Visions of Paradise

Sunday, July 29, 2007

Roma Eterna

If Robert Silverberg has truly retired from writing novels, intending only to write occasional short fiction in the future, then Roma Eterna will in some ways stand as the capstone of his career, being the last volume of new fiction he published. In that case, Silverberg has definitely ended on a high note since Roma Eterna is vintage third-career Silverberg (his first career being his "learning years" from 1956 through 1965; his second career from 1966 through his "retirement" in 1976; his third career began in 1980 and continues today).

Roma Eterna is a classic "fix-up" or "mosaic" novel, which is a literary form well-suited to science fiction. It consists of ten independent stories, each set in a different era in Silverberg’s imagined history in which the western Roman Empire never fell, lasting into contemporary times. What is good about this format is that rather than being restricted to telling one story in one setting, the author is able to set stories throughout the entire created world, thus broaden the world-building without sacrificing plotting. Silverberg used that approach successfully in Majipoor Chronicles and employs it again here.

A "mosaic" novel is also an ideal format for alternate history, since it allows Silverberg to zoom in on a variety of key points where his history veers from the "real" history. Too many attempts at alternate history take some minor point of divergence and then tell a routine adventure or human interest story which has little to do with the historical divergence. That is not true in Roma Eterna where Silverberg’s main concern is examining his version of the Roman Empire, how it diverged from the real one, why it diverged, and what changes that engendered in historical events further down the line. Like most vintage Silverberg, Roma Eterna is not routine storytelling–although Silverberg is certainly one of science fiction’s best storytellers ever–but also speculations on how people adapt to specific historical development.

The first story "With Caesar in the Underworld" shows one of the crucial points of divergence in the year 1282 ab urba conditia–"from the founding of the city"–which corresponds with the mid-6th century A.D. The barbarians are threatening on the northern borders of the western empire, but Emperor Maximilianus is old and dying, and neither of his two sons seems qualified to assume the throne and fight back the expected barbarians incursion. An emissary of Justinianus, the Eastern Emperor, has recently arrived in Rome to negotiate the marriage of Maximilianus’ older son with Justinianus’ younger sister, in return for which the Eastern Emperor is expected to send troops to aid in the defeat of the barbarians.

Much of the story centers around Faustus, a mid-level Roman official, who has been given the task of escorting the emissary while the older son has fled to his northern estate for hunting in lieu of his responsibility negotiating. In his place, the younger son, also named Maximilianus, a noted wastrel and party-goer, escorts Faustus and the emissary into Rome’s notorious underworld.

"With Caesar in the Underworld" on its surface seems like a travelogue into the seediest parts of early-medieval Rome, but beneath that it examines the transfer of power and how important a role the quirks of chance played in the survival of the Roman Empire.

Religion was a major factor in the decline and fall of the Roman Empire, both Christianity in the Western Empire and Islam in the Eastern Empire. While Silverberg eliminated Christianity quickly in the Prologue, "A Hero of the Empire" is the story of Mohammed and why he does not become a factor in Silverberg’s alternate Roman Empire.

"The Second Wave" moves to the early 12th century A.D. (A.U.C. 1861) when his Roman Empire enters the Age of Exploration. This is somewhat earlier than in our history, but since the Dark Ages did not occur in Roma Eterna, it is a logical assumption that much of post-medieval history would have moved up. This is the story of the first meeting between European conquistadors and the empires of Peru and Mexico. Since Silverberg’s Roman forces encountered the New World armies much earlier, when their empires were still strong, his results are considerably different than happened in our world. This story is a perfect example of how using the "mosaic" format deepens the alternate history considerably.

"Getting To Know the Dragon" is the story of an 18th century historian (our dating) who is writing a history of one of the greatest Roman emperors whom he practically worships. When he is fortunate to discover the emperor’s personal journal, we see how difficult it is to admire somebody unconditionally who lived centuries earlier and whose philosophy and ethical beliefs so differ from our own. This story is recommended reading for people who blithely reject heroes from centuries ago because of their failure to have adopted 21st century values in their own lives.

