Hall of Fame finalist review: Harry Turtledove’s fantasy Between the Rivers imagines Bronze Age beginnings of a freer society

By William H. Stoddard

Over the years, most nominees for the Libertarian Futurist Society’s Prometheus awards have been science fiction, and set in the present or the near or far future. Harry Turtledove’s Between the Rivers is an exception: A work of fantasy, and set in an invented world that parallels the Bronze Age of 3000 years ago or more.

As its title suggests, its setting is based on Mesopotamia. It’s a realm of contending city-states, and seems to be the first place in its larger world to develop them; at any rate, there’s no indication of comparably civilized realms elsewhere.

The premise of Turtledove’s fantasy, first published by TOR in 1998 and a 2024 Prometheus Hall of Fame finalist for Best Classic Fiction, seems to be taken from Julian Jaynes’ work of speculative psychology The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind.

Jaynes proposed that early human beings had mentalities very different from those of our society, in which most activity was carried out habitually, without reflective self-awareness. In novel situations, he thought, ancient people felt stress that induced hallucinated voices, heard as the speech of their ancestors, their kings, or even gods telling them what to do.

In Turtledove’s world, this experience isn’t hallucinatory, but literally true: people hear the voices of their dead parents and of the gods of their cities, which tell them what to do. Their entire lives are spent in subservience to the gods.

MAKING OUR OWN DECISIONS

But not everyone is equally subservient. Turtledove’s protagonist, Sharur, a young merchant from the city of Gibil, is accustomed to be left on his own a larger part of the time. This partly reflects his profession: Merchants have to travel to distant cities, where the voices of their gods are faint or silent, and where they may confront different customs.

But it also partly reflects where he lives, because Engibil, the god of the city of Gibil, is often inactive. This inactivity is encouraged by the city’s lugal (king), Kimash, to whom much of the rule of the city is entrusted; among other things, the lugal seeks out exotic treasures to give to Engibil, as distractions. The people of Gibil, we find out quickly, are accustomed to making decisions for themselves; in the very first chapter, Sharur and his father and brother all make a ritual gesture of covering the eyes of an amulet that represent Engibil, in the hope that the god won’t pay attention to their conversation.

But the other gods don’t approve of this, as Sharur discovers during his first venture, leading a trade caravan to Zuabu, known as a city of thieves; to several other cities; and finally to Alashkurru, a mountainous region without cities, inhabited by people of a different culture perhaps (judging by their names) inspired by the ancient Hittites. Along the way, he gets hints that other gods view Engibil and his people unfavorably; he hears predictions that the Alashkurru won’t trade with him, both from a rival caravan and from a demon; and on his arrival, he finds those predictions borne out. Not only do the people refuse to trade, but their gods are actively hostile to him and to his city. This sends him back to Gibil, without exotic gifts for Kimash to give to Engibil and without the bride-price for the woman he wants to marry.

CULTIVATING AN INDEPENDENT ATTITUDE

This sets up the problem for the rest of the novel. Sharur’s efforts to gain the wife he wants by restoring trade and preserving his city lead to espionage, to open war, and to a struggle even against the gods, one in which Sharur learns a crucial secret about godhood. In the course of this, Sharur acquires an ally, if an ambivalent one: Habbazu, a master thief from Zuabu, who plays a crucial part in bringing the plot to its resolution.

What are the gods afraid of? Turtledove shows that in an early chapter:
“You men of Gibil would reduce your great gods to small gods, your small gods to demons, your demons to ghosts that chitter and flutter and are in a generation forgotten. The riches you gain in this world tempt you to forget the other world.” Gods of other cities, and of Alashkurru, are afraid that this independent attitude will be contagious.

Harry Turtledove in 2005 (Creative Commons license)

Turtledove shows us, not authoritarian rule by human beings, but authoritarian rule by actual gods — beings with superhuman powers. The gods of this world can see and hear what happens in their cities, and if they make the effort, they can read people’s thoughts. And they’re powerful enough to defeat many times their number in mortal warriors (though not, as it turns out, invulnerable).

IMAGES OF THE POWERFUL STATE

As gods often are, they’re images of the power of the state. And the people they rule are accustomed to do what the gods command, with no thought of their own interests. On one hand, this is a perfect fit to Jaynes’ theories; on the other hand, it’s the essence of the collectivist ideologies of modern societies. Turtledove’s fantasy shows rule by gods as little different from rule by the state, except in being even more profoundly repressive.

