Thursday, January 24, 2008

Harry Turtledove: The Gladiator

Harry Turtledove's The Gladiator, provides a much better entrypoint to libertarian science fiction for young people than The Walton Street Tycoons, which was nominated for the Prometheus award last year. The Gladiator is part of Turtledove's Crosstime Traffic series (aimed at young adults), which I hadn't noticed before.

The main characters of this volume are high school students in an alternate Italy in which the Soviet Union won the cold war and most of the world is communist. These youngsters have all been brought up to believe that capitalism is a far worse system than communism, which they can see leaves a lot to be desired. Since they never get a glimpse of capitalism, they have no concept that there could be advantages to it. Into this milieu some visitors arrive from an alternate reality (presumably ours). They come in the guise of a chain of game stores offering simple face-to-face fantasy games of building and running railroads, managing sports teams, or battling dragons. Their plan is to gently undermine the world-wide commuist regime by teaching a few people at a time that capitalism has its good points, too. This is probably the most fantastic aspect of the novel. No, I take it back; there are certainly people who would believe that that strategy might work.

Anyway, the Italian anti-subversion squads figure out what is going on and stage a series of raids to capture the stores' operators and shutter the stores. One of the visitors from the alternate timeline is away from his store at the time of the raid, and has to figure out how to get back, leading a few sympathetic and helpful youngsters further astray.

The device of having the viewpoint characters believe wholeheartedly in communism works well. Turtledove shows us how easy it is to get people to follow a unanimous crowd. Everyone doubts that the system works well, but everyone also knows that there are spies and informers everywhere, so no one voices their doubts. The official line is that Communism is the only system that works, and since no one speaks up for Capitalism, everyone assumes that if there's a better system than the one they see around them, it must be in some other direction, since the failings of Capitalism are so widely repeated.

The characters are believable high school students, worried about popularity, grades, and other students jockeying for power in student politics. (Though in this world, student politics can lead to real-world power.) They learn lessons from plausible circumstances, sometimes not seeing the whole picture immediately, and other times reaching a conclusion that other events have prepared them for. Quite convincing, and very well written. It's not grand space opera, but you can cover big topics in a small scope, as Terry Pratchett has shown with his Discworld novels. Turtledove does at least as well, and paints a convincing picture of young people living under oppression and yearning for freedom.

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