Astronomer Alan Smale spends his days at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center exploring celestial objects, but he's also the author of Clash of Eagles, an alternate-history novel in which a Roman Legion invades North America
Astronomer Alan Smale spends his days at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center exploring celestial objects, but he's also the author of Clash of Eagles, an alternate-history novel in which a Roman Legion invades North America
Steve Mirsky: Welcome to Scientific American Science Talk posted on May 6th, 2015. I’m Steve Mirsky. On this episode.
Alan Smale: Along with some historians I think that a great deal of history is actually contingent and given slightly different circumstances or different key world events could actually have gone in a completely different direction.
Mirsky: That’s Alan Smale. He’s an astronomer and he’s also the author of a new novel called Clash of Eagles. It takes place in the 13th century A.D. in a world where the Roman Empire never fell and in which a Roman legion has made it across the Atlantic to North America. We talked by phone about the book and the field of alternate history writing in general. Stay tuned after our conversation for some brand new research about some of the people in his book. First tell us about your day job. You’re an actual scientist.
Smale: Yes, I am. I work at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center. I’m a research scientist there in the astrophysics science division and I study x-ray astronomy essentially looking at binary star systems in our galaxies where one of the stars is a neutron star or a black hole.
Mirsky: And you’re publishing in peer review journals, all the usual stuff.
Smale: Oh yes. Yes. I have over 100 papers in refereed journals over the years that I’ve been an astronomer.
Mirsky: So what made you while you’re doing all of this fascinating work, what made you think that geez, I’d really love to write some novel, some sci-fi, some alt history?
Smale: Actually I’ve always been interested in writing. I started writing very young, fairly soon after I learned to read. So I was writing all the way up through my teens. At that point it was mostly adventure stories and that kind of thing, very derivative. But I always knew that I wanted to be a writer. I was possibly interested in writing before I was interested in astronomy actually. And so I was always keen on that and once I moved over to the states I knew that I wanted to get serious about writing for publication. I have written science fiction but largely what I do is I write for relaxation and to get away from the day job in a way. So and I’ve always been interested in history as well. And so recently I’ve found myself writing more and more historical fantasy, alternate history, that kind of stuff.
Mirsky: All right. So your science fiction, if we can call it that, will not have to do with interstellar space travel. That’s at work.
Smale: Yeah. That’s at work. That’s – if I do that at hoe as well it feels like I’m doing the same thing all the time if you see what I mean.
Mirsky: Right. So alternate history is a particularly interesting genre. I realized – I was thinking about it after I read your book that I had just read an alt history book and that’s The Yiddish Policemen’s Union. And I was thinking about other alt history I’ve read and that’s Philip Dick’s The Man in the High Castle you’ve probably read.
Mirsky: And for people that haven’t read it that’s a classic situation where the axis powers win World War II and one of the great things he has in the book is somebody in that book is writing an alt history novel in which the Allied powers win World War II. So that’s kind of funny actually.
Mirsky: And even in pop culture, even the movie Inglorious Bastards could be considered an alt history.
Mirsky: Yeah. So alt history is really – it’s kind of fun. I know that historians sometimes have a little problem with it though.
Smale: Actually historians use it as well. Some historians use it as a tool. They call it counterfactual and it’s a much stronger academic basis behind it. But I think in their case what they do is that they look at what people at the time thought would happen. So what people thought before the American Revolution or what people thought during the English Civil War, what the people who lived in the times were writing about it in the times thought was going to happen next and then compare that to what really happened. And that tells them something a little more about the historical process.
Mirsky: Right. Which leads me to my next question which was what does alt history allow you to do as a novelist, as just a thinker?
Smale: I think it allows you to look at the real history in a kind of different light. Along with some historians I think that a great deal of history is actually contingent and given slightly different circumstances or different luck, often different weather on the battlefield or something like that key world events could actually have gone in a completely different direction. A lot of what we think of as being inevitable is actually only inevitable in hind sight. Things didn’t necessarily – historical events didn’t necessarily have to go that way.
And I think there are certain branching points where actually world history could have gone in a completely different direction. And I think it’s fun to kind of explore that. I enjoy reading history. I enjoy getting the resonances of the real past into the fictional past that I am writing about if you see what I mean. And I think it allows us to hold up a mirror to our own civilization sometimes. The best alternate history can do that, can make us look at our own civilization and our own institutions in a slightly different way in the mirror of what could happened in different histories.
Mirsky: Indeed. Some people might think we’re actually living in the alt history in which the south won the Civil War.