None of the characters in Between the Rivers could plausibly be called libertarian. Sharur’s family owns a slave, a woman captured from another city. (Fitting Aristotle’s conception of slavery, the nameless slave woman lacks both self-direction and the direction of her god; she can only obey human orders.) And Gibil’s lugal, Kimash, expects to be obeyed as if he were in the place of its god.

But Turtledove, a Prometheus Best Novel winner in 1998 for The Gladiator, shows the beginnings of a freer society in Between the Rivers: the smiths, practitioners of a technology that doesn’t yet have a god; the scribes, who keep records of people’s obligations; and the merchants, who make bargains in their own interest and spread new ideas and customs between cities.

Turtledove also shows Sharur and his father agreeing that the unchecked power of the lugal isn’t much different from the unchecked power of the god, suggesting that people who can free themselves from one might free themselves from the other.

And in another early chapter, Sharur’s thoughts point toward the prospect of more general freedom:

“[A] god’s strength … depended on more than the strength of the god. It was the strength of god and men together…. Where gods were weak, the strength of men could grow, as could their ability to act for themselves. He cherished what freedom he had: cherished it and wanted more.”

OTHER REVIEWS OF 2024 HALL OF FAME FINALISTS

Stay tuned, because the Prometheus Blog is publishing reviews of all four 2024 finalists in the Prometheus Hall of Fame for Best Classic Fiction.

Check out the recent post reviewing the Rush song “The Trees.”

Besides Between the River and “The Trees” the other 2024 Hall of Fame finalists are Orion Shall Rise, a 1983 novel by Poul Anderson; and The Truth, a 2000 novel by Terry Pratchett. Look for reviews of both finalists here in June.

IF YOU WANT TO KNOW MORE ABOUT THE PROMETHEUS AWARDS:

* Prometheus winners: For the full list of Prometheus winners, finalists and nominees – including the annual Best Novel and Best Classic Fiction (Hall of Fame) categories and occasional Special Awards – visit the enhanced Prometheus Awards page on the LFS website, which now includes convenient links to all published essay-reviews in our Appreciation series explaining why each of more than 100 past winners since 1979 fits the awards’ distinctive dual focus on both quality and liberty.

* Read “The Libertarian History of Science Fiction,”an essay in the international magazine Quillette that favorably highlights the Prometheus Awards, the Libertarian Futurist Society and the significant element of libertarian sf/fantasy in the evolution of the modern genre.

Watch videos of past Prometheus Awards ceremonies (including the recent 2023 ceremony with inspiring and amusing speeches by Prometheus-winning authors Dave Freer and Sarah Hoyt), Libertarian Futurist Society panel discussions with noted sf authors and leading libertarian writers, and other LFS programs on the Prometheus Blog’s Video page.

* Check out the Libertarian Futurist Society’s Facebook page  for comments, updates and links to Prometheus Blog posts.

Join us! To help sustain the Prometheus Awards and support a cultural and literary strategy to appreciate and honor freedom-loving fiction,  jointhe Libertarian Futurist Society, a non-profit all-volunteer association of freedom-loving sf/fantasy fans.

Libertarian futurists believe that culture matters! We understand that the arts and literature can be vital in envisioning a freer and better future – and in some ways can be even more powerful than politics in the long run, by imagining better visions of the future incorporating peace, prosperity, progress, tolerance, justice, positive social change, and mutual respect for each other’s rights, individuality and human dignity.

 

Published by

Michael Grossberg

Michael Grossberg, who founded the LFS in 1982 to help sustain the Prometheus Awards, has been an arts critic, speaker and award-winning journalist for five decades. Michael has won Ohio SPJ awards for Best Critic in Ohio and Best Arts Reporting (seven times). He's written for Reason, Libertarian Review and Backstage weekly; helped lead the American Theatre Critics Association for two decades; and has contributed to six books, including critical essays for the annual Best Plays Theatre Yearbook and an afterword for J. Neil Schulman's novel The Rainbow Cadenza. Among books he recommends from a libertarian-futurist perspective: Matt Ridley's The Rational Optimist & How Innovation Works, David Boaz's The Libertarian Mind and Steven Pinker's Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress.

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