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Fun Reading

OPEN BOOK, Views & Reviews, No. 28
Copyright (c) 1996 Biblical Horizons
August, 1996

The name of Harry Turtledove is well known to readers of fantasy and science fiction. Turtledove is an historian, and most of what he writes is in the "alternative history" genre. A fine collection of short stories, available in paperback, is his Agent of Byzantium. These stories are set in an alternate world wherein the Byzantine empire dominates Europe and the Mediterranean in what we call the Middle Ages. There has been considerable science and invention, and in these stories we see the inventions of gunpowder, the telescope, inoculation against plague, and others as they might have happened. The main character is a devout Christian, and the Church has an active presence here and there in the stories. Some of the inventions, like gunpowder, are expressed in directly theological language. Lots of good clean fun.

Turtledove is probably best known for his Guns of the South, in which a time-traveller takes a bunch of AK-47s back to Robert E. Lee, with which the South wins the Civil War. As the novel progresses, however, and Lee becomes President, everything pretty much falls out the way it did: the slaves are freed, etc. Lots of fun and a more sympathetic treatment of the South than you usually find today.

The reason for this review, however, is The Two Georges, by Harry Turtledove and Richard Dreyfuss (yes, the actor). The title comes from a famous painting (sadly not pictured on the cover of the book) by Gainsborough, a painting of George Washington kneeling before George III after reconciliation has been concluded between the Colonies and the Mother Country. Yes, in this version of 1996, the British Empire is still going strong.

It is a kinder, gentler world. The kind of rapid inventive progress we have seen in our world (which came from America) has not taken place; airships rule the sky and aeroplanes are rare and undeveloped. The Church is honored, and conservative values paramount. The slaves, of course, were freed when Britain freed all slaves, and "negroes" have an important place in society. The Honorable Sir Martin Luther King is the Viceroy of King Charles III in the North American Union. John F. Kennedy is a sleazy politician, and "Tricky Dick" is a well known  . . . used car salesman!

But now someone has stolen "The Two Georges" right under the nose of Colonel Thomas Bushell of the Royal American Mounted Police. Who has done this dastardly deed? Was it the Spanish? the Russians? Or worse, was it the fruitcake-fringe Sons of Liberty, who want America to secede from the British Empire?

As you can imagine, the search for the villains takes us on a short tour of much of this world, including islands near the Russian province of Alyeska and the Iroquis Nation (part of the North American Union).

Advice: This novel is lots of fun, but there is one short scene in the book I would not want my teenaged sons to read. Be warned.

Perfectly suitable for teenagers, however, is Celestial Matters by Richard Garfinkle. Here is a novel of "hard science fiction" set in an alternate universe wherein the Greek view of the universe is real. The earth is at the center, and everything revolves around it in Ptolemaic cycles and epicycles. A piece of moon has been captured and fitted out as a space-travelling platform. Its purpose: to capture a piece of sun for the Greeks to use in their ongoing war with the Middle Kingdom (China). A well-known scientist, Aias, captains the mission, accompanied by a lovely Sparta-trained Xeroki (Cherokee) bodyguard.

What makes this novel unique is its portrayal of ancient science and philosophy. Garfinkle knows his stuff, and by the time we are finished, we know a lot of it also. We also learn about ancient Chinese science and Xi (Chi) forces.

There’s nothing Christian about this novel, except that it is a novel and only in a Christian world is such a narrative possible. But it is a lot of fun, and educational as well. I particularly enjoyed it when Aias emerges from a lunar cave and hears the Sun speak to him: "Your first duty is to the Good!" Readers of Plato’s Republic will not miss this allusion!

Of course, there are lots of adventures along the way, as Chinese spies try to prevent the moon-ship from taking a piece of the sun, and as Aias comes to learn more about the nature of "reality" in this world. And we see a clean and refined romantic relationship develop between Aias and Yellow Hare, his Xeroki bodyguard. I found the narrative well-paced, and completely clean of anything objectionable in the areas of language and sexuality.