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Agent of Byzantium

Agent of Byzantium
by Harry Turtledove
Reissued by Baen Books, 1994
Amazon.com: paperback
Amazon.co.uk: paperback
Suggested by: Ross Pavlac
[Agent of Byzantium]

Book Rating
Rated 3 (Highly Recommended) by: 2 people
Rated 2 (Recommended) by: nobody
Rated 1 (Suggested) by: 2 people
Rated 0 (Reviewed) by: nobody
Total Votes: 4 people
Average Rating: 2.00 (Recommended)
Score: 0.80 (Suggested)

This is the only example I am aware of with an Eastern Orthodox SF/Fantasy novel. It's an alternate history book in which the Byzantium empire never fell.

It's a good read, though slightly flawed for Eastern Orthodox readers. Turtledove, who is Jewish (but with a degree in Byzantine history) made a couple of mistakes (including one which would have gotten the Orthodox hero killed by his Roman Catholic foes) that could have been corrected had an Eastern Orthodox SF fan been given a chance to read the final draft. Still, it treats Orthodoxy with respect and is a fun book in the tradition of the "Wild, Wild West" TV show.

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Other Comments:

Agent of Byzantium is not actually a novel, but an adaptation of a string of short stories which appeared in Amazing Science Fiction Stories and Isaac Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine between 1985 and 1989. The cover refers to being an expanded edition, and there is an introduction by Isaac Asimov dated 1987, so there is at least one new story (possibly two) over the earlier release.

The setting is an alternate history in which Mohammed, instead of starting Islam, converts to Christianity. Without the pressure of the Muslim explosion, both the Byzantine and Persian empires survive into the 14th century as world powers. Turtledove does not state his faith stance in the preface, so it's not possible to tell whether he is an Orthodox Christian, or just an extremely careful and fair researcher. Basil Argyros, the protaganist, is portrayed as a faithful, if not exactly pure, Christian, who is concerned with and discusses fine points of theology. (Turtledove is to be praised above all for his treatment of theological discussions. In several of the stories, theological points, such as iconoclasm, form important parts of the plot, yet when theological discussion arises, the story stays interesting, as opposed to turning into the kind of drudgery I had to read through in Systematic Theology.) Argyros is also intelligent and capable, which is not at all common for Christian characters in mainstream science fiction.

The one flaw, if flaw it be, is something which Turtledove shares with virtually all authors of alternate history stories: writing from a 20th century, technological perspective, it is all too easy to expect a character to recognise the physical or chemical principles behind a novel experience. Argyros discovers – or at least discovers the significance of – half a dozen technologies which took several centuries to develop in real history, all over the space of a couple of decades. (At that, Turtledove is less prone to this "supercharging effect" than one revered author who rushed a society from mediaeval technology to genetic engineering in about the same length of time.)

All in all, thoroughly enjoyable. Some laughs, some poignancy, and some things most people probably didn't know about the Roman empire and its descendants. It's bound to trigger at least some interest in history, just to find out how much actually happened, and how much Turtledove made up. Be careful, or you might learn something. – Greg Slade (August, 1998)

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