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Roma Eterna
Robert Silverberg
Gollancz, 385 pages

Roma Eterna
Robert Silverberg
Robert Silverberg was born in New York City in 1935. In 1949 he started a science fiction fanzine called Spaceship and made his first professional sale to Science Fiction Adventures, a non-fiction piece called "Fanmag," in the December 1953 issue. His first professional fiction publication was "Gorgon Planet," in the February 1954 issue of the British magazine Nebula Science Fiction. His first novel, Revolt on Alpha C, was published in 1955.

In 1956 he graduated from Columbia University, with a major in Comparative Literature, and married Barbara Brown. After many sales, he earned a Hugo Award for his promise (the youngest person ever to do so). In the summer of 1955, he had moved into an apartment in New York where Randall Garrett, an established science fiction writer, lived next door; Harlan Ellison, another promising young novice, also lived in the building. Garrett introduced Silverberg to many of the prominent editors of the day, and the two collaborated on many projects, often using the name Robert Randall. He divorced his first wife in 1986 and married writer Karen Haber the following year. He now lives in the San Francisco area.

ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: The Longest Way Home
SF Site Review: Nebula Awards Showcase 2001
SF Site Review: The Book Of Skulls
SF Site Review: Lord Prestimion
SF Site Review: Sorcerers of Majipoor
SF Site Review: The Fantasy Hall of Fame
SF Site Review: The Alien Years
SF Site Review: Legends: Stories by the Masters of Modern Fantasy
SF Site Review: The Avram Davidson Treasury
SF Site Review: Sorcerers of Majipoor
Robert Silverberg Tribute Site
Interview with Robert Silverberg

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Alma A. Hromic

The Roman Empire never fell.

That's the premise that binds together the stories in Roma Eterna, Robert Silverberg's collection of stories about a never-ending Roman Empire spanning not just centuries but pretty much millennia, world without end, forever and ever, amen.

Ancient Rome and its doings has always been a fertile field for fiction writers to harvest. Given the abundant historical reference material and all the fun you can have figuring out how many names ending in "ius" you can put in without confusing your reader into Byzantium, I can understand the siren call of the idea.

But here that just isn't enough, somehow. These are not Roman Empire stories, as such -- these are generic tales with people named Marius and Gaius running through them. When in Rome do as the Romans do -- that's an old axiom that is so apt that even Silverberg quotes it in the book -- but the problem with these stories is that they span hundreds of years and the reader gets no real sense of change. It's just the Roman Empire toga cast over something else. We have the Roman Empire equivalent of the French Revolution, and then we have the Roman Empire equivalent of the Russian Revolution, the one that swept away the Czars, right down to an Anastasia-like survivor of the annihilation of the Roman royalty (who goes on to star in his own story in an oddly Grimm-like fairy tale). It's almost gratifying, given this relentless "yes, it's all kind of other things, but it's still Rome, look at all the people named Marius in here" refrain, that at some point Silverberg mentions the Roman traffic in terms of "...there seemed to be no rules, each vehicle going exactly where it pleases..." and the reader realizes that even in this version of reality those wonderful Roman roads still managed to give rise to Italian drivers.

It's cute to date the stories according to a whole new calendar, but it's annoying, as well, especially given that the book contains a sort of foreword explaining the way the calendar works -- just subtract 754 years from every date as given. All that it would have taken is a slightly firmer editorial hand, and an actual timeline giving the new-fangled dates in context of "our" reality -- it would have taken perhaps one extra page in the book and would have had the felicitous effect of sparing the numerically-challenged the constant mental arithmetic to work out which time period we're supposed to be in (especially given the fact that nothing much seems to change from story to story except the names of the emperors). The editorial hand could also have been used within the stories -- to ensure that every mention of the distant lands of Khitai and Cipangu isn't followed by "where the yellow skinned people live". Perhaps, in stand-alone stories published separately, that was necessary -- but in a book form it merely engenders a reaction of, "Yeah, yeah, we know already…"

Quite aside from everything else, one matter of supreme importance just hasn't been adequately addressed for me. I get the distinct feeling that none of these characters are "real." They are there for the window dressing, because the Roman backdrop must have people moving in front of it for there to be a play -- but they have no real personality, no real life. The Princess Severina Floriana, for instance, seems to be present merely as an object of beauty (which is far from original -- princesses are SUPPOSED to be beautiful, that's the trope) and (unconsummated) sexual desire -- but she floats on stage, looks pretty for a moment, and then floats off and is killed offstage in the Purge. The protagonist of that particular story, a visiting Briton, seems to have had no real reason to be in Rome at that time except to serve as narrator for this horrifying episode in the history of Roma Eterna -- he, too, floats on stage, has an enjoyable fling with a pretty Roman patrician girl, and then suddenly develops a burning desire to go back into the maelstrom of the burning palaces to find out what happened to the pretty princess. The justification for this frantic need-to-know appears to be no more than that he never actually got further with her than a chaste peck, and he would very much have liked to have taken it further -- which gives the tragedy of that story a sort of farcical overlay of a sexual innuendo. We never get to know any of the doomed royals, not really -- the fact that they are all slain horrifically doesn't really come home to the reader at all. In what has become known as the Eight Fatal Words on an Internet forum I frequent, the reaction this whole bloody episode engenders is simply this: "I Don't Care What Happens To These People." Large-scale murder becomes a statistic. Talking about it from the point of view of a character who is a complete outsider and has not borne witness to any of it is remarkably uninvolving.

The only story in Roma Eterna which I felt was truly unique is the last one, "To the Promised Land." Paradoxically, although it takes place in the same world as the rest, the tale is NOT directly a story of Rome -- and perhaps this is what makes it different. This story has the people I craved in the rest of them. These people, somehow, I DO care about.

Perhaps the basic cavil I have is that I simply do not believe that a society would remain this static for this long. I can't believe that a society with trams would still have temples to Juno -- or remember, in the kind of detail that these people seem to, the names of Sulla, Nero, Caligula. To be sure, our own society does -- but only as figures of a distant past, not something that feels like yesterday, not something that today's society has been based on or built upon. An ocean of willing suspension of disbelief crashes in a sea of shattered foam on these rocks, and the end result is that I can't bring myself to either "live" in, or care deeply enough about, Silverberg's eternal Urbs Roma. He is a storytelling master and an elder in the field -- but somehow the overwhelming urge about this book is not to sit up all night to finish it with breathless anticipation, but more to put it down and pick it up later... sometime... maybe.

Copyright © 2003 Alma A. Hromic

Alma A. Hromic, addicted (in random order) to coffee, chocolate and books, has a constant and chronic problem of "too many books, not enough bookshelves". When not collecting more books and avidly reading them (with a cup of coffee at hand), she keeps busy writing her own. Following her successful two-volume fantasy series, Changer of Days, her latest novel, Jin-shei, is due out from Harper San Francisco in the spring of 2004.

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