Smale: Maybe so, yes. There’s certainly a lot of alt history along those lines. That’s one of the favorite discussions in alternate history. There’s a lot of World War II alternate history and a lot of Civil War, American Civil War, civil history alternate history as well.
Mirsky: So let’s talk about your book. Why don’t you just give us a brief tour of your book?
Smale: Ok. My book. My book is called Clash of Eagles. It’s set in – it starts out in 1218 AD. We’re in an alternate timeline where the Romans never fell, where the Western Roman Empire continues as endured and largely the same form. There are some changes that have taken place in the empire but it’s still recognizably the classical Roman Empire. And now they’ve discovered this continent across the Atlantic Ocean to the west.
In fact this was discovered by a Norse long ship who were allied now to Rome. And essentially the Roman Empire is expanding into the North American continent. And my hero guy is Gaius Marcellinus. He is the general in charge of the first legion to come over. They land at the Chesapeake Bay and they’re marching westward through what to them is an unexplored and largely uninhabited wilderness and the story really takes off from that point.
Mirsky: Yes. I don’t want to give too many spoilers here but one might ordinarily assume that a Roman legion with steel and the experience of warfare in large groups might have a fairly easy time of it with some American Indians and that’s – as I said I don’t want to give anything away but it’s more interesting than that.
Smale: Yeah. They’re certainly expecting they’re going to have a very easy time of it actually. They know they’re going to have to go long distances because they have sent Norse scouts out into the terrain ahead. So they know that it’s a very large continent. They’re not expecting very much difficulty with dealing with the local inhabitants. They’ve been sent over to look for gold or other treasures that they can take back because Rome was primarily a plunder economy and still is in my book.
And so that’s what they’re – they’re out there looking for whatever they can steal or whatever they can take home with them. But when they meet the Iroquois and then later on the Mississippian culture at its height because that’s the time when the great culture of the Mississippi was really going full bore. They discover that they’re going to have a very difficult time of it in fact and things are not going to turn out as easily as they think.
Mirsky: Well there’s a key technology that the Mississippians or the Cahokians as we have it in the book and in real life have and I guess we’ll tell you that if you don’t want to know what’s going on at this point you should probably skip ahead but it is – this is discussed in some of the previews of the book so I guess we should talk about it a little bit. You have the mound builders with a unique technology for the time. We assume they didn’t really have this but we don’t know one way or another really if you think about it.
Smale: Yes and I do a certain amount of playing around with that in the book as you know. Cahokia itself was this great city on the Mississippi which is located where St. Louis is now and it was actually a giant city. I find a lot of people actually don’t know that much about it. It covered five square miles and 20,000 people and as you said it was a mound builder culture, the Mississippian culture and some of the cultures that came before it built mounds of packed earth and silt that weren’t like the stone pyramids of much further south in the Americas. But they were large. They were really quite impressive sized objects. I got really interested in Cahokia. There was a point where I was reading about Cahokia and I knew that I was going to set a book there, that I was really intrigued in it about it and I wanted to explore this more.
And when I was looking at these mounds and looking at the – looking at Cahokian society one of the things that I saw that was very prevalent was the dominance of flying imagery in Mississippian art and a lot of the art around those areas down in the Southeast as well. On their pots they would have falcon or thunderbird type eyes. They would have images of wings. It was clear that they had a bird man cult that extended up and down the Mississippi and along the Ohio River. And that really got me thinking. What is the point of having these big tall mounds if you’re not going to throw yourself off them?
And so yes, the culture in the book, the Mississippian culture in the book has actually developed sort of a primitive form of flying. Essentially they have things made of wood and of bear skin and so forth that are very much like hang gliders and they launch themselves off the top of the mounds with these hang gliders. And this is one of the technologies that enables them to give the Romans a run for their money which is that effectively they have air power whereas Rome has steel and has a – has a tried and true method of fighting. They really don’t know what to do when they’re attacked from the air.
Mirsky: Right. When you add that third dimension all of their training is for naught.
Smale: That’s right. Everything that they’ve been trained for that doesn’t necessarily work under this situation they have to think on their feet and come up with a whole way of dealing with that.
Mirsky: So tell us about – I mean one of the great things about the book was it made me go to Wikipedia a lot to check certain things. And I learned a lot that I had never known about the Mississippian culture and how advanced it was as well as ancient Rome. And so what was the research? One of the appendices to the book actually talks about how much research you did but you did quite a lot of background research on both cultures.
