Friday, June 5, 2015

Questionable Genre: Juvenile Alternate History

Review: Gunpowder Empire by Harry Turtledove

I admit I’m a history reader. I like Harry Turtledove because he writes real science fiction that just happens to incorporate real history. With that said, I have a real problem with the alternate history genre as juvenile fiction. It’s not that it isn’t good, sui generis (because Gunpowder Empire is enjoyable). It’s that it is aimed at readers who do not have the real history solidly under their belts yet.

The story opens on two time-traveling teenagers (Amanda and Jeremy Solter) spending their summer helping their parents with a trade mission in Agrippan Rome, then leaves them stranded without their parents, and follows their efforts to cope. 

There are some interesting interactions between the modern teens and old Romans, and some less-believable encounters with invading barbarians.

What isn’t in the book, however, is any attempt to define or describe a real gunpowder empire.

I could definitely see my children (when they were teenagers) enjoying this book. What I don’t see is the value to them from reading it. Would they learn historical concepts? Definitely not. Would they get any real sense of Agrippan Roman life? I doubt it. 

Would they come away from it with any tips about teenagers being strong in adverse situations? Maybe. But a better choice for that would be Heinlein’s excellent juveniles, The Menace from Earth or Have Spacesuit, Will Travel, or perhaps Sheffield’s Tor Jupiter juveniles, Higher Education or The Billion-Dollar Boy.

So this book misses its mark for me. It was still a pleasure to re-read, and for any adult who has already met Heinlein’s or Sheffield's juveniles (or any juvenile reader acquainted with the novels of Robert Graves or Steven Saylor), would not be a total waste of an afternoon.