Tales from the Venia Woods by Silverberg, Robert, 1990
Tales from the Venia Woods is a story set in Robert Silverberg's Roma Eterna time line, in which the Roman Empire never collapsed. Set in the year 2647 (do not figure in the birth of Christ in the calculation of what year that actually is), it is the story of two children who live in Venice during a period of Republican rule who discover the aged and infirm Emperor many, many years after the slaughter of his family. The Roma Eterna line of stories is incredibly well done, and this one is no exception. Four out of five stars.
The central conflict in this story is over the two character's points of view on what type of government is best, and the central question is whether or not the Republicans will allow a doddering old child-emperor to live. The two children ventured into the Venia Woods to try to discover some treasure to help their family. The locals told stories about a haunted cabin in the woods; those stories have kept most people away for years. But the children were desperate, so they sought out the cabin to see what was inside. They discovered its ruins, but instead of a ghost they found an ancient man living there alone. Soon enough they learned that he was the last of the Caesars who was spirited away as a very young boy from Roma by family friends at the beginning of the First of two Wars of Reunification. The wars were brutal and bloody and left an indelible mark on everyone who lived through them, including the father of the two children. A vehement Republican, their father raised the kids to be fevered Republicans as well. As the three got to know each other, the old man eventually admitted who he was and told them stories of his childhood:
He spoke of a glittering boyhood, almost sixty years earlier, in that wondrous time between the two Wars of Reunification: A magical life, endlessly traveling from palace to palace, from Rome to Venia, from Venia to Constantinopolis, from Constantinopolis to Nishapur. He was the youngest and the most pampered of five royal princes; his father had died young, drowned in a foolish swimming exploit, and when his grandfather Laureolus Augustus died the Imperial throne would go to his brother Maxentius. He himself, Quintus Fabius, would be a provincial governor somewhere where he grew up, perhaps in Syria or Persia, but for now there was nothing for him to do but enjoy his gilded existence.
Then death came at last to old Emperor Laureolus, and Maxentius succeeded him; and almost at once there began the four-year horror of the Second War of Reunification, when somber and harsh colonels who despised the lazy old Empire smashed it to pieces, rebuilt it as a republic, and drover the Caesars from power. We knew the story, of course; but to us it was a tale of the triumph of virtue and honor over corruption and tyranny. To Quintus Fabuis, weeping as he told it to us from his own point of view, the fall of the Empire had been not only a harrowing personal tragedy but a terrible disaster for the world.
The old man recalled the time of the Caesars well enough to fear the destabilization that loomed if the Pax Romana ever fell. But the boy has been raised to be a strong regionalist, and favors his father's desire for regional control. He had taken to heart his fatherís recollection and fear of the way that the Empire put down revolts with force, and the other buses of a giant government. Silverberg in this story has repeated the debate that has smoldered in this country since its inception: It is basically the Federalist/Anti-Federalist debate all over again. It is the debate that brought down the first government that the United States tried with the Articles of Confederation, and it is something that we still debate to this day, although our debate is more about economics then it is about individual rights. Nevertheless, we have fought it since before our current form of government gained ascendancy in 1789, and we will fight it in probably every administration going forward from here. Silverberg's take on the debate is very non-controversial, in that his characters take up the most typical of oppositional viewpoints. The only problem that I have with this particular story is that the short story format really did not give Silverberg the proper time to flesh the debate out or add anything meaningful to it. But, that is what the whole series is for. I strongly recommend the entire series, and this story both.
Copyright © 2008, Gregory Tidwell