Roma Eterna - Robert Silverberg

Reviewed for Usenet (or see Google archive).

Roma Eterna
Robert Silverberg
Gollancz SF
ISBN: 0575073543 (Amazon link)

Robert Silverberg is a curious author. He's very prolific but has excellent quality control. He's what I think of as a very professional writer, someone who makes his living writing fiction, and who knows his trade and how to crank out good product. I think he's a terrific storyteller but while he always writes good books, he writes few great books. I been waiting a long time for him to produce something extraordinary, to write his masterpiece, something that has a real impact on the field.

I don't want to knock him unfairly though, as he is one of my favourite authors - I think his best book is the early Dying Inside, but I know many people regard his Majipoor chronicles highly. However, neither seems to get much attention, and rarely feature in anyone's Top 10 [1]. I was hoping, as I always do with his new books, that perhaps Roma Eterna would be the one I was waiting for (particularly as he's playing my favourite historical period). Well, it's not the novel I was waiting for, but it's a decent enough read despite its flaws.

Roma Eterna is a fix-up novel of eleven short stories providing an episodic history of an alternate world where the Roman Empire never fell, taking inspiration from Virgil's: "To Romans I set no boundary in space or time. I have granted them dominion, and it has no end." As this is an episodic novel where the over-arching history is often just the back-story to the immediate stories, the exact point of departure isn't discussed in great detail, but the key theme seems to be lack of disruption from the three major desert religions.

The first story, which is the most unsuccessful in my opinion, concerns two scholars discussing the Hebrews. Over lunch, one of them posits an alternate world where perhaps their exodus under Moses succeeded, where they cross the Red Sea and escaped. He wonders what disruptive effects such a strong belief system might have had in other regions, perhaps leading to tension in the Empire itself! This story is a bit too obvious in its attempts to excuse Christianity from discussion, and anyway, I really dislike having alt-hist characters discuss alt-hist scenarios obviously modelled on our history, to me this is clumsy and isn't as interesting as having their speculations lead us elsewhere again. Later tales come back to the Exodus, notably the last one, which I also felt was weak which is least symmetrical with the opening, and Hebrews feature in several stories as secondary characters.

The tale concerning Mohammed and the stillbirth of Islam is much more interesting. This takes place entirely within a correspondence between an exiled court official and a good friend back in Rome - the exile is living in Mecca, and is very much concerned with the growing influence of the Greeks in the commercial sphere, fearing that their annexation of trade routes might shift the balance of power between Rome and Byzantium. I thought this one was great; the world-building was smooth, the tension apparent in a discussion of commercial concerns surprisingly acute, the characterisation very rounded and the pay-off underplayed.

Having gone to so much bother to knock out what Silverberg obviously regards as important disruptive elements, it's curious then that he decides to structure many of his other tales around real history. His history of the middle Empire is interesting; the shifting trade relations weaken the balance between East and West and a disastrous expedition of conquest to the New World weakens Rome, leading to a civil war in which the East wins. Later stories develop the theme of the Romans as destined rulers, whether they like it or not!, with control reverting back to the West again. The problem is that many of the stories then drift into straight analogues of historic events - we get a French Revolution (with a hint of Spanish Inquisition), and later we have a Russian Revolution (Roman-ovs, geddit?), complete with an vanishing Anastasia character, treated more fully in a later story as an old man in the Soviet-analogue Second Republic. I didn't find this flow of history very believable, and would have enjoyed a more daring 'What if?', or at least subtler, more complex analogues. In fact, I think that overall, the short story format works against him when these stories are collected, as they reveal the lack of imagination in the background. Perhaps a novel length treatment from the start would have given him more room for manoeuvre?

In each of these stories the foreground tale is much better than the back-story - Silverberg can write great narrative as I said and I always enjoy how effortlessly he can sketch out a sense of place, and populate it with believable characters. What I disliked was that each tale doesn't take us anywhere new, and each little vignette is too short to really develop the characters fully, although some have nice twists and good short story endings to compensate. Some editing of the fix-up would have been nice to remove repetition, for example, we get the history of the East-West war in several tales, along with a reprise of, say, the conquest of the New World several times. There are some nice touches though, I rather liked the tale of the Venetian courtesan being, er, courted by a Roman Proconsul who presents her with one of the first printed books - the plays of Aeschylus rather than the Bible.

My main problem is that ultimately we end in a world which isn't very strange - one in which people drive cars, smoke cigarettes and wear trousers. There is no sense of this being a very different future. Indeed, the march of progress is hardly visible, there is no identifiable industrial revolution, and oddly Silverberg chooses to have the Roman empire - famed for engineering, with access to Greek science, Arab mathematics and international communication in a common language - develop slower than Western Europe actually did. (Naturally, without the Fall we don't really get the Renaissance either.) Even quite late in the history, characters seem unfamiliar with the wider world in a way that their real historical analogues would not have been, particularly somewhere like Venice, even without the advantage of Roman controlled global trade [2]. Worse, Silverberg doesn't paint a very convincing picture of Roman life - simple things like names are handled badly, the social and political structure isn't explored much, slavery is rarely brought up, the handling of religion seems wrong, attitudes are all just a bit too modern and familiar.

Would I recommend Roma Eterna then? Well, yes, I would. It's disappointing overall, but Silverberg delivers his usual competent performance so it's quite readable as a short story collection and has some great moments. Worth a look in paperback, but ultimately less interesting than the real history of the Roman Empire, East or West.

[1] Just to be clear, I hate Top 10 lists. I just don't see the point. They're a great way to compare apples and oranges, and marginalise all those works which have rough edges and real problems, but also moments of genius.

[2] The parallels to the Age of Exploration could have taken more work too - one of the odd things about Roman history is that they were very poor at making use of naval power for a peninsular nation.

Posted: Mon - November 3, 2003 at 11:59 PM