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by Robert Silverberg
Published by EOS, 2003
Amazon.com: hardcover, paperback
Amazon.ca: hardcover, paperback
Amazon.co.uk: hardcover, paperback
Suggested by: Greg Slade
I had a couple of reasons for picking up this book. For one thing, I've always been fascinated by alternate history stories, so the image of a figure wearing a toga in the foreground watching a spaceship launch in the background (combined with the title and cover blurbs) made my curiosity bump itch. Then, too, Robert SIlverberg was the writer Guest of Honour at VCON 30 this year, so I figured I should get through some of his stuff before the con so I could give the illusion of being a knowledgeable fan.
The setting is fairly simple: the Roman Empire was never defeated by the barbarian invasions of the fifth and sixth centuries, but instead continues as the dominant global power right up to modern times. The way Silverberg achieves this shift in history is instructive: he simply removes God from the equation. In this universe, the Exodus under Moses was a failure: the Red Sea never parted, half of the Israelites were drowned and the rest were dragged back to captivity in Egypt, so there never was a kingdom of Israel, and Jesus was never born. In case you're having problems following the logic here, people have made the accusation that it was Christianity which destroyed the Roman Empire right back to the time of Augustine of Hippo (whose book The City of God was written in refutation of that very argument), and the view was made popular again by Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire at the end of the nineteenth century. Therefore, the argument seems to be that, without Christianity in the picture, the Roman Empire would have been able to endure indefinitely. (Although, to be fair, a good proportion of the current work revolves around various crises through which the Empire manages to survive, sometimes by merest chance.)
Oddly enough, even though you would think that the failure of the Exodus would have discredited Moses and his teachings, Silverberg chooses to have the Hebrews survive as an ethnic and religious minority in Egypt, right up to the end of the book. (Although here he adopts a different tack from Gibbon, who estimated that Jews formed 15% of the population of the Roman Empire by the beginning of the Jewish Wars in 66 AD. Instead, Silverberg asserts that the Hebrews would never have grown past 10,000 people, even over the course of over 3,000 years of history.)
In another interesting twist, Silverberg has the technological development of the Roman Empire lag somewhat behind that of our world, even though his Rome never had to deal with the barbarian invasions and the long slow recovery of literacy. Where you might expect his Rome to be advanced far beyond our world due to its head start, it isn't. Perhaps Silverberg is writing in accordance with those theorists who argue that the scientific method, and all of the technical advances which it has made possible, is an outgrowth of the Judaeo-Christian worldview, which never took hold in his universe.
For the most part, Silverberg writes well, and his characters are, if not exactly compelling, at least interesting. However, his plots get a bit repetitive by the end of the book, as most of them seem to revolve around saving the Empire from external enemies or internal corruption (or both at once), and he never really develops the potential of an enduring Roman Empire, choosing instead to parallel our history far more closely than his premise requires. (Simply calculating the dates in our calendar is enough to tell you which event in our history his assorted stories parallel.) In fact, that is my greatest disappointment in this work: having gone to all the trouble of working out different ways of having the Roman Empire survive, Silverberg takes the story that far, and no farther: the Roman Empire survives, but that seems to be all there is to the story. (November, 2005)
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