19 August 2008

As the Romans Do

Recently, when I've not been scribbling frantically about vampires, suns or the interaction between the two, I've been reading either SF novels marketed as thrillers or books about ancient history. I'm currently on The Execution Channel by Ken MacLeod and The Great Transformation by Karen Armstrong, but it's Cowboy Angels by Paul McAuley and Rubicon by Tom Holland that I want to talk about.

Cowboy Angels has as its background a United States which, having gained access through the development of quantum computing in the 1960s to various alternative versions of its own history, proceeds to infiltrate, ally, fund and destabilise in time-honoured fashion until by the 1980s it has its own empire of client U.S.A.s, all dominating their respective globes but subservient to their political masters in "the Real".

This could be a fascinating story, but unfortunately we only get glimpses of it. Published by Gollancz S.F., is nonetheless packaged and marketed as a thriller, and written in the hardboiled, action-intense style of a Tom Clancy or a Dan Brown. This has been a recent trend in McAuley's fiction. His early space operas and quirkier S.F. high-concept stories (some of which are very good indeed -- I love Red Dust and Pasquale's Angel, as well as his Doctor Who novella The Eye of the Tyger) have given way recently to a string of would-be-bestsellers where an S.F. device in a near-contemporary setting is subservient to a war, espionage or crime plot. (It's a trend I'm pleased to see being reversed in his next novel, out later this year.)

To be honest, though, if you want to read an account of a global superpower extending its hegemony into multiple alternative realities as an allegory for contemporary US imperialism, I'd recommend (McAuley's fellow Doctor Who and Telos author) Lance Parkin's take on the same theme in his Faction Paradox novel Warlords of Utopia. Aside from the chutzpah of encoding a liberal message in a generally right-wing mass-media form, Cowboy Angels really doesn't accomplish anything that Parkin's book didn't do better.

In a direct comparison with Warlords, Angels comes off worse in several ways.

It's less subtle: where Warlords critiques the U.S. in terms of the Roman Empire (giving it a tranche of ascendant Nazi histories as its anti-democratic enemy), McAuley's evil empire is run by an alternative version of the 1980s CIA.

It's less imaginative: where Parkin has enormous fun with his variant Romes, McAuley deliberately confines his alternative histories (presumably on the basis of his target audience's imaginative limitations) to variants in 20th-century history (fascist and communist revolutions in the 1920s and '30s, nuclear war in the '60s) or unpopulated Americas where settlers can re-enact the frontier dream. A rival metauniversal superpower based around, say, a Confederate, Spanish or Aztec North America could have livened the whole thing up no end.

(The climax takes the mundanity even further, with a nuclear showdown taking place in our universe -- known here as "the Nixon sheaf", after the President at the time of first contact. Parkin's book credits the reader with understanding that danger is danger, and suffering suffering, no matter which history the characters are living in.)

Finally, it's far, far less interestingly written. In both books, the author encourages the questioning of neoconservative positions by using a viewpoint character who initially espouses them... but whereas Parkin's conceit of using as a Roman historian as his narrator allows him to write like Robert Graves, McAuley is obliged to write like, at best, Michael Crichton.

His change of direction may well be enabling McAuley to sell more books, but it's hampering him as a writer.

Tom Holland's, on the other hand, seems only to be benefiting him. I've not read any of his novels (I have both The Vampyre and The Bonehunter awaiting my attention), but his histories are getting him far more broadsheet attention than they ever seem to have.

The attention's deserved, too: Holland has a knack of retelling ancient history in a way which foregrounds individuals and their clashes of political, religious and philosophical ideas in a way I've rarely encountered outside historical fiction. Persian Fire brought an era about which I previously knew virtually nothing alive to me in unexpected and exciting ways, and Rubicon is similarly impressive.

The fact that so much Western culture has consisted of retellings of the various stages in the long, painful fall of the Roman Republic means that much of the story is inevitably familiar. I found myself constantly checking which other works the narrative had caught up with: "Ah, this is where Rome starts"; "So we're up to Carry on Cleo now"; "Ooh, the kid from Asterix and Son's just been born"; "This'll be the start of Julius Caesar, then". It ends pretty much as I, Claudius is starting.

Nonetheless, Rubicon reignited my long-standing interest in Roman history by showing me new perspectives and facets.

(I see that Holland's own forthcoming project is a history of Western Europe around the end of the first millennium, which is an interesting choice. I'd hoped he'd go for another period / setting in ancient history, possibly something Egyptian. I'd love to read his take on the Atenist Revolution, for instance. Still, this promises to be fascinating, if rather less for its evocation of an unfamiliar society and setting. They've even put the bloody Bayeux Tapestry on the cover...)

I also reminded myself -- while trying to remember how Coriolanus, of Shakespeare fame, fits into the late Republican history Holland’s describing (answer: he’s much earlier, from the time of the kings in fact, and probably fictional anyway) -- of the fantastic fact that Shakespeare refers to Coriolanus’s family, the gens Martia, as "Martians".

This makes me want to write a novel (or at least a short story) where the early expansion of the republican Roman Empire is disrupted by the earlier-than-scheduled arrival of H.G. Wells’s colonising aliens, and the legions slaughter the lot of them.

Romans are cool. Fact.

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