Volume 26, Number 1, Fall 2007

The Gladiator

By Harry Turtledove

Tor, 2007
Reviewed by William H. Stoddard
Fall 2007

Harry Turtledove’s Crosstime Traffic series has a lot to recommend it to readers. It’s good young adult science fiction; it draws on Turtledove’s skills as an alternate historian; each book is mostly self-contained, and the limited length of books makes for a tighter narrative than Turtledove’s adult novels usually provide. For readers of Prometheus, the theme of trade between alternate timelines as a mutually advantageous process will have a certain natural appeal.

In The Gladiator, that appeal is likely to be stronger. The alternate timeline in this book doesn’t grow out of ancient Rome’s survival, or even the balkanization of North America; it derives from a Soviet victory in the Cold War, leading to a world dominated by Marxism-Leninism-Stalinism. And while Turtledove doesn’t make this a 1984ish dystopia (though there’s an ironic reference to 1984, with a literature teacher explaining that it’s really an attack on fascism and capitalism, and that the label “English socialism” doesn’t really mean socialism, any more than “national socialism” did), he does make it clear that this is an impoverished and backward world, where life is drab at best, and the government routinely lies, suppresses dissent, and spies on people. Against this background, the suggestion that capitalism is a more attractive system takes on an understated plausibility.

Here’s where Turtledove gets creative. One of his viewpoint characters is a high school student, the son of a minor apparatchik in Milan, who’s a classic underachiever, uninterested in his studies and indifferent to political concerns. What he is enthusiastic about is games. Specifically, he loves playing a board game of railroad building, set in 19th century Europe, where he can take on the role of a capitalist struggling to build the most extensive rail system and earn the money to support it—a game that can only be bought at one unusual store. Of course, it’s only fantasy; no one would really want to bring back capitalism, or to be a capitalist. . . .

The other viewpoint character, a slightly older girl, is a much more successful and motivated student, and an active member of the Young Socialists’ League—and, despite that, a bit of an idealist. So when she learns at a meeting that there’s a proposal to denounce the game store, she wants to look into it for herself and find out if it’s really dangerous or subversive, rather than condemning it without evidence. And she happens to know someone who goes there regularly. . . .

This sets Turtledove up for an ingenious plot, where his young characters have to take action that’s meaningful in adult terms. Turtledove shows that meaning without ever getting preachy; he conveys the value of independent thought, of freedom of choice, and of loyalty, primarily by showing what sort of people find them attractive and what sort of people fear or hate them. And if the message isn’t hard-core libertarianism—Turtledove seems to accept European-style interventionism as a valid alternative form of “capitalism”—there’s still a clear sense that markets have room for those virtues, and that command economies don’t: the kind of very basic contrast that could be drawn between West and East Germany, before the fall of the Soviet empire. Just before the fall of the Soviet Union, its theoreticians were starting to describe the way things really worked under communism as “actually existing socialism”; Turtledove shows a fictionalized version of actually existing socialism and invites the same conclusion that those Soviet Marxists reached in the real world, that “actually existing capitalism” is preferable. And he does so in the course of an entertaining and tightly written story with sympathetic characters. I’ve enjoyed all of his Crosstime Traffic books; this one I particularly recommend to fellow LFS members.

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