"The Reign of Terror" takes place during a period when a series of incompetent and insane emperors created a situation very similar to France in the late 18th century (our dating), and a First Consul named Torquatus begins a series of moves similar to the French Reign of Terror destined to "save" Rome, but which actually drive the empire closer to dissolution. Silverberg is unable to tell a story without some thought-provoking premise, and here he shows two men driven by noble motives drift into evil without realizing what they are actually doing.

"Via Roma" moves into recent times, when Italy has developed its own identity independent of the Roman Empire and, in fact, all the component parts of the empire have done the same, including developing their own languages. Reading this story, I could definitely see modern Naples. This is the story of 19th century nation states, during which monarchies either fell or became mere figureheads. "Via Roma" also shows us the excesses caused by inherited wealth and the inevitable fate those excesses lead to.

"Tales from the Venia Woods" is the first Roma Eterna story I recall reading many years ago, and I wonder if it might have been the first story written, intended as a meditation on the fate of overthrown monarchies and those few relatives who somehow manage to survive the killing of all their relatives. It is a sad, contemplative story reminding us that what one man considers evil another man might consider necessity.

The book ends with "To the Promise Land," the story of the Jews whose exodus from Egypt was foiled three thousand years ago, and who have stewed under the Egyptians for centuries until a small group of radicals plan a new Exodus. The details of that exodus are concealed from the reader for much of the story, but I had glanced at the cover of the book before reading it, which is a spoiler to the secret of the last story. Still, it was a strong story about the need of people to determine their own fate.

Overall, Roma Eterna was vintage Silverberg, making me appreciate even more a man who after 50 years is still among the top writers in the field. Hopefully he will drift back to writing fiction as he has done the last two times he retired from it.

Saturday, July 21, 2007


I reviewed C.J. Cherryh's Foreigner on my blog on May 14, 2005, followed by a review of Invader on May 06, 2006 in which I said:

Anybody who likes carefully-developed alien races, well-thought-out cultures, and a slow-paced, thought-provoking look at human-alien relations should enjoy Invader, and its predecessor Foreigner, as much as I did. I await the third volume Inheritor eagerly, and hopefully will not wait an entire year to finish this wonderful trilogy.

Well, it has taken me fourteen months to read the third and concluding novel in C.J. Cherryh’s first Foreigner trilogy Inheritor. Of the six main characters in Invader, four of them play major roles in Inheritor as well:
  • Bren Cameron, the paidhi who serves as intermediary between the human_populated island Mosphiera and the nonhuman native atevi who, while humanoid in appearance, are totally nonhuman in philosophical outlook and emotional makeup;
  • Ilisidi, Tabini’s grandmother who was overlooked for aiji twice, the second time in favor of her grandson. She resents that double slight enough to be a wild card whose loyalties are uncertain to the other main characters as to whether she supports Tabini or to the rebels struggling to overthrow him;
  • Jago and Banici, Bren’s bodyguards who are totally loyal to Tabini and hence to Bren as well, since Tabini considers Bren’s position utterly important to his rule;

The original story was set forth in Foreigner:

A colonizing starship from Earth jumped into normal space and realized that it was totally lost and in dire trouble. Eventually most of the would_be colonists decided to emigrate to the nearest habitable world, which was already inhabited by a race called the atevi. The atevi did not welcome the humans, and the unexpected invasion eventually lead to war between the two races. The atevi won, but the humans had considerable negotiating chips in the form of advanced science which they agreed to dole out to the atevi slowly and carefully in exchange for the humans being allowed to live autonomously on a secluded island.

In Invader:

The original colonizing human spaceship returned after two hundred years and begin negotiating both with the humans and with the atevi through Bren. Much of Invader concerns plans for the ship to send two emissaries to the planet, one to negotiate on Mosphiera, and the other with Bren and the atevi.

