[14 April 2008]
If one had never read Roman history, The Martian General’s Daughter could be a thrilling book. Told through the eyes of Justa Black, the illegitimate daughter of Peter Black, a general in the future Transpolar Empire, the reader is treated to a first hand account of madness, plagues and imperial decline. The situation is disastrous on Mars, troublesome along the Manchurian border, bad everywhere else and downright catastrophic in the Imperial capital, Mexico City.
In the year 2293 the Transpolar Empire, which used to stretch from Panama to the Gobi desert is in serious decline. Technology is falling apart almost as quickly as the public’s morale. An emperor has just been murdered and General Black must seize the Imperial throne or be killed. The story of how thing got to this point and what happens next is the story told in this book which is set in the years 2278-2323. It’s a pretty wild story.
It’s also a story that’s 18 centuries old, for almost the entire plot is a retelling of the disastrous reign of the Roman Emperor Commodus who reigned from 180-192. The historian Will Durant once observed that good people make for bad history. Commodus made some really great history. Indeed, his reign is so memorably disastrous that most historians date the decline of the Roman Empire to the day he took the throne.
This all makes for good drama and Hollywood has attempted to capture the story of Commodus twice in The Fall of the Roman Empire and more recently in Gladiator. Both movies were hampered by the fact that most of the events of Commodus’ reign would be illegal to show even on an x-rated screen. Bob Guccione of Penthouse tried to depict the reign of the equally mad Emperor, Caligula but even that movie was tame compared to the account of Suetonius. Roman history is pretty raunchy, if epic stuff.
It’s a perfectly valid thing for an artist to use Roman themes. The issues that the Romans faced are eternal and there is a wealth of inspiration to draw from. The Roman story will always be relevant, simply because as the historian Barbara Tuchman observed, “History never repeats itself but people always do.” For the West, the empire will always be Roman. This is reflected in works as varied as Star Wars to the Foundation trilogy. In the hands of a skillful writer, the Roman stories can be as fresh and exciting as they were in centuries past.
Unfortunately, Theodore Judson uses neither skill nor inventiveness in this lazily written book. The Martian General’s Daughter reads as if Judson had scanned part of the Augustan Histories into his computer and then started cutting and pasting. The story of the Emperor Commodus is well worth reading but one is far better off hearing it from Herodian than Judson.
This laziness makes this book a bit of a chore to read. Anyone who is familiar with Roman history will be reading most of the book knowing exactly what will happen next. What’s even sadder is that the same names pop up as in the actual histories! The only surprise was the fate of Justa Black, which was as un-Roman as one can get.
If you want to read a great book about Rome I recommend I Claudius by Robert Graves. If you want to read great Roman themed science fiction, then the Dominic Flandry series by Poul Anderson is great. Just don’t read The Martian General’s Daughter by Judson.
It’s not as if Judson didn’t have a great idea. Combining science fiction with the reign of Commodus should make for some good reading. Throw in a dash of Ammianus Marcellinus and he should be cooking up some really wild stuff. But it just falls flat, lacking even an obligatory orgy scene to liven things up. Wasted opportunities abound throughout the book.
One of the things that kept me reading was curiosity. How did the Transpolar Empire come into being? How did Americans and Europeans become as debased as second century Romans? How did democracy end? Why aren’t the Chinese running things? A few pages here and there of some explanation could have made this a riveting tale and a triumph of the imagination. Instead we get a story that Judson seemed to have given up on long before his unfortunate readers came on the scene.