Feb. 4th, 2012

Stephen Baxter is renowned as a hard science fiction author, and Emperor, at least in one regard, demonstrates some of the skills of hard SF: meticulous and detailed research, portrayals of the technological and societal situation as well as character (the epilogue of the novel has a great skit on this, about Lucian), and use of characters to explore the changing world.  Emperor, however, is essentially historical fiction, with a tiny tinge of fantasy; the fantasy is an excuse for continuity across nearly 400 years of Romano-British history, more than anything else...

Because Emperor doesn't really have a plot.  Instead, it has three (four, if you include the prologue) moments of plot, islands linked by a prophecy given in the prologue and by the family relations of the characters.  The first moment is resistance by three Brigantians to Claudius' invasion of Britain; in this telling we see the immediate and early effects of the invasion on the British people, and meet Vespasian, future emperor, as well as Claudius, the emperor of the moment.  The plot here is minimally, rather just following the responses of the three Britons to the invasion, and how they differ and have very different results - integration, death, or the semi-integration of life in Britain in Romano-British culture.  The second is in the time of Hadrian, and a visit to Britain; here every member is integrated to at least some degree with Roman society, and the plot concerns the machinations of Severa using the prophecy to try and gain profit from Hadrian's consolidation of the empire (in the form of the Wall).  The final is in the time of Constantine; his Christianisation of the empire, the institutionalisation of the Church, the taxation required to recover from the post-Diocletian civil wars, and so on result in descendants of the original family of Prophecy uniting, or at least appearing to, in an attempt to leverage changes in policy using the prophecy - though there are, naturally, games within games.  The point here being that the Prophecy comes in to play at three crucial moments in history for Britain, and vulnerability for Rome: Claudius' invasion; Hadrian's consolidation of empire, rejecting Trajanic perpetual expansion; Constantine's conversion, and this allows Baxter to explore those turning points.

The research behind Emperor is, whilst not perfect (we see glass mirrors, rather than just beaten bronze, and a penetration of the use of coinage that the last thirty years has cast significant doubt on), meticulous, and details are thrown in very neatly.  The cultural picture of Rome, and Roman imperialism, is painted very nicely and effectively; we see how the attitude of Rome changed to her provinces and provincials over time, meaning that what we get is a picture of Rome's decline.  It is perhaps a little caricatured, and there is certainly an extent to which for Classical scholars of Rome it will fall short, but Emperor does certainly paint a useful and intelligent portrait of three vital points in Roman history and explode many of the modern myths about our classical past, albeit whilst buying into others.

Finally, and least importantly (as Thalius says, the ideas are the point in this kind of fiction) Emperor does have a strong, varied cast of characters.  It's a wide cast, but they're each very individual; all influenced strongly by, defined by, and of their time, rather than standing out from it, which is perfect, and all showing the differences in culture by contrast, because in some ways there are continuities of character across the eras.  Baxter's writing is weakest here because they do occasionally delve into simplicity and monodimensionality, but at the same time they're fun, interesting characters who we do care about and want to follow, and their views of the Roman world are so fascinating because of their attitudes given what actually happened; again, for a Classical historian, a really interesting piece of writing.

In the end, whilst Emperor is probably weakened because of my university study of Ancient History (nitpicking: it's what we do), it remains a very strong, lightly fantasy tinged, historical portrait of three eras in Roman history, as well as being good fiction; very readable, and very informative, it's certainly worth a look.
Silently and Very Fast is a brief little novella - 22,000-odd words - and it has many of Valente's hallmarks in: a concern for storytelling and mythology (it opens with the myth of Inanna, and is shot through with fairy-tales, folk tales, and other mythologies, as well as the Oedipal monomyth); beautiful, intelligent, complex language; emergent narrative, which comes together only over time, with things revealed slowly but surely; and characterisation that is vivid and powerful.

Silently and Very Fast feels, in many ways, like an offspring from the same tree as Ted Chiang's Lifecycle of Software Objects, but with an awareness of that Oedipal monomyth, developed from R.U.R. through Terminator, into The Matrix and the (appalling, unAsimovian) film I, Robot which has so permeated our cultural understanding of A.I.  There isn't a plot to the novella as such, because what we instead have is a character portrait, of Elefsis, an autobiography in fact.  Told through a combination of mythology - "Tell me a story about yourself, Elefsis" - and recollection, gradually this novella builds up a portrait of who Elefsis is, how she became who she is, how she thinks and feels.  That picture is a powerful and effective one in part because it is told in a circumlocutory manner, without focussing in hard and fast on Elefsis whilst never ever losing sight of her; it's also powerful and effective because, quite consciously, Valente uses imagery in Silently and Very Fast that is directly drawn from Grimm, and therefore our own cultural memories. The way this story is told, therefore, draws on a lot of cultural assumptions, but in such a way as to build up a matrix of reality; Elefsis isn't a character in a monolithic way, any more than Neva, the other main figure in the novella, is, but rather as a matrix of facets and elements, drawn together by the concept of "I".

One of the most winning elements of Silently and Very Fast is the writing style.  Valente isn't afraid of big words, of complex ideas, or of lyricism; and indeed, all of these play a role in creating the developing (maturing?) character of Elefsis, as well as in building up our own vocabulary of story and of this story.  The direct and clear imagery layers over subtler imagery, and there are layers and layers of meaning in much of what Valente says; there is also simple clarity and beautiful style, and factual statements.  The simple joy taken in language, at times, is in its own way telling of the character of Elefsis, whilst the powerful and evocative imagery of the novel, drawing from so many cultural roots, is deployed very effectively in the service of story and idea.  Because this is a deeply idea-driven novella, in the way the best science fiction is; beautiful writing, and effective characterisation, and thoughtfulness, would add up to a pretty little piece of art without what Valente presumably started with here.  And that is the idea, and to quote Stephen Baxter, "ideas [are] the whole point"; certainly, the idea - or rather ideas - at the heart of this novella are powerful, and without them as a structure and core, I'm not sure it would work as well; but, because of their slow development and the way they're revealed and explored over the course of the story, and the nature of that revelation is rather important to our response, I won't spoil them for you.

Catherynne M. Valente has been an author with whose work I have, in the past, had a slightly mixed relationship. Once again, however, as with Prester John, Silently and Very Fast has very much brought me on board, with interest; and, given that it is available for free through Clarkesworld (that takes you direct to Part One), there is no reason for you not to try out this wonderful novella, and experience Valente's brilliant, complex writing first hand.

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February 2012

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