The Centurion's Empire—Sean McMullen
Tor, June 1998, hc, 416pp, $US24.95
Reviewed by Peter McNamara
Sean McMullen's latest SF novel, The Centurion's Empire, is the tale of Vitellan Bavalius, a Roman soldier born in 54 AD, who comes into possession of a human 'anti-freeze' potion and the knowledge of how to use it to maintain his life functions while his body is packed in ice for centuries in a 'frigidarium'. He is watched over during these long hiatuses by a succession of Icekeepers, sworn to protect his body at all costs and to revive him at the time he's designated, or when crises demand. Crises demand in 870 AD, when Vitellan joins forces with Alfred of Wessex to repel the invading Danes, and in 1350 AD, when Icekeeper Guy Foxtread is forced by warmer climes in England to take Vitellan across a France torn by the Jacques rebellion in search of a chillier resting place in the Swiss Alps, and in 2028 when the Centurion is unexpectedly revived 26 years ahead of his nominated 2000th birthday. Most of the action (and there's plenty of it) takes place in this latter near-future setting, but the earlier periods make for just as fascinating exploration. McMullen is both historian and farseer, and his vision is 20-20 in both directions.
Vitellan's journey through time is a great yarn full of romance and adventure, conspiracy and grand purpose, and, as it spans history, so too does it run the gamut of the human condition. The Centurion's character develops with the story line, growing slowly in stature from a naive yet resourceful foot soldier to a figure who commands authority even when displaced from his time.
One of the real pleasures of this book, however, comes with the support cast. Lucel Hunter, 21st Century warrior/assassin, all but steals the book, while Alfred of Wessex makes an interesting study, as does Lars - the 1st Century Roman thief and adventurer - and, of course, the Icekeepers, no matter what their time or place. (Icekeepers are not people to be taken lightly.) McMullen manages to breath life into even the most minor of his characters, while never allowing them to crowd the action, always a difficult balance to maintain.
In The Centurion's Empire McMullen explores past technologies for the limits of their possibilities, then explodes forward some 30 years from today, to a 21st Century that's at once bewilderingly strange yet at the same time entirely coherent and plausible. Vitellan's transition from the 14th to 21st Century is particularly well-handled, as McMullen moves his narrative from the long, leisurely rhythms that echo the sparseness and isolation of the earlier period to an abrupt assault of short, sharp sentences and crowded frenetic action, with concepts flying by the reader's tuned-down senses in the same manner as they must be flying by the bewildered Vitellan. This goes further than a description of cultural displacement, it produces a feeling for it deep in your bones.
The philosophical stand point of The Centurion's Empire rises out of Vitellan's belief that order is the cornerstone of civilisation, and best maintained by the rule of law, the rule of law being best maintained by the State or ruling nobility. For the Centurion, it's not so much that order ensures 'correct' solutions, it's that only with order are solutions possible at all. It's for this reason that he comes to the aid of the French nobility when their long-maltreated peasant class finally rebels against them. There is no justice in the action, merely a desire to preserve order through the rule of law. Indeed, Vitellan argues for a need to preserve the likes of Nero and Caligula as you would any other head of State. I'm not sure I favour Vitellan's viewpoint, but at least it's argued consistently.
On the debit side of the ledger there is the irksome page 142, where a small band of nobles and knights (with Vitellan and his companions in support) rout a Jacques force of near 10,000, a victory that, on the face of it, defies belief. History, however, records just such an event, leaving McMullen with a problem. If his tale is to maintain faith with its historical base (as is clearly the intention), then he must find away to render this unbelievable incident believable. However, instead of looking to his writerly skills for an answer, he inserts the actual historical account, thereby severely dislocating the narrative flow, and abruptly reminding the reader that they are, after all, simply reading a book, which doesn't do a thing for the original problem, the suspension of disbelief.
Still, it's only one page. A more telling flaw (potentially at least) comes in the reliance put on romance, in the forms of romantic love and noble purpose, as the main plot driver. While incurables like myself will find this premise acceptable, those with harder hearts won't, and for them the whole structure could well collapse. McMullen has taken a considerable risk, and I only hope, for his sake, that we romantics hold sway.
John Clute's inclusion of Voices in the Light in The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Science Fiction as one of the notable books of the '90s firmly established McMullen's SF credentials. Now, with the distributing power of a major US house to back that up, he may finally have arrived. It only remains for The Centurion's Empire to be judged as good as or better than Voices in the Light. I can't see a problem with that.
©1998 Peter McNamara.
Sean McMullen is the author of two earlier science fiction novels, Voices in the Light and MirrorSun Rising, and one collection, Call to the Edge.
He has won several Ditmar Awards for his fiction, and three William Atheling Awards for Criticism.