July 12, 2014
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Reading Note: Blood and Laurels

I’m taking a look at Blood and Laurels, a versu-based interactive fiction by Em Short. It’s highly regarded. Em Short is a uniquely thoughtful proponent of interactive fiction, and her criticism is a refreshing change from the usual. She’s also a classicist.

I’m confused.

Unless I’ve blundered in my date conversions, we’re told at the outset that the action occurs in or around 69 A.D., they year of four emperors. But in the first scene we have dinner with a general named Artus, which seems a strange name for a Roman senator of this era. Soon, we learn that the current emperor’s father was the emperor Corretius.

OK: we’re early in the year, Nero is still alive, and for some reason we’ve changed the name of his adoptive father, the fellow whom we all know as Claudius. But why this change? Thanks to Robert Graves, lots of people know something about Claudius; the story is thus obfuscating a potentially valuable point of contact.

In any case: we’re in some alternate Rome. Alternate history is great. But to what end? Cuius bono? Short’s Rome seems reasonably familiar: there aren’t any unicorns in the streets, we don’t have streetcars or dim sum; so far, the only obvious divergences involve names.

In my reading, we soon receive an oracle that our protagonist will someday become emperor. This prophecy stands not within the compass of belief (and is delivered by two priestesses: what happened to the third?). If this is anywhere near 69, everyone single person who had ever been anything like an emperor had come from a prominent family, and I’m going back to Sulla and the Gracchi. Our protagonist is a struggling poet, someone like Martial, though our man writes epic, not epigram. Martial was about as likely to become emperor as to play second base for the Chicago White Sox. The story, however, seems to assume that the characters will, or could, take this as a plausible and dangerous prediction

Why go to the trouble of using a familiar historical setting if you’re not going to use it? Dropping a protagonist into the middle of FDR’s cabinet, Napoleon’s army, or Caesar’s retinue lets the storyteller borrow someone else’s world-building without situating the story in the fields we know. There’s bound to be some friction, of course: Em Short’s Rome won’t be precisely my Rome, just as Peter Carey’s London isn’t precisely Dickens’, but something should be gained.

I’ve met Em Short, but because she's pseudonymous I don’t know her work as a classicist. Whatever her specialization, she’s got to know Rome a hell of a lot better than I do. And she teaches: she’s got to know that this is going to cause confusion for everyone who took high school Latin, not to mention everyone who reads Edward Gibbon or Robert Graves, Robert Harris, or Lindsay Davis.

No doubt I’m missing the point, or I’ve adopted a bad strategy, or I haven’t come to the twist, or I’m simply mistaken. No doubt the answer will be revealed in time. This is not a review, but a stake in the ground, planted in hope that, since I must be doing this wrong, someone will tell me how to proceed.