By Alexander Wallace
There’s something about alternate historians and baseball. Harry Turtledove loves the sport, having written one novel, The House of Daniel, about the sport in an America filled with the supernatural. SLP writer Colin Salt is another such example. Here, we shall discuss another example: Alan Smale’s and Rick Wilber’s short novel The Wandering Warriors.
The novel begins in 1946, on a bus loaded with a minor league baseball team en route to a game in southern Illinois. Strange weather engulfs the bus, forcing them to stop. They fall asleep, assuming they’ll continue their journey in the morning. It’s a perfectly reasonable thing to assume.
They are woken up by curious, confused legionnaires; their bus has arrived in the Roman Empire not long after the death of Septimius Severus, a time of political strife in the Empire and in the City proper. This intrepid team needs to find a way out of this imbroglio and get back to their home timeline. Of course, this involves teaching several Romans how to play baseball.
The Wandering Warriors knows what makes a lot of time travel stories great, and exploits it well: the culture clash. There is something intrinsically interesting about seeing people from wildly different time periods, and consequently the interesting character interactions that take place. Smale and Wilber do not fall for the trap of treating the downtimers as inherently stupid, as multiple Romans adapt rapidly to the new technology and the new way of thinking (and playing).
A particular strength of the book is its narrators. The chapters alternate between two uptimer American baseball players, one a veteran player who never gives his name, and a more rank-and-file player, and both provide their own particular perspectives to the game. The former, who is referred to as ‘the professor,’ is a historian and speaks some Latin; he is the uptimers’ saving grace when thrown that far into the past. The other is the everyman, the audience surrogate.
There is a good deal of baseball in this short novel. As someone who has no experience whatsoever with the sport, some of the technical details went over my head. However, Smale and Wilber are good at bringing through the emotions in the game, if not a treatise on the sport (which, frankly, would drag down the superbly-wound pacing of the narrative), and you feel the thrill a devotee doubtlessly would.
The two writers also take care to sketch a compelling picture of Rome in the period for you; you get front-row seats at the literal Colosseum as a totally alien culture unfolds before you. Through all this, they still do not rob the Romans of their humanity; they concur with Bret Deveraux in saying “Put another way: people are people, no matter where and no matter when, but the where and when still matter quite a lot!”
The allohistorical element is present but in the background; the reader with much experience in the genre will be surprised to see it seeping in in a way that is totally unexpected. I won’t spoil it, but it is a very clever usage thereof.
The Wandering Warriors is a lean, fun little book, melding time travel and alternate history and sports in a way that rivals Harry Turtledove. I recommend it wholeheartedly to anyone who finds that interesting.
Alex Wallace edited the Sea Lion Press anthology "Alloamericana".