Friday, June 27, 2014
Sean Gabb's 'The Break'
Although it has little to do with the point of this blog, I've been interested for years in the period of history known as "Late Antiquity." It's a period of history that runs roughly from 300 C.E. to 700 C.E. that's known under a variety of other names, e.g. "The Fall of Rome" (a misnomer, as the eastern half of the empire continued for centuries), "The Dark Ages," "The Later Roman Empire," the "postclassical world," etc. This interest occasionally crops up in this blog, for example in my posting about the historian Procopius as a classical liberal.
Anyway, I can't get enough of reading about Late Antiquity, and I like both nonfiction and well-researched historical fiction. That's how I got interested in a British novelist named Richard Blake, who has written a series of novels about an Anglo Saxon man named "Aelric" who winds up in various parts of the Byzantine Empire in the early 7th century. Each book focuses on a different city — the books have titles such as Conspiracies of Rome, The Terror of Constantinople (about the reign of the emperor Phocas, not exactly a happy time for the Roman Empire), The Blood of Alexandria, and so on. The novels are in a sequence but they also stand alone nicely.
They are some of the best historical novels I've ever read. There's lots of sex and violence and intrigue, and about as much bad behavior as you'd expect in a Bret Easton Ellis novel, so we're not talking about dry academic surveys here, but Blake has a particular gift for vividly depicting what life was like in those days. There's a scene in Conspiracies of Rome, for example, where Aelric encounters a particularly good place to go to the bathroom, one that actually has running water, and his explanation of it reveals a lot about what sanitary conditions usually were like in the early 7th century.
It turns out that "Richard Blake" is a pen name for Sean Gabb, a British writer who is active in the Libertarian Alliance. (While many of his opinions are conventionally libertarian, many of his opinions show a strong allegiance to Timothy Leary's dictum, "Think for yourself." A sentence from his official bio: "He has written in support of the monarchy and House of Lords, in defence of the rights of holocaust deniers and for a time limitation law on the charge of child abuse." Sean's literary opinions also are idiosyncratic; see his list of favorite writers, which places L. Neil Smith next to Gore Vidal and "Monk" Lewis.)
The Break is a libertarian science fiction/fantasy novel, and as I write sometimes about fiction with a libertarian bent, I've decided to mention it here. I completed it a few days ago. It is set more or less in the present, but in a very different world from our own; there has been some kind of a strange catastrophe that left life in Britain unaltered, but sent the rest of the world back to 1064 CE.
The action of the novel takes place, then in 1065 CE for most of the world, if not Britain.
The break in the international economic order has brought starvation conditions to Britain. A rational response would have been to peacefully trade with the rest of the world, to stimulate agricultural production and bring some of the food surplus to Britain; instead the big government types who have seized control, who babble about "multiculturalism" but are willing to slaughter multitudes with helicopter gunships to restore order, send many people to the country, Pol Pot style, to work as farmers. Contact with the outside world is strictly controlled.
1065 CE is of course a suggestive time, coming one year before the Norman invasion (in our world, anyway). It's also close to the end of the Byzantine Empire as a large, powerful state. The novel's main characters are Jennifer, a teenage British girl, and Michael, a young Byzantine ambassador who has come to Britain seeking help against the Turks. Michael is a sexist, as you might guess from his time period. At one point, he tells Jennifer, an uncommonly brave and smart young woman, that she did pretty well for a girl. But it also turns out that Michael has old-fashioned notions about duty (to Jennifer, as well as to his country) and the reader warms to him. I gather that this is Mr. Gabb's foray into young adult fiction, as there is plenty of violence but no sex. I don't like to give long plot summaries in my reviews; why spoil things for readers? Suffice to say that there is plenty going on, with a satisfying pyrotechnic ending; I was only sad that the characters never made it to 11th century Constantinople, as I wanted a glimpse. I nominated the book for the Prometheus Award.
(Disclosure: Sean/Richard sent me a review copy of the book. I've bought some of his other books for my Kindle and I was a fan before I had any contact with him via email.)