Roma Eterna, The Worthing Saga

After I got it home, I was looking at the title of Roma Eterna by Robert Silverberg, trying to figure out what was wrong. Eventually, it hit me. The word is aeterna, from aeternus. I could understand if the publisher was scared off by the ligature (æ), but ae without the ligature is perfectly correct. For a title that was supposed to be in Latin, this was a bad sign.

Matters did not improve from there. Roma Eterna is a collection of short stories set in an alternate history in which Rome never fell. Harry Turtledove could have done wonders with such a premise (and for all I know, already has), but Silverberg never seems to take full advantage of his world.

Nor does he do well with the genre. Alternate history is difficult to read when you don’t know the real history - it’s like reading a fanfic AU without being sufficiently familiar with the universe of the show. If you have the background, alternate history is rewarding. You don’t need the background to read Roma Eterna however, and even a slight knowledge of history may prove to be an obstacle when reading this otherwise entertaining collection.

Rather than take advantage of the possibilities before him, the author tends to repeat himself. Two stories deal with dissolute younger Imperial brothers who make something of themselves. One of these, “With Caesar in the Underworld,” isn’t bad. In two or three stories, good men slaughter hundreds of nobles in order to reform the Empire - part of a focus on the nobility, and in fact the relatives of the Emperors, that makes the novel more soap opera than alternate history. “An Outpost of the Realm” is part and parcel of the soap opera, though it’s a good story and the only one with a complex female character.

Two stories deal with speculation on “what would have happened” if circumstances hadn’t allowed the Christian or Islamic religions to arise. Said speculation is, of course, impossibly accurate, so that it comes out sounding like a silly trick on the part of the author. Two other stories handle ventures to the West. In one, the Magellan-analogues act more or less like Magellan’s men did - what ever happened to this being alternate history? On the other hand, seven Roman legions sail for Nova Roma (America) and are slaughtered by the natives of the Yucatan. The excuse for this turn of events is unconvincing; most notably, the Romans bring no noticable diseases to the new world. The author doesn’t explain this huge historical lacuna either.

The novel ends with a story about the Jews planning an Exodus to space. (Yes, that’s a spoiler but I read it on the flyleaf and the rocket is front and center of the cover art.) From the blurbs, you’d think this plot accounted for more than 20 pages of the book - no such luck. I found the outcome surprising, but disappointing.

Back in the “what would have happened if Christianity had never arisen” story, we found out that the Jews never made it out of Egypt - Pharaoh cut them off at the Red Sea and brought them all back. However, later in the book Jews are spread around the world, following their own peculiar laws which don’t differ in any notable respect from non-alternate history. Where did they get that law? If Pharaoh recaptured them, then there was no trip to Sinai and therefore no Law. Yes, it’s a minor point, but the world is full of Christians and Jews who know what order the Red Sea and Sinai go in. If you’re writing alternate history, you can’t be that careless. I was hoping for an interesting treatment of religion - something you almost never find in sci-fi - and instead I got some crazy people in a desert with no feeling of history behind them and an uncertain future in front.

So, to be briefer, The Worthing Saga by Orson Scott Card is also a collection of stories set in a single universe. Some of them he wrote quite far apart, having forgotten (and lost, to boot) the earlier stories. His internal inconsistencies manage to give the book a real sense of the passage of time that Roma Eterna lacks. This being science fiction, OSC can get in much grander moral themes, but then that may just be OSC. He’s a great writer all around.

The book isn’t perfect - some of the stories in the middle were too medieval and mystical (which is to say, obscure) for me - but it started out strong and ended strong as well, and that’s more than enough. Besides, I’m a sucker for a moral theme. If you’re interested in the danger of helping people too much by making life too easy, pick up The Worthing Saga.

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