(US: HarperCollins/Eos, $25.95, 396 pages, hardcover; published in
May 2003. UK: Gollancz, £10.99, 385 pages, trade paperback, also available
in hardback priced £16.99, published August 2003. Gollancz, £6.99, 385
pages, paperback, first published 2003, this edition published 22 July
One thing I love about science fiction is that, every time I think
I have it pegged down, it'll spin around and kick me in the gut. Now,
for review, I had the passing thought, "Oh, no, another alternate history."
What I got far surpassed my expectations and gave me a new appreciation
for a well established author (as well as that sharp kick in the gut).
while this may not be an agreeable sensation in other aspects of life,
in reading it is a pleasure unto itself. When I picked up
I suppose some type of explanation is in order as to what I don't like
about alternate histories and why this novel stands out as different,
but first the basics: Roma Eterna follows a tradition set forth
by Asimov's Foundation and other novels whereby a series of short
stories is strung together to comprise a long history (in this case,
a speculation based on the question: What if Rome never fell?). As in
all story collections, there are shining moments, dark stories, and
subtler pieces that fill in the gaps, and as in all quality story
there are no stories that fall apart here. In this book, Silverberg
journeys us through thousands of years under Roman rule, through plots
against the Emperor, through civil unrest and civil war, through madness
and perversity, through love and lust, through outsiders and insiders,
and thus paints a broad picture of an enormous empire struggling under
its own weight.
And does it work? You betcha.
See, while I certainly recognize the impact which authors such as Harry
Turtledove and S.M. Stirling have had upon this subgenre, I also recognize
their novels' shortcomings. (Check out my earlier infinity
plus reviews of their work in the reviews
archive.) The general reaction I have is positive at points yet
always is disenchanted with the way they break from the story to recite
a faux-history lecture. Now I realize that the faux-history lecture
portion of an alternate-history novel may be the very thing some fans
enjoy most, but I object to its blatant placing within the context of
a story. It is a clear and present use of infodump, arguably one of
the major no-nos in science fiction today.
Silverberg handles all of the change in history the way it should be
handled -- as part of the story. Anything unrelated to what the story
is about is tossed aside. Now, I'm sure some picky reader could point
out specific instances where this is not true. There is most likely
even a moment or two of infodump. However, Silverberg writes us through
those instances so that we never notice them. It is the conflicts and
the characters that I remember, not the nifty changes in our history.
An alternate history is meant to be a backdrop for a unique story, not
the story itself, and that is exactly what Silverberg delivers.
Roma Eterna has a smooth flow, a logical progression, and a
satisfying conclusion. Each story is ripe with engaging characters,
intriguing plots, and entertaining ideas. All this, and it's an alternate
history! So much to enjoy for one book, and, for those who have yet
to read Silverberg's plethora of works, a charming way to be introduced
to a legendary author.
Elsewhere in infinity plus: