Roma Eterna (2003) Robert Silverberg, Gollancz, £10.99, pbk, 385pp, ISBN 0-575-07354-3
Though touted as a novel, this is in fact a collection of short stories from 1989-2003 set in the same alternate history, one in which the Roman Empire never fell. Most such tales concentrate on one period, but this ambitious collection tries to cover some two and a half thousand years, and herein lies some of its (many) weaknesses. Almost from the first it becomes apparent that this could, in fact, be set in almost any fantasy universe, and by mid-way through the book the divergence from 'reality' is arbitrary and irrelevant. By concentrating on the all too human stories these tales tell, the creation of the 'world' ceases to have any impact whatsoever. Which is not to say that the stories aren't engaging in their own right - some are, some aren't - just that the whole idea of it being an alternate history is lost along the way. There are some fairly obvious historical changes in the first part of the book - Christianity never gets going and Islam is nipped in the bud - but the landscape of the book, both geographical and technological, remains largely unexplored in any coherent way. Silverberg tries to maintain some parallels - the discovery of the New World, the circumnavigation of the Globe and the Renaissance to name but a few - but there's no real attempt to follow our own timeline's development. I appreciate the argument that says, "Well why should there be?", especially given that, as I've stated, the continuing divergence over two thousand years would make that problematic to say the least. But, as also stated, then why bother at all? Why maintain some parallels and not others if it's an arbitrary choice? Indeed, why not just make the whole thing a straight fantasy and not bother with the alternate history motif at all. It seems to me there's no point in doing an alternate history if it's so 'alternate' that the 'history' ceases to matter. Perhaps it's just me, but I can see the point in something like Philip K Dick's The Man in the High Castle, whereas here I can see no point at all, unless Silverberg so wanted to concentrate on the human stories (no reason why he shouldn't) that he just couldn't be bothered to create a fantasy world for them. Certainly the material herein seems to support that view, but I can't help but feel disappointed.
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