I made a post some time ago about doing brief book reviews. Since then I’ve read much and written little, and nothing resembling a book review. This is the first attempt, I thought it sensible to start with some fiction for no other reason than it would be of more general interest than something academic in nature.
L Sprague de Camp is now best known, when known at all, for his role in keeping alive the legacy of Conan author Robert Howard. Amongst his oeuvre there exists a book called Lest Darkness Fall which sets out in novelistic form an ancestor to the question all antiquarians ask one another: “well, what would you do if you went back in time?”. Were I to give this novel a kicking – and I could – it would be one with kisses in between the kicks, it remains a guilty pleasure. Nonetheless, it typifies a kind of modern naivety about the past which has ill educated moderns thinking they could become an Emperor by introducing pasta to the masses. (seriously).
Daniel Godfrey’s offering, New Pompeii, is new in every sense and a refreshing departure from pulp lit and pulp history. Instead of a protagonist being sent back into the classical past, by a sci-fi sleight of hand the past it brought to them; far from being impressed with pasta, Godfrey’s Romans act, well, Roman.
The story follows Nick Houghton, an underachieving would be academic, who probably shares concerns with quite a few of our millennial generation. Nick is offered the job of a lifetime by the mysterious NovusPart (who pioneered the technology which allows them to bring people from the past to the present); he is to serve as a translator and cultural advisor for the corporation’s New Pompeii. In situ! Amongst Romans! Who wouldn’t kill for the chance? Though of course with Romans, as Nick knows, kill is hardly ever a hypothetical question.
There’s a lovely bit early on where Nick is given a tape to listen to, of people speaking Latin. He’s perplexed at first at the differences in accent between his own restored classical accent and what’s on the tape until he realises he’s listening to actual Romans speak. We’ve discussed, briefly, divergent accents in classical Latin and even drew some Pompeiian examples. One can imagine how much difficulty Nick would have in following that Latin at conversational speed. I’ve focused too long on one example when the book contains a plethora of such nice touches.
There is a persistent sublot following another character, Kirsten, which serves to fill us in on the mechanics of time travel and the backstory of the increasingly sinister seeming corporation who invented it. While important to the book, it’s hardly important to this blog and its classical focus.
The Romans are smart. One character wants to know why the carrots are orange, another why the chickens were so large. Others display the ecological curiosity of a civilisation where the majority of people were barely above subsistence and were dependant on the land: where is all this food coming from? They ask, given that nobody can see any fields.
NovusPart try to pacify the New Pompeians with the lie that the Divine Augustus has intervened from heaven and saved a portion of the city and its inhabitants from fiery death. The employees of NovusPart pose as some sort of intermediaries between the god and the Romans but like Caligula they find out gods can bleed.
Look, it’s not perfect: no doubt readers will spot historical peccadillos and struggle over a paradox or two, but it is an enjoyable read and puts some believable flesh on some Roman skeletons. The author displays a great sensitivity towards Roman cultural and religious mores, and has a well thought out vision for how things would have been ‘on the ground’, ironically much better than many historical novels.
I was left actually wanting to read more (a rarity for me, I’m not a big modern fiction reader). New Pompeii by Daniel Godfrey shows that Clarke’s third law isn’t so much a law, but a suggestion which may not even be heard over the sound of a roaring Roman mob.