Epigraphs & Poems in SF novels: (1) Iain M. Banks’ “Look to Windward” (c) 2000; and (2) Kim Robinson Stanley’s “The Years of Rice and Salt” (c) 2002.

Epigraphs & Poems in SF novels

 The SF novel “Look to Windward” by Scottish writer Iain M. Banks (1954 – 2013) takes its title from a line in T. S. Eliot’s poem “The Waste Land”. The novel’s dedication reads: “For the Gulf War Veterans”.

The space opera novel was one of a series based on galactic civilizations. The Culture is an egalitarian civilization; it is the more technologically advanced, powerful and influential one in the galaxy.

“Look to Windward” is about the consequences of two wars: the Idiran-Culture War; and the Chelgrian civil war, an unforeseen consequence of the Culture’s involvement in Chelgrian politics and caste system.

A very brief synopsis of an epic tale:

At the end of the novel, two deaths occur.  Major Quilan, a Chelgrian, wishes to die after the loss of his wife, Major Worosie, in the Chelgrian civil war.

The Culture’s Hub Mind is in deep mourning. It cannot bear any longer  the centuries of memories of the Idiran-Culture war, when gigabillions of worlds and life forms perished.

The Hub Mind plans to cease existing. It has already given over the running of the Culture civilization to other Minds. Neither The Hub Mind nor Quilan wish to have their memories or personalities stored in “Soul-Keeper” devices. Neither wishes to be restored after their deaths.

The Mind and Quilan die together. The moment of their death coincides with the end of a majestic symphony, commissioned by the Mind; and conducted by the great Chelgrian composer Mahrai Ziller, to commemorate the billions of lives lost and the Twin Novae Battle at the end of the Idiran-Culture war.

Epigraph & Title from the poem “The Waste Land” by T. S. Eliot
(1922 edition;  the poem is in the public domain — see notes*).

“Gentile or Jew
O you who turn the wheel and look to windward,
Consider Phlebas, who was once tall and handsome as you.”
— from “The Waste Land, IV. Death by Water”.


“The Years of Rice and Salt” by Kim Stanley Robinson is an alternate history SF novel. The novel is an epic tale of the world after virtually all of the people in Europe die as a result of the plague. The story covers many centuries, from the early 1400s to 2002 AD, and is told in the form of ten books.

The novel is rich in detail, as it follows the political, religious, social and scientific developments in different times and places. The people that dominate this alternate history are the Chinese, the Buddhists, the Muslims, and the Indians, and there are fascinating stories interwoven within this of the North and South American peoples.

A group of individuals connect the times and places, through reincarnation of their souls. (I’m planning to write more about the novel later).

Kim Stanley Robinson sets the background and tone of his alternate history with an epigraph from “Journey to the West”, a Chinese novel written by Wu Cheng’en in the 16th century (during the Ming dynasty). It is one of the great classical novels of Chinese literature, and is the story of the legendary pilgrim, the Buddhist monk Xuanzang who travels to the “Western Regions” (Central Asia and India), and returns with the Buddhist sacred texts. It is also a story of a journey of  enlightenment.

A popular English-language translation of “Journey to the West” is “Monkey: A Folk-Tale of China” by Arthur Waley, published in 1942.
( https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Monkey_(novel))



The complete verse “IV. Death by Water” from “The Waste Land” by T. S. Eliot

“PHLEBAS the Phoenician, a fortnight dead,
Forgot the cry of gulls, and the deep sea swell
And the profit and loss.

A current under sea
Picked his bones in whispers. As he rose and fell
He passed the stages of his age and youth
Entering the whirlpool.

Gentile or Jew
O you who turn the wheel and look to windward,
Consider Phlebas, who was once handsome and tall as you.”

Sources and Credit




Arthur Waley (1889 –1966) was an English scholar, an Orientalist and sinologist. His translations of Chinese and Japanese poetry achieved both popular and scholarly acclaim. He was awarded the Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry in 1953, among other honors.


For  previous posts related to the above two SF novels, see:

“Souls” in SF & Fantasy: “Soul Keepers; Soul-Smokers; Alchemists & Stones; Soul Avatars….”

Update: reading continues; blogging – fewer postings.


“Souls” in SF & Fantasy: “Soul Keepers; Soul-Smokers; Alchemists & Stones; Soul Avatars….”

“Thank you” for following/liking/visiting my blog site(s).