Smale: Oh yes. I certainly did. I’ve been reading about the Romans all my life. I used to go for family vacations up at the __ Wall when I was much younger. So I’ve been interested in the Romans for a long, long time. I got interested in the Cahokians much more recently. I was actually reading Charles Mann’s 1491 which was about the Americas before the Columbus voyage and he has a large section on Cahokia in there and I got fascinated at that point. And I did – I made the same discovery which is that Cahokia was a major thing in the Americas and very few people actually know all that much about it at this point. I tried to be – I’ve done a lot of research. I’ve read a lot of the books.
I’ve read a lot of the popular books and I’ve even read some academic texts and that kind of thing to make sure that I’m current with the research that’s going on there because they’re still doing digging and archeological studies at Cahokia and many other mound places across the Americas. So I’ve done a lot of reading about that and aside from the flying aspect everything else is as accurate as I could make it, the foods they’re eating, the way they built the mounds, a lot of the things in their cultures in the cultures I describe are as accurate as I could make them. And I think that if they did have wings they would have done it in the way that I’ve describe it.
Mirsky: Right. And it’s where the title of the book comes from is the Clash of Eagles because the eagle or raptors are important symbols in both cultures too.
Smale: Yes. That’s right. That was the – that was a nice thing I thought that the Romans of course have this very strong eagle imagery and so did Native Americans really, eagles, hawks, falcons, all of that kind of stuff. They are very strong images within Native American culture.
Mirsky: I read the book on a Kindle and so I didn’t know that it came with a map. I only saw that later. So one of the things that I was doing as I read was trying to figure out what modern cities you were referring to in the book because you don’t just spoon feed it to the reader. So that was another fun part of the book in terms of detective work that the reader could do is figuring out which, what is now St. Louis that they’re talking about. What is now New Orleans that they’re talking about? So there’s a lot that you can use as a reader as a starting point to do your own research and find out a lot about both cultures actually.
Smale: Yes. And I had a lot of fun doing that. I really loved the map in the front of the book as well. We spent a lot of time trying to toss it back and forth various ideas to make that as accurate as possible to the world I portray and to the one that really exists. I think it worked out really well. I really enjoy that, the resonance of knowing what the real America is like and then comparing it to the America of Clash of Eagles. I hope people are going to be interested by that. And I hope that if people pick up the book in a book store and look at the map then that will intrigue them.
Mirsky: I’m curious about the portrayal of your protagonist Gaius in that because he is first character that we see, that we read about I think this true in a lot of works, we immediately – or let me just talk for myself. I immediately associate with him and sympathize with him and so I’m kind of riding along with the Romans as they encounter this other culture whereas in real life they’re both foreign cultures to me. But was that something that you were aware of that the reader is on Gaius’ adventure?
Smale: Yes. I thought if I was going to write a book about Cahokia I really had to see it from outside eyes. It was obvious to me that my protagonist had to be an outsider going in since I’m personally an outsider to the Native American culture. So that’s what felt right to me. And it also felt right to me immediately that it had to be a Roman outsider. Somehow it just, it all clicked in my mind and it seemed – the book that I really wanted to write was the clash of these two cultures, the Roman culture coming into North America. I thought that was very interesting and as soon as I thought of it it was an idea that wouldn’t let go. Yes. Marcellinus is the guy who is in charge of the 33rd legion as they start their travel across North America. And yes, we do see things very much from the Marcellinus point of focus of point of view of Marcellinus.
So yes, we’re seeing things through his eyes but we’re obviously very aware that he’s a career soldier. He’s career military. The legion is all he knows really and he hasn’t been exposed to much outside that. He’s fought in wars all across Europe and Asia and he’s actually very good at his job but he’s less good at other things. And so part of the journey is for him to learn more about other ways of thinking, other types of experience in the world, family and community and that kind of thing. So part of the novel is actually his learning more about the Cahokian culture and more about himself as they go through. The reader learns about these things through him as well.
Mirsky: Yeah. He really undergoes a profound personal change throughout the book. But it was really an interesting technique I thought because in a way culturally we understand the ancient Romans better than we understand the Native Americans I think. So it was a way to get into them and I found that a really interesting technique. Did you see the HBO Rome series?
Smale: Yes. Yes, I did. And I own it now. And I thought that series was very successful in showing the mindset of the Romans, that it wasn’t just modern people who dressed in a different way. They actually have a completely different way of thinking.
Smale: Like they don’t have Judeo-Christian values because this precedes those. And so they actually, their mind – you can actually see their minds working in a different way. It’s written so well that you can tell that these are really slightly alien people.
Mirsky: Yeah. Absolutely. They’re Romulans.
Mirsky: Right. So it’s book one of a trilogy.
Smale: Yeah. That’s right.
Mirsky: And you have – how far along are you on the other two?
