In speculative fiction, the author tries to figure out what would really happen if a historical event went differently. Y’know, like what the world of the 1200s would be like if the Roman Empire never fell. Such is the premise of Alan Smale’s Eagle In Exile (hardcover, digital), the sequel to his 2015 novel Clash Of Eagles, and the second part of a planned trilogy. In the following interview, Smale talks about the impetus for this series, where the new novel fits in, and why it’s not about what would happen if the Romans had a space program.
For those who didn’t read it, what was the first book, Clash Of Eagles, about?
It’s 1218 A.D. in a world where the Roman Empire never fell. As Clash Of Eagles begins, the 33rd Legion under General Gaius Marcellinus has landed on the eastern shores of the newly-discovered continent of Nova Hesperia — our North America — and begun to march west in search of gold and glory. The Romans don’t get the easy victories they expect. They face stiff resistance from the Five Tribes of the Iroqua, and ultimately suffer military disaster when confronted by the Mississippian Culture at its height. This first book follows Marcellinus’s adventures in this strange new world and his attempts to claw out some kind of life for himself there…and his ultimate realization that his attempts to help have dire and unforeseen consequences.
So then what is Eagle In Exile about, and how does it connect to the Clash Of Eagles, both chronologically and narratively?
Eagle In Exile follows on immediately from the events of the first book, and spreads the canvas even wider. The Mississippian city of Cahokia faces internal strife and a determined enemy in the Iroqua, and another assault from the legions of Rome is on the horizon. And even Rome may not be the worst threat that Cahokia and the entire continent of Nova Hesperia will face. And we get to see a lot more of the North American continent in the second book.
Okay, that’s a quick sketch of the plots, but what are the books about? They’re about Gaius Marcellinus, a man of the legions through and through, who discovers that his world is not as simple has he had supposed. They’re about the inhabitants of Cahokia, a Native American city on the banks of the Mississippi river, how their society works, and the threats they face. They’re about an ancient North America with great forests and prairies, where mighty rivers form the highways, occupied by dozens to hundreds of nations and tribes. They’re about a clash of cultures. But, ultimately, I hope they come across as thoughtful action-adventure, set against a really fascinating backdrop.
Where did the original idea for these books come from?
I was reading Charles C. Mann’s 1491: New Revelations Of The Americas Before Columbus, which has a section about the real-life Cahokia. Cahokia was a fairly sophisticated city on the banks of the Mississippi River close to where St Louis is now; it had a population of some 20,000 people. The Mississippians were a mound-building culture, and something about Mann’s description of the city captured my imagination. I knew immediately that I wanted to use it as a setting for a historical fantasy piece.
Though given that I don’t have any direct personal connections with Native American cultures, I also knew that I did not want to attempt to tell their story with their voices. My viewpoint character had to be someone from outside that culture, looking in and seeing it from an external perspective. I jumped very quickly to the idea that the external viewpoint had to be Roman, not only because I’ve been obsessed with ancient Rome since I was a kid, but also because that would provide such fine counterpoint with the real history. Having a similar-but-different imperialistic power attempting to invade North America brought in such interesting resonances with the world that we know that I rapidly got obsessed with the idea.
The Roman Empire in your novels has lasted way longer than the real one, and thus has evolved. But in figuring out how, did you start with a historically accurate depiction in mind, or did you look to fictional versions such as the HBO series Rome?
I started out from historical accuracy rather than a fictional representation. I’ve always been fascinated by the Romans and have read a ton of books about them over the years. Once I knew my point of departure would be at the beginning of the third century A.D., I focused in on that time period, the structure of the Roman army and of Roman society at that time, the technology level, the patterns of thought, and so on, and extrapolated forward from there.
Speculative fiction takes many forms. Some try to really work the fiction in a rational, almost non-fiction way, while others just throw rational thinking to the wind after a while. In writing your novels, which way did you do and why?
I have a scientific background, so I definitely came at this from a very rational perspective. Though I certainly haven’t weighed the books down with it, I’ve worked through my alternate timeline in quite a bit of detail. If the Roman Empire hadn’t suffered all the traumas of the Crisis Of The Third Century, but had stabilized instead, it might have looked quite a bit like the world of Clash Of Eagles by the thirteenth century.