Progress! I’ve read three of the four novels I listed in my previous post (read on,  & *link at the end). And it’s been a fantastic reading journey!

All four novels have the elements that I’ve come to enjoy and appreciate in the SF & Fantasy genre: character-driven plots, alternate or fictitious histories, literary allusions, and philosophical / thought-provoking issues.

I’m not sure if I’ll be writing the kind of lengthy story summaries I’ve posted to date. But some writing will emerge, I hope!

For now, in a simplified way, here is how the title of my post emerged from  the novels I’ve read:

1) Iain M. Banks:”Look to Windward” (Culture #7) (c) 2000.

Soul Keeper devices store the intellect/personality/memories  of individuals, including humans or humanoid or alien or sentient AIs. The ‘souls’ can be restored, retrieved, and “teleported” or transferred (to the same or other individuals).


2) Ekaterina Sedia: “The Alchemy Of Stone” (c) 2008.

A Soul-Smoker is a human who can “breath in” and store the souls of humans, dead or alive (!). Mattie, an automaton and alchemist, finds a way, with the help of the Soul-Smoker, to restore to living flesh the Stone Gargoyles.


3) Helene Wecker:”The Golem and the Jinni” (c) 2013.

The Golem, Chava, is a clay woman made by a Polish rabbi. The Jinni, Ahmad, was trapped by an ancient Syrian wizard. When Chava and Ahmad meet and become close friends in late 19th century Manhattan, their very survival turns into an intense mental and spiritual struggle against their powerful masters. There is an ancient connection between the Syrian wizard and the Polish rabbi….


4) I’m still reading this novel:
Kim Stanley Robinson: “The Years of the Rice and Salt” (c) 2002.

The Monkey Wu-Kong takes on the form of the Mongol and Temur warrior, Bold Bardash. As the plague spreads, Bold  finds himself alone and barely alive. He is captured in Anatolia, sold as a slave first in Egypt, and then in Zanj to the Chinese Treasure Fleets….

*notes: previous reading update


sky space dark galaxy
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Robert Silverberg: “Roma Eterna” (c) 2003

Robert Silverberg: “Roma Eterna” (c) 2003

This is a collection of short stories (some published earlier in different forms)  (c) 1989, 1991, 1994, 1998, 1999, 2002, 2003.
In these  stories, Robert Silverberg creates an alternate history of  the Roman Empire. In actual history, after the death of Constantine the Great, the Western Roman Empire declined for a number of reasons, and collapsed in the 5th century. In Silverberg’s  fictional history The Empire continues to grow and strengthen after the death of Constantine the Great in the fourth century. The period of time covered by the stories is from the 5th to the 20th centuries. Rome’s influence spreads throughout the world, and it is the major global power in the 20th century. The Empire becomes a Republic after dramatic political changes in the 19th century,

I found the stories fascinating to read because of the parallels, and differences they provide in comparison to actual Roman and world history.

“To Romans I set no boundary in space or time. I have granted them dominion, and it has no end.” — Virgil, The Aeneid.

The stories in “Roma Eterna”
The fictional history is told through the lives of individual people and of individual emperors. Historians often provide the framework of the timeline and events and significant figures within each story. The stories are in chronological order. Each story can be read as a stand-alone, and references to previous emperors and historical events provide a connection to the larger historical perspective.

The dates in the novel are written as “AUC” or “ab urbe condita”, from the founding of Rome (753 BC). For example, The year 1198 AD in actual history becomes 1951 AUC. In the summary that I’ve written, I’ve used the actual history dates, as this allows me to think of the real history of those times.

The Stories
With Caesar in the Underworld.
A Hero of the Empire.
The Second Wave
Waiting for the End
An Outpost of the Empire
Getting to know the Dragon
The Reign of Terror
Via Roma
Tales from the Venia Woods
To the Promised Land


Timeline of the Roman Empire in actual history:

The Roman Empire’s foundation began with the reign of the first emperor Augustus (27 BC to 14 AD), and continued to grow and expand under the emperors Trajan, Hadrian, and Marcus Aurelius.
After the reign of Constantine the Great (306–337 AD), the empire was divided into the Western Roman Empire and the Eastern Roman Empire (Byzantine Empire). Constantine made Christianity the official religion of the Empire. After the death of Constantine, the Western Roman Empire declined for a number of reasons, and collapsed in the 5th century, overwhelmed by attacks and invasions by the Goths and Vandals on the northern frontiers. The Eastern Roman Empire continued to exist until its collapse in the 15th century.