Smale: I’ve actually written and delivered the second book to Delray so that one is now, we’re now doing the copy editing for that one. And I’ve been having discussions with my editor over the last couple weeks about the outline that I sent in for book three and I’m going to be starting that very soon. In fact I’ve got a lot of notes. I’ve done a lot of research and a lot of notes for that and some test scenes and that kind of thing. And I’ll start doing the actual writing really soon. So book one has just come out but my head is actually full of book three at the moment.
Mirsky: That’s great. It’s incredibly readable and I really enjoyed it so I’m looking forward to the next two. Now we get – we get basically to the Mississippi River and south to south of St. Louis but not too far in book one. But we’re going to really travel south as the trilogy continues?
Smale: Yes. You’re going to see a lot more of North America as the trilogy continues, certainly south down the Mississippi and across to the west as well. So yeah. I’m hoping to open up the landscape much more.
Mirsky: And in the meantime you’re still busy at Goddard doing your astronomy work.
Smale: Yes. Yes. Very much so. In fact it was ironic because I had a really big work deadline that was due the day before the book was supposed to come out and so at the same time as I was doing a lot of promotional work for the book and getting ready for the launch I was also working really hard on a big work proposal. So yes. I’m very much involved in the day job too.
Mirsky: Talk about somebody with a foot in both cultures.
Smale: Yes, that’s right.
Mirsky: We should point out there’s also a novella that wound up being the springboard for the first book. So people can find that and it’s an award winning novella and people can find that too.
Smale: Yes. That’s right. I wrote the first – the first novella is called A Clash of Eagles. So it’s four words instead of three. That was published in an anthology called Panverse Two that was edited by Dario Ciriello. Yes. That novella went on to win the sidewise award for alternate history which is the major award for alternate history writing. And so I was very happy to get that and that was – I was already working on the novel at the time I won that award but that was great validation for me that people found the stories interesting. I think a lot of authors have the feeling sometimes when they start writing something they’re thinking well maybe I’m just writing this for myself. I’m intrigued by this but nobody else is going to like it at all. And it was quite gratifying for me when I discovered that not only was it nominated for the award but it ended up winning. I think it did help me a lot when I came to pitching for agents and that kind of stuff.
Mirsky: Sure. Sure. So anybody who’s interested in actually going to Cahokian sites, where do you recommend they go?
Smale: Perhaps the most impressive site was Cahokia itself which there’s quite a large state park there in Collinsville, Illinois. And I really enjoyed walking around there and I found it very evocative. There are also sites at Moundville and Etowah and several other places, Kincaid I think in addition to the Mississippian period that I’m looking at which covered this time period from about 1000 to 1400 AD there’s also quite a lot of remains from the older Hope and Adina civilizations. There’s a place called Serpent Mound which is along the Ohio River in Adams County, Ohio which is this really long – it’s only about three foot high so it’s not quite as impressive as the mounds of Cahokia but it’s intensely long. It’s over 1,000 feet long. And so it’s this prehistoric effigy mound in Ohio. And so there’s all kinds of things from Native American cultures prior to the Columbus voyage that I think are very well worth seeking out.
Mirsky: Yeah. And if you think that three feet is not a big deal imagine lugging around enough earth to build a three foot mound. I don’t know how wide it is but it must be 15 – 20 feet wide at least.
Mirsky: That goes on for 1,000 feet. I mean this is tons and tons of earth.
Smale: Yes, that’s right and there’s this huge mound in the middle of Cahokia itself called Monk’s – it’s called Monk’s Mound now because some monks were living on it back in recorded history times. That thing is just huge. It’s like 1,000 feet square and it’s several, effectively several stories tall, 100 feet tall. And it must have taken a huge amount of time and a huge amount of organized labor to build such a thing and that’s one of 120 mounds in the city of Cahokia itself.
Mirsky: Yeah. It’s quite easy to find photographs of that mound online and yeah, there are multiple flights of stairs leading up to the top. Well thanks again for your time. This was great and I enjoyed the book immensely and I’m looking forward to reading the other two.
Smale: Ok. Thank you very much.
Mirsky: Oh May 4th, just two days ago, the proceedings of the Natural Academy of Sciences published a new study about the Cahokian civilization. To quote from coverage by Emma Merris in the journal Nature “Cahokia was a pretty big deal in the 1100s.” The new study looked at sediments in a lake near Cahokia. The researchers concluded that a major flood of the Mississippi River around the year 1200 could have been an important factor in the eventual abandonment of this major population center by about the year 1350. The flood and other environmental conditions could have destabilized the city leaving us with the mounds that thanks to the new study are a bit less mysterious than perhaps they were before.
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