidence in the government for that era, being Roman was Right and being an outsider was being inferior. It gave the whole book an incredibly off-putting tone, right from the early chapter in which a Roman puts a swift end to Islam by meeting the Prophet and ensuring his death after seeing him as a threat. Christianity also doesn’t have a chance to develop, and Judaism exists, but the Hebrew nation remains on the outskirts. The beginning of the book gives us a prologue that leads to the end chapter, where the Hebrews take their leave of the Roman authority, but even that does not end in the way one expects. The treatment of anyone outside of Roman upbringing, be they Greek, Celt, Brit, native to the New World or native to the Orient, as inferior was deeply unsettling for me. I don’t know if I’m reading too much into it…I might be able to understand the use of derogatory descriptions of foreigners in dialogue if it’s fitting for the character, especially in the earlier eras, but they never leave, even as Rome supposedly modernizes itself. I am not a particularly strong advocate for Political Correctness, and even I found some of the language and the treatment of the Other surprisingly offensive.
It just gave the whole book a bad taste in my brain. There were some good moments, though. I was particularly interested in one chapter that seemed to blend a little bit of late Victorian with the Russian Revolution and The Great Gatsby, all really seamlessly. I’d easily say that this chapter was my favorite, closely followed by a tale in the frontier of the Germanic woods where an old emperor from the days before the Revolution is hiding out in an old cabin. These two chapters (“Via Roma” and “Tales from the Venia Woods”) are very close to what I would like to see more of in speculative fiction, and are worth a look even if the rest of the collection is a little lackluster.
Books read: 18/100.
On an unrelated note, I have the next two (that’s right, two!) days off from work, all my betas are in, and so I’m doing one last edit on Bowlful of Bunnies before I get to formatting. Does anyone have any websites or guides for formatting an ebook that they like to use in particular? Please share if you do, although I’m pretty sure it’s nothing a little Google can’t solve, either.