Volume 16, Number 3, Summer, 1998

Between the Rivers

By Harry Turtledove

Reviewed by William H. Stoddard

Most of the books that are reviewed in Prometheus are science fiction. They envision oppression through technological means, whether those exist now or might exist in the future; and they envision resistance to oppression in similarly realistic terms. But oppression can be envisioned in other forms, and in his fantasy novel, Between the Rivers, Harry Turtledove explores one of those other forms: oppression by supernatural beings with magical powers.

The setting of this novel is a fantasy analog of Mesopotamia, in a period corresponding to our own early Bronze Age. But it has one important difference: the gods and demons ancient Sumerians and Babylonians believed in really do exist. People go about hearing the voices of ghosts and of gods, and from time to time the god of a city puts on the body of one of its people, or appears in his or her own body walking through the city’s streets. And these supernatural beings are a threat to human freedom. Demons are a minor threat, on the level of petty criminals, infecting people with fever from time to time; gods can be a major threat, running entire cities through a single central mind that can see through anyone’s eyes, read anyone’s thoughts, and control anyone’s actions.

It’s obvious that in this novel, as in some earlier stories, Turtledove has taken Julian Jaynes’ theory of the bicameral mind as a vehicle for his story. He carefully leaves unexplored the question of whether the gods are hallucinatory superstructures over human paranormal abilities, or whether the gods are real beings independent of anyone’s mind or beliefs; but he shows all of the mechanisms Jaynes postulated in his controversial theory in actual operation. In particular, he shows the rise of human beings who are not simply vehicles for the gods, but have a measure of freedom of choice within their own thoughts. And exactly where Jaynes proposed it would occur, among merchants who travel to foreign cities that have other gods, as well as among smiths who work with a new technology and scribes who record information in written records that need no god of memory to inspire them.

Turtledove’s story works on multiple levels. On one level, it’s a pastiche of ancient Babylonian legends such as the tale of Gilgamesh, even simulating the repetitious parallel sentences of ancient Near Eastern prose. On another, it’s an exciting adventure story, as the hero, Sharur, struggles to gain a victory over divine hostility. Then again, it’s a comedy, starting with Sharur hoping to gain his childhood sweetheart as a wife and ending with a wedding, and offering such delightful jokes as the false name the king of Sharur’s city assumes to visit his subjects incognito. But above all of these, it’s a philosophical story about the birth of the human desire for freedom, as Sharur tries to preserve his essential self in a world where the gods can read his thoughts and command his actions.

Given the setting, any of our familiar libertarian concepts and terminology would be hopelessly anachronistic, and Turtledove properly avoids them.But in his praise of human freedom, in his sympathy for merchants and his taking one as a hero, and in his criticism of the attempt to have one mind make plans for an entire economy, Between the Rivers offers ideas that libertarians will support, embedded in an ingenious story about sympathetic heroes.

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