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Shakespeare, like any Englishman of the sixteenth century, was required by law to use the language of the conquerors, but because he was Shakespeare he became a master of the tongue. His lines throbbed with life and vitality. They say that he hated writing plays about the Turkish sultans and their triumphs, that he would much rather have written of Richard III and King John and Henry IV, our English kings before the Turkish Conquest. But he wrote of Turks in the Turkish tongue, and made such a job of it that to this day the Turks revere him and blush to think he was an Englishman.
Robert Silverberg is known as one of the literary architects of steampunk, experimenting with alternate histories in his novels. This book is yet another return to the trough, with a Muslim dominated Europe and the Americas ruled over by the Aztec Empire. It is a slim volume, but one which raised a number of questions for me.
Dan Beauchamp is descended from a proud line of Englishmen who refused to abandon their Christian faith during the Turkish rule of Europe. Making the signs of the Islamic faith in public, but holding mass behind closed doors, Dan is tired of hiding. He decides his fortunes lie to the West and sets sail for the Hesperides. The continent was discovered by Portuguese sailors late in the 16th century, shortly after Europe recovered from a devastating plague that wiped out three quarters of the population. The New World did not prove to be as welcoming as the sailors had hoped and they were sacrificed to the Aztec gods. The year according to the Gregorian calendar is 1985. Mankind has not yet invented air travel.
Dan sails from London, now known as New Istanbul, for Mexico. He has studied Nahuatl in secret for months and is determined to make his fortune and attach himself to a member of the Aztec Imperial Court as a bondsman. During the long voyage Dan happens to make the acquaintance of a high ranking member of Aztec society, who advises him to seek out the rebel prince Topiltzin. After making the acquaintance of a sorcerer who explains that this world is just one of many, Dan is warned that his choice to follow power-hungry nephew of King Moctezuma will lead to tragedy and disaster. Nevertheless our hero sets off to find a new kingdom for his prince to rule, convinced he is close to forging his own future in Industrial Mexico, far from the devastation of conquered England.
There are some similarities here to Silverberg’s novella Sailing to Byzantium, which also featured a traveler from a dominant Muslim superpower arriving in a very different America from the one we know. The Gate of Worlds was written in 1967, which I find fascinating as it is a steampunk work that dabbles in quantum theory, with the sorcerer Quequex explaining to Dan Beauchamp how every decision creates a new world within the multiverse of possibilities. It explores the differences in the timeline, with a far more devastating outbreak of the Black Death leaving the European mainland unable to defend itself from a Turkish invasion. Fewer than nine million inhabitants live in Britain. America is never discovered by Columbus. Africa is free and independent. Asia is under a Russian yoke. I love the idea of William Shakespeare writing epics lauding the Turkish invasion though.
The book also disturbs with its thesis that without an expansionist Europe, significant technological advances would never have been made. The Aztec and Incan civilizations seem happy to retain their tribal natures well into the twentieth century. Cars are unreliable, steam-powered, miniature trains. Given the date of publication I am surprised at the degree to which it resembles the central argument of Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel, which came out in 1997. Diamond argues that a densely populated European population, that had survived devastating waves of disease and internecine warfare, had a greater incentive to become expansionist, defeating the indigenous peoples of conquered lands courtesy of the three elements of the title. Willingness to kill, infectious disease and technological invention.
Beyond all this theorizing, Silverberg has given a steampunk veneer to the 19th century novel of fortune, akin to Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island or Kidnapped. If that’s something you think you would enjoy, The Gate of Worlds might be for you. Personally I left it feeling troubled by its implications.