Sunday, May 28, 2017

Alan Smale

Alan Smale writes science fiction and fantasy, currently focusing on alternate history and historical fantasy. His novella of a Roman invasion of ancient America, "A Clash of Eagles," won the 2010 Sidewise Award for Alternate History. Clash of Eagles and Eagle in Exile are the first books in a trilogy set in the same universe.

Smale's new novel is Eagle and Empire, book three of the Clash of Eagles trilogy.

Recently I asked the author about what he was reading. Smale's reply:
I’m generally reading several books at the same time, both fiction and non-fiction. Since most of what I write these days is alternate or twisted history I’m continuously reading for research, either central or tangential to the story I’m working on or about to start. I’m a knowledge junkie, so this is kind of fun, but it does mean that after five years of writing the Clash of Eagles series and focusing mostly on research, I faced a solid backlog of the fiction that I hadn’t gotten around to when it came out – some of it by my friends, which was particularly embarrassing. Plus, I’m now making a point of reading respected alternate history novels that I missed along the way.

Good examples of the latter are Lion’s Blood and Zulu Heart, an alternate history duology by Steven Barnes. Having just deconstructed North America and rebuilt it for myself, with a Roman invasion of the continent when the Mississippian Culture was at its height, I was interested to see someone else’s take. The Barnes novels postulate an America colonized by the nations of Africa rather than of Europe, and thus with switched racial roles: the big plantation homes are owned by a powerful Islamic African aristocracy, while the slaves in the fields are generally white Northern Europeans. It’s not a polemic, and there’s no winking at the reader: the books are a genuinely thoughtful and well-written exploration of a different world, and the characters of all backgrounds are all well drawn and very human. I loved the detail and the pacing, and found them thought-provoking.

Books by friends of mine that I finally got to and enjoyed recently included Myke Cole’s Shadow Ops: Control Point (military fantasy), C.A. Higgins’ Lightless (hard SF), Jason Hough’s Zero World (SF action-adventure), Fran Wilde’s Updraft (second world fantasy), and David Levine’s Arabella of Mars (interplanetary adventure). And then there’s The Devourers by Indra Das, set in Mughal India, which is one of the oddest and most visceral takes on the werewolf myth that I’ve ever read. I’d also recommend New Pompeii by Daniel Godfrey, whom I haven’t met yet but by now counts as an “internet friend.” It’s a time travel thriller with plot twists and turns and a strong Roman component, so it pushed all the right buttons for me.

On the non-fiction side, I’ve found the military history books from Osprey Publishing to be invaluable. I relied on their books throughout writing the Clash series for details of weaponry, clothing, battle tactics, siege equipment, ship technology, historical campaigns, and many other topics, for my Roman, Native American, Norse, and other characters. Their books are slim – generally 48, 64, or 96 pages long – but don’t be fooled: they’re so concentrated with critical information that they seem just the right length. Sure, their authors could have padded them out to 250 pages each, and I’ve read plenty of extended academic treatises as well, but the Osprey books bring the essentials with no fuss or fill. I always have an Osprey on the go.

Beyond those, there are three general-level historical books that I’ve enjoyed over the past couple of months. 1177 BC: The Year Civilization Collapsed by Eric H. Cline is a great summary of the bronze age civilizations of the Mediterranean and Middle East in the thirteenth and twelfth centuries BC, and a study of how their economies all fell over like ninepins around 1177 BC. It shows well how interconnected the various empires and nations were by diplomacy and trade, even so long ago. Carthage Must be Destroyed by Richard Miles is the only book I’ve ever read that gets to the core of the Carthaginian culture and people, who ended up getting wiped from the face of the earth so convincingly by the Romans in the Punic Wars. It’s a deep look into a country that many people perceive as just a failed footnote in history. Finally, Gene Cernan’s death prompted me to read The Last Man on the Moon. I work at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, but even before that I was a space addict. I’ve read a large number of books about human spaceflight, especially through the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo eras, and Cernan’s was one of the most human and candid of all.

Audiobooks! I’m new to them, I’ll admit. I didn’t think audiobooks were my thing. I read much faster than spoken-word speed, and I don’t like to wait. But when I’m driving to work and back I can listen to music I’ve heard forty times before, depress myself with news, or learn something. Recently, I’ve been learning, and I’ve found the slow pace helps me to think more. While listening to Mary Beard’s SPQR, I focused in on some political details of ancient Rome that I’d probably have glossed over in book form, because a lot of the stories were already familiar to me. With an audiobook you also can’t skip the gory parts, and so A Short History of Modern Medicine by F. Gonzalez-Crussi was fascinating but occasionally wince-making. I got to grips with the details of how scientific thinking has changed from Isaac Newton by James Gleick, and with how scientific theories themselves evolve from listening to Evolution: The Remarkable History of a Scientific Theory by Edward J. Larson.

And, let’s be honest: I was never going to read A Tale of Two Cities in book form. I just wasn’t. Too many more current books higher in the pile. But when I had to make the long road trip from D.C. to Memphis and back for MidSouthCon, Dickens kept me company, and I enjoyed his flowing language, both in the long descriptive passages and dialog, the suspense, and the dark humor.
Visit Alan Smale's website.

The Page 69 Test: Clash of Eagles.

The Page 69 Test: Eagle in Exile.

The Page 69 Test: Eagle and Empire.

--Marshal Zeringue