NESFA Members' Reviews

Gunpowder Empire

(Crosstime Traffic--Book One)

by Harry Turtledove

Tor, 2003, ISBN 0-765-30693-X

A book review by Elisabeth Carey

It's the late 21st century, and with the energy crisis no longer ignorable, modern civilization has found another way to cope: import food and raw materials from alternate Earths, via Crosstime Traffic, invented by chronophysicists in the 2040s.  (I'll skip the paragraph about how some of the alternates are uninhabitable, others are Really Bad Places, etc.; you know all that part.) Raw materials are imported from uninhabited alternates; food is imported from less technologically advanced inhabited alternates. Of course, they get a few other things from the alternates, too, such as unwelcome new diseases, but that's not a major issue in this book.

In order to blend in better in the alternates, whole families are trained and sent out to trade, and teenagers Jeremy and Amanda Solters are part of a family that does its trading in the summer months in an outlying city of a Roman Empire that never fell. They sell things just advanced enough that the locals can't manufacture them, while still recognizing the value of them—such as actual clockwork-driven clocks and pocket watches, Swiss Army knives, etc., and buy wheat. The Solters family has been doing this for several years, they're known as regular summer traders in the city, and they know their way around and the local customs.

Okay, now I start carping and complaining. I will, generously I think, give Turtledove a free pass on the question of whether an Agrippan Roman Empire would have likely remained stable for two thousand years. You've got to get your setting somewhere, after all. On other things, I'm less inclined to be tolerant:

  1. The Crosstime Traffic traders are calling attention to themselves by selling goods no one else can even passably duplicate. They're further calling attention to themselves by accepting payment only in wheat. So, why are they calling even further attention to themselves by defying local custom and insisting on fixed, set prices for everything—no haggling ever? This apparently is intended to have some social-engineering effect—which raises question 1a: why do they want to do that? They need this improbably stable Roman Empire to remain stable, not suddenly develop its own industrial revolution and modern economy.
  2. Allegedly, they've been coming here for several years, and behaving like the locals in order to blend in as much as possible. So, why is Jeremy, in his late teens, apparently encountering so many things for the first time? Why has he apparently had no real training for circumstances he could reasonably be expected to encounter?
  3. Amanda is a girl in her late teens, from 21st-century America—later in the century, but apparently not noticeably different socially from our own time. So, the same Crosstime Traffic authorities that saw to it that they were trained in every other way might have expected that she (and other teenage girls in the same position) would find the pervasive sexism of Agrippan Rome quite irksome, and having the judgment of a teenager and the social skills and training of a 21st-century American teenager, might try to challenge it in various ways. When they were training her, they ought to have made clear to her that she can't do that, no matter how tempting it becomes. And they should have made sure her parents knew she couldn't do that. When Amanda does it anyway, she ought to know she's making a mistake, and when she does it the first time when her parents are still around, they ought to know she's making a mistake, and tell her to knock it off.

In fact, both the Solters offspring repeatedly call attention to themselves in ways that are really stupid, and become even more stupid after they're cut off from their parents. They do it when they know there's some suspicion they've killed their parents and buried them in the cellar, they do it when local authorities start asking uncomfortable questions about where they get their trade goods. It's pointlessly dangerous, and they're each sensible enough in other ways that they should be able to see that it's dangerous, and they need to be careful, especially now that they're cut off.

It's an interesting set-up, and Jeremy and Amanda are intelligent, likable, resourceful characters, but in a lot of ways this is an irritating book.

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