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Roma Eterna

by Robert Silverberg

(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 2004.)

Review by Stuart Jaffe

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, cover scan (US edition) 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 Roma Eterna 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).

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 cover scan (UK edition)collections 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.

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