Emperor by Stephen Baxter
Reviewed by Tony Keen
Gollancz, London, 2006, 302pp, £10.99, t/p, ISBN 0-575-07433-7
It's not always a good idea for historians to read novels set in periods they're familiar with. However thorough the author's research, the historian's view of what actually happened is unlikely to entirely coincide. Best to go with the author's flow, regardless of disagreements on issues of interpretation.
So, when I read Stephen Baxter's previous Romano-British excursion, Coalescent, I put aside finding implausible a Cotswolds villa-owning family not speaking Latin as their first language, or having connections with troops on Hadrian's Wall. I let Baxter take me through his version of Roman Britain's end.
But sometimes the author pushes the historian too far, and that, sadly, is the case with Emperor. It isn't just the things that are definitely wrong – the emperor Vespasian was not the son of an Asian farmer, but of an Italian tax-farmer (someone contracted to collect taxes) who worked in Asia, and was an active military commander when he came to power, not brought out of retirement to reign. Nor is it including every historical figure of the time if at all possible (something Neal Stephenson does so well, for the most part, but can look awkward in other hands, and something found in Coalescent, with the unnecessary insertion of Arthur) and referring to every recent archaeological discovery (at times, such as the mention of the circus in Colchester, I felt Baxter had been reading and watching the same archaeological news stories as me, and had deemed each worthy of an aside). Nor is it even characters having implausible conversations about matters that seem significant to us, but would not have been to them (the emperor's freedman Narcissus talking to Vespasian about whether the city that might become the greatest in Britannia will take its name from legendary King Lud, or speculating over whether the island was once joined to Gaul).
The real problem comes in the central section, with Baxter's explanation for how Hadrian's Wall was initially designed. No historical record illuminates the processes of Hadrian's planners, so there is some freedom to speculate, but Baxter's version struck me as frankly preposterous (though he may be closer to the reasons for the change of design mid-construction). Consequently, I was left reading a novel I was no longer prepared to believe. That's fatal for a historical.
But, of course, Emperor is not, despite its obvious debt to the works of Rosemary Sutcliff, a historical; it's science fiction. Driving the plot is a mysterious prophecy (rendered into Latin by Adam Roberts in a way that suggests a long time has elapsed since he's worked with the language) that not only predicts three Roman emperors, but also the American Declaration of Independence. There's even a defence of the genre and the importance of ideas over characterisation, prompted by finding a copy of Lucian's True History – though like many claiming Lucian for sf, Baxter overlooks that the True History parodies fantastical adventure.
An sf audience is accustomed to swallowing logical impossibilities, such as travel faster-than-light and through time. In sf, historical details don't have to tally with what we know as 'reality'. Perhaps Emperor is meant as an alternative history. Characters speculated about a Weaver in the future trying to manipulate history – has the Weaver created the distortions in Baxter's account? These questions will not properly be answered until the four-book Time's Tapestry sequence is completed, though in interview Baxter has hinted that the Weaver is trying, through the prophecy, to change history away from what we know.
How does Emperor read for the non-historian? It's certainly not badly-written, but Baxter has done better (Voyage comes to mind). Because the novel is broken up into chronologically-separate sections, characterisation does not quite have enough space to develop, especially in the first part, where Baxter has two different POV characters (though each section is not that much shorter than a Sutcliff novel, and she could build character in such space). The historical detail, while excessive, does create a sense of time that may entice the unfamiliar reader. Baxter is less good on sense of place. I understand why he wants to write about the magnificent Northumberland countryside in which he now lives, but I read Emperor whilst on a holiday along Hadrian's Wall, and made no mental connection between the setting of the book and my location.
In the end I keep coming back to the massive historical problem I have with this novel. The thing I take away from Emperor is that, when it comes to suspension of disbelief, what one can get away with in the conventions of sf is far greater than the license available within those of the historical.
This article first appeared in Vector 250. Back issues of Vector are available from