This brings the fifth important character into Inheritor, Jason Graham, the emissary from the ship to the atevi who is having a very difficult time dealing with being away from his spaceship for the first time in his life with no way to return home. The ship had no space-to-surface capabilities, so the two emissaries parachuted to Earth and are now awaiting the atevi and humans to build their own spacecraft to enable the two emissaries to return to space.

As is typical of this series in particular, and a C.J. Cherryh novel in general, much of the novel consists of inner dialogue on the part of Bren Cameron. The reader learns from his thoughts the political and cultural situation on the planet, as well as both his and Jason’s personal growth and emotional crises. The politics is very complicated indeed, and has grown more complicated since the first book:

  • the atevi are always on the verge of civil war, with various lords forming alliances against others. Tabini is the most powerful lord, equivalent to the planetary ruler, but some lords are determined to overthrow him, while others, such as his grandmother, lie in the vast twilight zone where their loyalties are undetermined;
  • the human government has been take over by an arch-Conservative group which is determined to overthrow Tabini and install another atevi lord friendlier to their interests. One of their cronies is Deanna Hanks, who replaced Bren as paidhi briefly in Invader after he was shot. Eventually she was exiled back to the human island by Tabini, but human public opinion has so turned against the atevi that Bren’s family have been the targets of harassment. Bren does not dare return to the island fearing he will be arrested by the government [Inheritor was published in 1996, so this is in no way a statement about our current federal government];
  • none of the people on the planet, atevi or human, are secure about the motives of the spaceship and the dealings of the two emissaries to the planet.

The first half of Inheritor is a bit overwhelming: too much politics, too much inner dialogue, not much happens. But as in the first two books, as events begin happening, the characters develop into people and the tension grows steadily. By far, the finest character in the entire trilogy is Ilisidi, Tabini’s tough old grandmother who reminded me of Kate Hepburn when she was a senior citizen. Her loyalties play a very large factor in the political outcome of the book, perhaps the largest factor overall, but she was such a likeable old coot that I had no doubt where her loyalties would ultimately reside.

I realized that Cherryh had completely won me over when I got to Inheritor’s climactic scene. It was corny, somewhat deus ex machina, but I found myself so emotionally involved in what was happening that I went back and reread that scene twice, something I almost never do. Halfway through the book I had been questioning whether I was willing to follow up this trilogy with another long, slow Foreigner trilogy, but by its conclusion I was ready to jump into my car and drive to the book store (which I did not do, knowing it would take me another year to fit it into my reading schedule anyway!).

If you enjoy well-developed alien cultures with strong characters, I recommend the Foreigner trilogy highly.

Saturday, July 14, 2007


Olympos is the story of the war between the mortals and the gods. Normally such a war would be a one-sided, likely one-day affair except the Greeks had some serious help. First were the moravecs with their force shields and advanced weapons on the same level of technology as that of the gods; next were certain Greek heroes who were half-gods themselves, such as Ulysses who fought single combat with a different god each day, always winning because of his legendary invulnerability.

Just like Ilium, much of Olympos consists of two mysteries, the first being the root of the gods’ amazing powers (which is not difficult to figure out early in Ilium) and the second being what the heck is going on with all the overlapping threads? The moravec are equally-interested in solving both mysteries, and in effect the most important of the book’s several narrators is Mahnmut, a cute little moravec with a fascination with William Shakespeare. Of course politics are important too. Agamemnon was the Greek king until he was defeated by Ulysses who, upon taking power, formed a truce with Trojan leader Hektor to fight against the gods. Now Agamemnon wants to regain power and make peace with the gods, resuming the war against Troy. He finds surprising support from a group of Amazon women who arrive at the scene determined to kill Ulysses.

While all three portions–Greek heroes, struggling humans, moravecs–of Olympos are interesting, it is all a bit confusing at times. For much of the book I was never sure if the Greek gods lived on Olympos Mons on Mars or Mount Olympus on Earth, or how they were able to flit back and forth between planets. And were the ancient warriors futuristic recreations of the original Greek and Trojan heroes, or somehow transported from the past into the future, or was their battle actually taking place 3,000 years ago? It did not seem as if these were part of the mysteries waiting to be solved, but were supposedly explained during the progress of the book but, at least in my instance, not successfully.

