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Roma Eterna
Robert Silverberg
Gollancz paperback £6.99

review by Duncan Lawie

Robert Silverberg has been writing stories within the alternate history of 'Roma Eterna' since the late 1980s. This book is a collection of these short stories. It is not a fix-up novel in the classic sense, as the works show no sign of having been retouched to fit together. This has quite an effect on the way the book reads. The stories are weakly linked whilst incidental detail and historical summary is needlessly repeated throughout the work.

The alternate world of the book's setting is simple - a Roman Empire which does not fail in the fifth Christian century. Silverberg's premise for this is quite clever; his prologue covers the failure of Moses to take the Hebrews out of captivity in Egypt. As a result, Christianity is never founded and monotheism does not threaten the Roman State. (Later in the book, the Prophet of Islam also threatens Rome's statist polytheism.) However Silverberg then goes on to fall into many of the traps of alternate history. He has characters that wonder aloud how different the world might have been - and the world they ponder is our own! Such explicit pointers ought to be unnecessary; most readers capable of appreciating the points of difference will not need them to be belaboured. And how different is this imaginary world? The Americas are discovered, though not by Columbus; the world is circumnavigated, though by Emperor Trajan VII; rifles, steamships and telephones all make their appearance. Perhaps, by implication, the lives of ordinary people may be more peaceful and ordered, but the book rarely focuses on them. Emperors and royalty are at centre stage through most of the book, though the Roman court seems little changed over the course of 1500 years. Perhaps there is a moral in this, but it seems more likely that Silverberg has become trapped by writing the later stories first.

The individual stories are generally well written, as one would expect of Silverberg, though those in the first person seem peculiarly distant. The tales that stand up best are those using their setting as background, not attempting to draw direct comparison with actual history. It is only in these that there seems to be room to build individuals. Elsewhere, the Game of History and the character of the Empire are at the forefront, the protagonists are wooden puppets. Is this Silverberg's thesis? That history is immutable; that, whether or not Rome lasts ten thousand years, there will still be humans building rocket ships; that God's chosen people may be delayed 4,000 years in their escape from Egypt, but still that day will come? If this is not his message, Roma Eterna is a wordy pastorale.
Roma Eterna

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