Tales of the Venia Woods by Robert Silverberg

This story is part of a series that might be worth checking out.

This story is part of a series that might be worth checking out.

Robert Silverberg is the first writer in this volume we’ve come across whose name would be recognised from the golden age. Silverberg started publishing stories as a teenager in the 50s and won his first Hugo award in 1956 as best new writer. He’s had a garlanded career ever since, and don’t think there’s a decade where he hasn’t picked up a major award. A clever writer could use his career as the basis for a literary character like Kilgore Trout or Jeff Lint – maybe Michael Chabon could do the job.

You can sense Silverberg’s experience and control throughout this story. The narrator is an old man looking back on the events of his life one summer when he was a child. It’s set in the equivalent of our late nineteenth century in a northern Europen town in the province of Upper Pannonia, so it’s roughly equivalent to Hungary in the Hapsburg era. But in this world, Rome never fell. The Empire endured until the Second Republic was established after a civil war near the end of the eighteenth century, and now rules the entire world.

At first glance, it’s not obvious how a story like this fits within science fiction. It’s been considered as part of the standard science fiction armoury at least since the publication of He Walked Around the Horses, but there are enough alternate histories written by non-SF writers to make the genre’s rights claim dubious. In addition it’s not fiction of the futurist type we typically associate with science fiction, and there are (usually) no outwardly fantastical elements. That might well be grounds to exclude alternative world fiction from the genre on the strictest of definitions, but even so alternative worlds share two important characteristics with science fiction.

The first is our old friend ‘the clomping foot of nerdism’ known the the rest of the world as world building. Silverberg brings the deft hand of an old pro to quickly sketch in the new shape of the world:

It was a quiet life. The automobile hadn’t yet been invented then – all this was around the year 2650, and we still used horse-drawn carriages or wagons – and we hardly ever left the village. Once a year, on Augustus Day – back then we still celebrated Augustus Day – we would all dress in our finest clothes and my father would get our big iron-bound carriage out of the shed, the one he had built with his own hands, and we’d drive to the municipium of Venia, a two-hour journey away, to heat the Imperial band playing waltzes in the Plaza Vespasianus. Afterwards there’d be cakes and whipped cream at the big hotel nearby, and tankards of cherry beer for the grown ups.

Silverberg mashes up the Hapsburg era Central European culture of cream cakes and waltzes mixed with name drops from the Roman empire to give us a quick idea of the world we’re dealing with. Then throughout he builds his world out as required by the story. We learn about the development of Roman culture through the eyes of the narrator, allowing the older man to fill in details that eluded his younger protagonist self.

A lot of stories of this type can be exercises in name dropping: which famous name ended up in obscurity, which historical role was filled by an unlikely or obscure individual rather than the great person our own history put in the role. That’s pretty much the whole point of He Walked Around the Horses, and it’s just one of the many pleasures of Sterling and Gibson’s The Difference Engine.

Here, though, Silverberg seems to be interested in the political world that grows out of the surviving Empire. Our Western democracies see themselves as descendants of the Roman republic, sharing their descent from the Greek city states. It’s a particularly acute comparison with America which uses the language of senators as in Rome, and has a President that’s roughly equivalent to the First Consul that leads the Second Roman Republic in this story. However, it’s a more oppressive system, where supporters of the old Imperial regime are persecuted in a way that’s reminiscent of the Soviet Union, and the story turns on the Romanov-like mass murder of the royal line during the rebellion.

It’s done with a great deal of panache, but it leads us to the other great assumption that alternate histories share with science fiction – the immutability of the rate of scientific progress. This story assumes a nineteenth century (or twenty-seventh century by the stories own reckoning) that’s technologically analogous to ours. The cultural milieu of the Roman Empire doesn’t appear to have made a big difference to the march of science or society. Technological and social advances occur more or less as in our time line as if they are set points in a logical process. But even calling technological and social developments ‘advances’ betrays a certain Whiggish view of history that science fiction can’t help but share.

This is the second thing that the alternative history genre shares with science fiction – it’s a thought experiment based around a certain variety of philosophical thinking. I described this cultural influence in my entry on why science fiction is dominated by white people: it’s because science fiction is based on a very white-people way of seeing the world. This kind of alternative historical narrative is as resolutely logical and materialist as any story about space ships and robots, it’s just that the ‘what if?’ happens in past rather than the future.

The reason the story really works, of course, is Silverberg’s fine writing. It’s a coming of age story told with tenderness and good eye for bucolic idyll. The ruined house in the woods, filled with ancient and forbidden treasure, is a potent symbol of adulthood and the distant elder voice lends everything an elegiac and insightful air. I read this at the same time as I watched the film The White Ribbon, which has a similar mood and structure of an older man looking back on events from his past, and I could imagine a fine film adaptation of this pleasing story.

Hm, that’s two in a row I’ve quite liked. I must be losing my edge.

Themes: politics, alternate history, coming of age, Romans

Posted in reading log, science fiction is dead, SF, short stories, The Best of the Best

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