The Cahokian side of the story is based on the best archeological evidence out there. Again, I’d like to think I’ve done this with a light touch — the reader is experiencing the world rather than reading an archeological text — but with one obvious exception: my depiction of the Cahokian culture is based on the ground truth of the archeology and anthropology. And even my one speculative element is based on scientific extrapolation and math rather than on magic.
Were there any times when you wanted to do something, but realized that there’s no way the Romans would be able to do that in the 1200s?
Not really. I wanted the action to be realistic to the world where it takes place. The Romans and Cahokians are very much at the mercy of the elements. They travel by land and river. Later in the series we encounter very early gunpowder weapons — not muskets, not cannons, much more rudimentary than that — but I never saw any of the constraints as limiting. I loved telling the story within the constraints of the realistic technology levels. I hope it makes the book more powerful, overall.
So when you wrote Clash Of Eagles, did you know — or maybe “hope” is the better word — that you would someday write a sequel?
I wrote Clash Of Eagles as a the first in a three-book sequence, and that’s how I pitched it to my agent. I’d written the first book, and had detailed outlines for the second and third. So I knew the main developments and character arcs, key battles, and settings and so forth for the trilogy from quite early on.
Having said that, it’s a big world and there’s certainly scope for much more. If readers were interested, I’d be delighted to explore the world of Clash Of Eagles through another book or three. There are certainly many more stories I could tell, in a variety of other locales, and plenty of characters who keep muttering to me, itching to have their own moments on the stage.
When not writing, you work as an astronomer for NASA. Which begs the question: If Neil deGrasse Tyson criticizes Eagle In Exile for being scientifically inaccurate, what nice bottle of booze will you buy him for the free publicity?
He can have whatever he wants and I’ll pay up without flinching. I’d even spring for dinner. In fact I’ve already met Neil as part of my other life, so I can already imagine the twinkle in his eye when he points out exactly where he thinks I fell down on the job.
What do your coworkers think of both your books and the fact that you write fiction?
I don’t make a big deal of it; it would be a bit tacky, and also unethical, to promote my fictional career at work. But my NASA friends who are on social media certainly know what I’m up to and have given me a lot of support. Many have read and enjoyed the books, said complimentary things, dropped in on a bookstore signing or a con appearance, and even bought extra copies of the books as gifts for friends and relatives, which I really appreciate. Others just refer to it in passing in interesting ways. Most people seem to think it’s fun and interesting.
How often do they ask why you didn’t write a novel about the Romans invading outer space?
I’ve never had that specific question, though people do ask why I write historical fantasy as opposed to, say, hard science fiction or space opera. My answer to that, by the way, is that hard sci-fi would be too much like my day job. It would be tough for me to think about neutron stars and black holes and astronomy satellites and data processing during the day and then essentially write fiction involving similar topics in the evenings. I read history as a break from science, and I write stories and books that are very different from the astronomy research that I’m doing and enabling as part of my NASA work.
Though I have wondered what a space program derived from ancient Rome would look like, and whether I could make a story out of that. Maybe one day….
Normally, I end my author interviews by asking for book recommendations. But I’d like to ask you for two different questions. First, given your job, what is the most scientifically accurate science fiction novel you’ve read lately?
This is a really easy question: The Martian by Andy Weir. I was really happy to see such a realistically-written novel become such a breakout hit. I mean, not only is it a novel about problem solving, it even has math in it. Very cool indeed. A little longer ago I loved the Mars trilogy by Kim Stanley Robinson. Hmm. Now you’ve got me thinking about Romans on Mars.
Cool. Second, if someone reads Eagle In Exile, and they’ve already read Clash Of Eagles, what work of speculative fiction should they read next and why?
A lot of the people who contact me directly are very much into the Roman or the Native American aspects. I haven’t seen any other books that mash the two together, but there are a whole slew of other historical fantasies with an offbeat aspect to them. I’m thinking particularly of Michael Swanwick, Naomi Novk, Tim Powers, and James Morrow. My novels are more straight-up adventure and less quirky than theirs, but we’re all playing in roughly the same sandpit. In the alternate history line I’d recommend Harry Turtledove, John Birmingham, and the alt-hist works of Stephen Baxter, especially his “Time’s Tapestry” series, which I found quite fascinating.