Simmons also wallows in blood and gore during the war between the mortals and the gods, moreso than I really enjoyed. My eyes tended to glaze a bit during those scenes which neither added to nor held back from the rest of the story much.

The Earth portion of Olympos reads like a post-apocalyptic thriller, as it is primarily concerned with the struggle for survival of a group of humans (led by Ada and Daemon) against the apparently attempt of the world’s voynix to kill all humans. With the failure of the ancient and mysterious technology, life on Earth has become virtually neolithic as the pampered humans learn to survive on their own, a struggle which becomes considerably more difficult when the voynix, their former robotic-like servants, become predatory.

Meanwhile the moravecs are speeding to Earth on their mysterious mission to save the solar system while Daemon goes on another travelogue with mysterious supernatural-seeming entities who, like Savi, seem to know a lot more about what is really happening on Earth and Mars, but are unwilling to reveal much to him.

Olympos takes much of the myth out of the Trojan War as the true nature of the gods becomes apparent, but life and civilization on Earth has become so altered from our era that it takes on a mythological quality itself. Beings such as Ariel, Caliban, Prospero, and Sycorax are totally inhuman beings who are somehow pulling all the threads in the novel, as Daemon and the moravecs strive to learn why and, in the case of the evil ones, how to stop them. At times Simmons’ tendency to spring surprises on the reader overwhelms the story as if he has created them so much for their emotional effect that he has really not planned out any logical framework for the novel, but instead is making the story up as he goes along. This is not necessarily a bad thing, depending on whether he can actually pull all the threads together in the end. But there are so many threads interwoven by halfway through Olympos–such as what happened to Hockenberry who mysteriously disappeared a few hundred pages ago?–that it is easy to wonder if that is actually possible at this point.

The least satisfying part of Olympos is the second journey of Harman–Ada’s husband–whose activities are manipulated totally by the mythological group of beings–Prospero, Ariel, the mysterious Moira–for their own purposes in an almost senseless manner. Why does he need to walk all the way from the Mediterranean to North America through the “Atlantic Breach,” which is a parting of the ocean a la The Ten Commandments? And why for Christ sake does he spend time investigating a sunken nuclear sub, knowing it is radioactive and that spending too much time inside it will kill him, so that–sure enough!– he becomes radioactive and spends much of the book’s climax undergoing a painful, messy death?

As Olympos nears its climax, Simmons attempts to pull all of his dangling threads together in a scene in which one of the moravecs racing toward Earth suddenly realizes what everything means. And it does explain the overarching storyline somewhat, but too many of the little threads are still left hanging. We never really learn the motivation of Earth’s mythological beings, nor the reasons behind a lot of what happened previously. For example, why did the voynix go berserk abruptly? Simmons concocts something about all surviving humans having some Jewish blood, which they had for millennia without the voynix previously getting into a snit over it. And the manner in which both the Greek and Trojan warriors are rescued from the warring gods and titans (yes, the war shifted halfway through Olympos) and how the few surviving humans are rescued from the voynix, calibani, and evil Sycorax are all blatant examples of deus ex machina which might be fitting in a novel totally devoted to humans’ dealings with gods, but not necessarily satisfying.

And the last chapter, which shows the aftermath of all the numerous characters who crowded Ilium and Olympos is suddenly a bit too suburban normal to feel comfortable.

In spite of all these complaints, I enjoyed reading these two novels overall. They held a lot of surprises, a lot of wonder, and a lot of exotic characters, but they would have been ultimately more satisfying if Simmons had repressed the special effects a bit in favor of a more coherent storyline. On my rating scale, I give it a B-.

