Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Review All Timelines Lead to Rome by Dale Cozort

When the police are called in to investigate the murder of a woman, the journey doesn't just take them across middle America but into an alternate earth. This secondary earth is a world where no industrial revolution has happened, and Romans still rule Europe. To get the menial tasks done, the Romans have enslaved a group of pixies, which are humanoid creatures bred specifically to please there master in whatever fashion is needed. No colonization has occurred and this means that Indigenous people still control all of the land in North America.  This is a world out of time essentially. This is a world where none of the natural resources have been tapped and untold treasures are still to be discovered.  Ancient artifacts are easily available for the taking.

Someone has been accessing the alternate earth and this means the possibility of them wiping out the  Indigenous population with diseases that we have long ago built immunity to, or introducing advanced weaponry and starting the project of colonization again. It also puts our current earth at danger of small pox, should someone infected with the disease return. There is also the danger that interacting with the Romans or indigenous peoples will change their culture and path of development. Do we have the will to allow these people to develop naturally without our intervention?

I think this book walks the line between sci-fi and alternate history and manages to pull it off well.  When it does move to the alternate world, Cozort adds little details like being able to drink directly from streams and a lack of things like satellites and motorized vehicles to provide convenience. This alternate world quickly becomes real to the reader and one can almost smell the pollution free air.

Though the title of the book is All Timelines Lead to Rome, the book is really all about the exploitation of North American Native people. I can see that Cozort took some time investigating the various tribes and how they lived, the problem is that the book read very much like a White saviour complex.  Much of the motivations behind the characters was to save the Indigenous people from colonisation  and of course exploitation. Scott, the professor, was highly aware of how the introduction of Europeans to North America not only brought diseases which the Indigenous had no immunity to but advanced weaponry.  Obviously, what happened in our timeline was a genocide and it makes sense that the characters would want to avoid this, the problem is that those truly concerned where all White, making the book read like Rudyard Kipling's White Man's Burden.  Jeni sought to give the Indigenous a chance by introducing them to advanced weapons in an effort to speed up their development because she believed that it was only a matter of time until our timeline began  exploiting them.  This approach of course does not factor in potential harm from disease. This entire book seemed to reify the ridiculous binary that Native tribes are backward and need saving.  It makes absolutely no sense to me why Indigenous people from our timeline would not be concerned about their people on the other side.  All we got were the opinions of White people on the issue.

The other characters of colour where equally trope laden.  First we have Darla, the adopted rich girl gone bad.  Though she has redeemed herself and become a cop, her past history of arson still haunts her in the form of a Vietnamese gang lord named Danny Minh.  For some reason, Minh is obsessed with Darla and that is how he becomes involved in this case.  His obsession makes absolutely no sense and we are given no real reason for his appearance in the book. It seems that his character's presence is only to provide another trope laden character of colour.  Darla is smart and highly aware though much of her actions read like jealousy of the White female protagonist Jeni/Jolene.

Jeni/Jolene is probably the most irritating character in this novel.  She is rich and pines away for a time when she was unknown and poor. She refers to the trappings of wealth as her guilded cage and yet she controls all of those who work for her for the most part and even developed elaborate contingency plans in case of betrayal.  Though the evidence of the harm that she has done surrounds her, Scott still fails to see her as negative and spends a great deal of time comforting her, while she wallows in self pity. He is even sad that though they are attracted to each other and share an interest in Indigenous people that they cannot be together. Perhaps the most galling, is despite the harm that Jeni's actions have caused, she faces no real consequences. This poor little rich girl with a supposed split personality is the least likeable part of the story.

All Timelines Lead to Rome begins as a murder investigation but Samantha Murphy is nothing but a plot device and we learn nothing about her.  The most developed character in this story is Scott and despite the whole must save the poor savages routine he constantly pulls, his story is fascinating and well drawn. He is absolutely the most human of all the characters and I suppose that is no surprise given that he is White, male and educated.

All Timelines Lead to Rome, does engage the imagination, in the sense that it gets the reader thinking about what would have happened to the Indigenous people had Europeans not appeared; however, the idea that their society would not have advanced beyond hunter gatherer bothers me because it paints them as eternally backward and suggests that all great inventions have to come from White minds to occur. I find it hard to believe that given hundreds of years in isolation that there wouldn't have been some sort of significant advancement in their societies, even if it was markedly different than the world we have today.  It is also disturbing that though the concept itself was fascinating that Cozort did nothing with it beyond a modern a re-telling of how Indigenous people need to be saved.

The concept of All Timelines Lead to Rome is fascinating, but the story itself fell short for me and that is largely because of the characters that Cozort chose to bring into his world.  I loved the mystery aspect and wish there had more clues along the way that made the big reveal of the antagonist make more sense.  In the end, it felt like Cozort wasn't sure what kind of story he wanted to tell. 

Editor's Note: A copy of this book was received through Netgalley.