Turtledove: The Gladiator (2007)

GladiatorThe day after I was done with school we went for a three day mini-vacation to Santa Cruz. I took 3 non-fiction books with me, thinking that I would have time to read on this trip. It is such a great feeling to read for leisure. I did not have much opportunity to do that the last few years. I recall with nostalgia, how good it felt to read a lot for fun when I had the time. I admit most of that was science-fiction. So for this trip I borrowed a sci-fi book as well from the library to go back to that space. From the four books I had on me that was the only one I finished on our outing.

It was Harry Turtledove’s The Gladiator. I never read anything from the author and never even heard of him. I selected this book based only on the short paragraph I found in my library’s catalog. Not only I was not disappointed, but also it gave me more than I expected. It was the premise that attracted me to the book. Two teenagers get in trouble because they associate themselves with subversive games in Italy, from a hundred years after cold war was won by the USSR, which therefore extended its fear of influence over most of the world. I will not tell more about the plot itself so I would not spoil it for you.

The author did his homework. He may not intended to do so, but he successfully recreated many elements of my own teen years by projecting Eastern block values and style over the future Italy. When I was at the heroes’ age I had the same kind of questions they ponder upon. Starting with why we celebrated the Great October Socialist Revolution in November (I knew the rational explanation about the calendar switch, but it still sounded that the great myth was built on a lie). Another, more crucial one was the interpretation of Marx’s “from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs.” The problem with this lofty ideal, as I discovered in my life and read in the book as well, that humans are greedy and will overestimate their own needs.

Turtledove also correctly recognizes that power is a currency that people accumulate when there are not enough material goods to horde. The apparatchiks may live in similarly squalid apartments as everybody else, but they have power over others and they practice it. That was my experience as well. Going up in 1980’s HungaryI did not see the kind of extreme wealth I see in the US now. But I did see lots of “kiskiraly” (literally “little kings”) who enjoyed the pleasure of exercising power over their “subjects” on their own little turf.

By the time I was a teen the Hungarian equivalent of the “Young Socialist League” (aka KISZ) was going downhill. Many of us still went through the motions of attending meetings, but almost everybody knew that it was meaningless. In the book the heroine had to be an active member if she wanted to get into good university. I only joined KISZ as a senior in high school, one week before I had to hand in my college application. I paid some dues and this way I could put it on the forms that I am a member. I think the fact that I got into the college of my choice ultimately had nothing to do with this little factoid.

But five years earlier it would have. For example in grade school, I was a member of the age appropriate “communist” organization. Everybody was. There were no questions/options about it. We had regular group meetings, functions like treasurer, songleader, chair… set goals (e.g. collect x kilograms of metal to recycle) and worked on reaching them. We also had a code of ethics, consisting of 6 points for the first four grades of school. Then the number went up to 12 for grade 5-8, when we became “pioneers”. The whole concept was based on scout movement, but that was never acknowledged. I think I did not even hear the word “scout” till I was over high school. Now that I started to go down on memory lane let me translate the scouts’ 6 points. I will translate it as “scout”, but the literal word used is “little drummer,” do not ask me why.

1. A kisdobos huséges gyermeke a magyar hazának.
The scout is faithful child of the Hungarian home
2. A kisdobos szereti és tiszteli szüleit, neveloit, pajtásait.
The scout likes and respects his parents, caretakers and mates.
3. A kisdobos szorgalmasan tanul és dolgozik, segíti társait.
The scout studies and works studiously and helps his peers.
4. A kisdobos igazat mond és igazságosan cselekszik.
The scout tells the truth and acts justly.
5. A kisdobos edzi testét és óvja egészségét.
The scout exercise his body and protects his health
6. A kisdobos úgy él, hogy méltó legyen az úttörok vörös nyakkendojére.
The scout lives to be worthy for the red scarf of the pioneers.

But enough about me, let’s get to the book. It was fun to read, not just because (or despite of) it evoked all these memories. It was well-paced, the characters were not to deep or shallow, ended on a cautiously optimistic note. This last bit is getting more and more important for me, because I am getting tired of unrealistic happy endings. Hollywoodis forcing sugarcoating on almost everything and that’s tiring. The book’s heroes survive, but so does the system they live in. This shows, rightfully so that toppling a world-wide political system takes time and energy.

In the process of writing this blog entry I checked out Turtledove’s website. There I learned that the book is part of the “Crosstime Traffic” series. There are four other volumes published in this alternate history series and one more is getting published this year. Maybe I will read a few more.

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