Saturday, July 07, 2007


When I first read that Dan Simmons was returning to far future science fiction--after concentrating on bestselling horror and mysteries for most of the past decade--with a pair of novels about the Trojan War, I immediately assumed it would be a novel based on the Trojan War. Imagine my surprise when I began reading Ilium and saw that it was about the historical Trojan War, complete with ancient heroes and Greek gods. Surely this must be a fantasy novel, no?

No, Ilium is pure science fiction, and fairly successful science fiction at that. The novel begins with three alternating storylines:

• The Trojan War itself, populated by characters from The Iliad; early in the novel the Greek gods are revealed to be superhumans enhanced by futuristic technology reminiscent of Lord of Light; this portion is narrated by Thomas Hockenberry, a “scholic” resurrected from the 21st century seemingly by the gods to observe the Trojan War and make sure it follows the “traditional” pattern as observed by Homer;

• a far-future Earth in which the inhabitants are bored humans reminiscent of Michael Moorcock’s An Alien Heat trilogy or Damon Knight’s “Dio”; the author’s concern is centered on four of these humans: Harmon who is 99 years old and thus has only 1 year to live until he reaches his “fifth Twenty,” after which he is spirited away to the afterlife, two younger women Hannah and Ada, and young cynic Daemon whose main concern in life is seducing as many women as possible, in this case, Ada; this portion is mainly concerned with a travelogue taken by the four innocents which seems illogical based on their shallow lifestyles, but serves the needs of the author; on their way they encounter Savi, the legendary “Wandering Jew,” and Odysseus, who was somehow transported from the historical Iliad to the far-future;

• a group of moravecs, cyborg-like beings traveling to Mars for some clandestine mission whose purpose they do not know, and which seems more thriller-like than sfnal.

The three storylines seem totally unrelated at first, being separated by both distance and time, but gradually they merge into a single story, aided by some stunningly unexpected scenes. The novel improves as the storylines weave together, since initially the far-future Earth travelogue seems little more than a recreation of such end-of-time stories without much purpose, while the Trojan War scenes are mostly violent recreations of The Iliad with seemingly nowhere to go but the pre-ordained climax of the epic. The novel’s pivotal scene is when Hockenberry seduces Helen of Troy, changing from a mere observer of the Trojan War to an active participant in its progress.

As he tends to do, Simmons gradually morphs the novel from a wide-ranging examination of literary history to a fast-paced thriller. At times he succumbs to the weaknesses of thrillers, primarily during the far-future Earth sequence when the bored humans encounter deadly voynix and the evil Caliban (whose presence in the novel is one of many unexplained occurrences) and rise to the occasion by resisting them more rigorously than seemed possible earlier in the novel.

Simmons excels at springing surprises at the reader which keep the novel interesting and also serve to forward its plot while weaving the various threads together. The arrival of the historical Odysseus on the far-future Earth is an effective device. Even moreso is the sudden appearance of the Greek gods in the Martian portion of the novel. When these moments occur, the novel begins building steadily to two rousing climaxes which, while they stretch credibility, never go totally over-the-top and remain satisfying overall.

The novel does raise numerous questions which are never answered: why are the scholics observing the Trojan War, seemingly at the behest of the gods? Why does Hockenberry survive nine years observing the war while all the other scholics eventually annoy the gods enough to be killed? Why does Aphrodite choose him for a mission more suited to one of the gods? And Savi is a cheat, since she knows most of the history of the future Earth related to the novel’s events, but when asked, she keeps putting her questioners off, never providing any information which we, the readers, need to know. And how and why is the historic Odysseus–if indeed he is a real person and not just a literary creation–on the far-future Earth at all?

Knowing Ilium is the first novel of a pair, these unanswered questions require patience, although they remain a bit frustrating. Overall, Simmons is a strong storyteller able to combine wondrous ideas with futuristic color, and he writes a fast-paced novel which does not strain credibility beyond the point of believability. The main problem though is just when it seems as if the novel is nearing its ultimate conclusion, with all the strands about to be answered, it crashes to a halt, leaving 700+ pages remaining in its sequel Olympos. To be continued...