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Scott Mackay
Roc Books, 408 pages

Scott Mackay
Scott Mackay is the author of the science fiction novels The Meek and Outpost; a mystery novel, Cold Comfort; and a World Wr II thriller, A Friend in Barcelona, in addition to numerous short stories. He is the winner of the Okanagan Award for literary short fiction. He lives in Toronto, Canada.

ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: Outpost

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Victoria Strauss

In Scott Mackay's Orbis, real-world history veers off-track just after the death of Christ, with an invasion by technologically-advanced alien beings calling themselves Benefactors, looking for a way to preserve their dying race. Of all peoples on Earth, only the Romans refuse to accept the Benefactors' domination; when the Romans realize they can't prevail, they steal Benefactor technology and escape to the stars, where they continue their own tradition of cultural subjugation, conquering planets instead of nations. In the escape, though, the location of Earth (Orbis) is lost. Ever since, the Romans have searched in vain for their home.

Meanwhile, on Earth, the Benefactors seize on the emerging Christian religion as a handy method of social control, presenting themselves as angels of God's Heavenly Host and creating a world-wide theocratic government. The result is a present-day world very differently structured from our own (North America, for instance, was settled mostly by Scandinavians, the Benefactors having taken various steps to limit Spanish, Portuguese, and British exploration) but in which events follow an oddly similar pattern: in Europe, for instance, the Prussian Empire is fighting a war against the Benefactors that seems to be progressing a lot like World War II.

But things are about to change. The underground resistance to Benefactor domination has begun to suspect that the Benefactors aren't what they say they are -- and that, far from realizing God's holy plan on earth, they've actually hijacked human history. But even weakened by their centuries of earthly occupation, the Benefactors are too powerful for human beings to overthrow alone. There's only one hope: somehow, the mighty Romans must be contacted, and shown the way back to Earth.

Opinionated person that I am, it's not often that I'm not sure what to say about a book. But on this one I'm really kind of stumped. It's not that it isn't well-written and entertaining: it is. It's not that the characters aren't engaging: they are, especially Ecclesiarch Eric Nordstrum, who becomes the prime mover in the attempt to bring back the Romans and suffers greatly as a result. It's not that I didn't enjoy it: I did, very much.

But what sort of a book is it? There are so many clashing elements that it's hard to tell. On the one hand, there are things that suggest either pulp or parody -- little blue aliens who live in giant vegetables, religion as not just the opiate of the masses but a nefarious alien scheme of mind control, and of course, the spacefaring Romans, led by a two-thousand-year-old Julius Caesar who has decreed that his planet-trotting legions maintain their way of life unchanged, right down to tunics and marble columns. But the book isn't consistent enough in its lampooning to work as satire, and it takes itself far too seriously on a number of levels to be merely pulp. On the other hand, the serious themes -- which include the liberation of one man's true religious spirit from the artificial paraphenalia of organized religion, an interesting treatment of the psychological costs of oppression, and a stirring portrayal of the unconquerable human thirst for liberty -- are undercut by the off-the-wall story concepts and the wild patchwork of plot elements.

Too, the alternate world Mackay has built, while sturdy enough to support his tale, doesn't bear close scrutiny. In a timestream so profoundly transformed by the Benefactors, how plausible is it that there would be Kodak cameras and Ford automobiles? Or that history was parallel enough to produce Guglielmo Marconi and Enrico Caruso, but not, apparently, Martin Luther? So Orbis doesn't really stand up as alternate history either.

Well. Maybe I'm thinking too hard. Maybe Orbis isn't trying for any of that high-flown stuff, and is exactly what it seems to be: an entertaining, slightly pulpy yarn, with some startling speculations and a scattering of serious themes. Maybe I should drop the reviewerly analysis stuff, and just say: read this book. You'll enjoy it.

Copyright © 2002 Victoria Strauss

Victoria Strauss is a novelist, and a lifelong reader of fantasy and science fiction. Her most recent fantasy novel The Garden of the Stone is currently available from HarperCollins EOS. For details, visit her website.

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