Silverberg’s fictional history:

After the death of Constantine the Great, the Western Roman Empire and  the Eastern Roman Empire are ruled by two separate Emperors. The Goths and Vandals are defeated by the Romans, and the Roman Empire continues to expand and strengthen through the centuries, within Europe, and eastwards into Asia, to the borders of India and China. Attempts to conquer the Aztec and Inca Empires of the New World are unsuccessful.

Although there are civil wars, the Empire as a whole remains intact. Eventually the Empire goes through a dramatic political change when the last Emperor is killed and Rome becomes a Republic again (somewhat as it was in the days of Julius Caesar). In modern times it is the major global power.

In the fictional history, the ancient Hebrews remain living in Egypt: Moses is killed when he leads the Hebrews from Egypt to Palestine and the surviving Hebrews are taken back to Egypt as slaves. Jesus of Nazareth does not exist; Christianity and Islam do not exist.

A summary of selected stories from “Roma Eterna”

“With Caesar in the Underworld” ( ~529 AD)

A turning point: the defeat of the Goths and Vandal

Emperor Maximilianus II is very ill. The Western Empire faces increasing attacks by the Goths and Vandals on the northern frontiers. Prince Maximilianus is the younger son of the Emperor and does not expect to become the Emperor. However, a seer in the underground city that exists beneath the streets of Rome, predicts the young prince will be the next emperor.

On the day that the old Emperor Maximilianus II dies, his heir Prince Heraclius is killed in a hunting accident. Prince Maximilianus becomes the next emperor, Maximilianus III. His reign marks a significant turning point in the history of the Empire when he gains an overwhelming victory over the Goths and Vandals. He comes to be known as Maximilianus the Great, as he brings peace and prosperity to the Empire, and through marriage and military alliances, he brings the two ancient halves of the Roman Empire closer.

“The Second Wave” (~1108AD )

Set in the time of Emperor Saturninus, this is a story of the unsuccessful attempts by the Romans to conquer the Mayan Empire in New Roma (the New World). Later emperors develop trade with the Aztec and Inca Empires, which remain independent and powerful through the centuries.

The discovery of the New World is made by the seafarers of Scandia, the Norsemen. There are Norse settlements in Islandius and Grenelandius in the northern part of the Ocean Sea (Atlantic Ocean). Their explorations of the coast farther south brings them in touch with the Maya of Yucatan.

A Norseman, Haraldus, brings tales of rich kingdoms across the Ocean Sea, to Emperor Saturninus. In the first expedition, the Romans send thousands of soldiers in swift war ships to the Yucatan. Ambushes and attacks by hidden enemies from the forested coast take their toll, as the Romans deal with a land, and climate, very different from Europe. Only a few soldiers return to Rome.

A few years later, Emperor Saturninus sends a larger number of soldiers to invade Yucatan. One of the legate leaders of the expedition is Titus Livius Drusus. To his amazement, he finds out that the king of the Yucatan is a Norseman, Olaus, who was with the earlier Norse expeditions to the New World.

Olaus explains to Titus how he had trained the Mayan fierce warriors in the Roman methods of war. He quickly made himself powerful with his  ability to conquer and rule over all the independent cities in Yucatan. His army had wiped out the first Roman legions, using Roman methods of war, and ambush attacks.

The second expedition of the Romans also fails to invade Yucatan, when a fierce tropical storm strikes the Yucatan coast. The storm devastates the temporary Roman forts along the coastline,  and hundreds of men drown.  Ships sink in the heavy surf and tidal waves. The shoreline is cut in half, and fierce winds uproot trees in the coastal  forests.

When the storm ends, the Consul of the expedition is dead, and Titus finds himself the leader of the remaining soldiers. He quickly organizes the men to repair the few remaining  ships, and returns to Rome. Out of the original  40,000 men,  only  600 make it home.

More expedition are sent to the New World, but there is only defeat,  and a great loss of lives.  The  drain  on the economic resources adds to the weakening of  the Western Roman Empire.

“Waiting for the End” (~ 1198 AD )

Emperor Maximilianus VI is the emperor of the Western Empire. Basileus Andronicus is the Emperor of the Greek-speaking Eastern Empire. For 50 years, the Western half of the Empire has been at war with the Eastern half.  The Western Roman army is also on the defense in the northern and southern borders of Italy.

The army of Emperor Basileus Andronicus marches  into Italy, and into Rome. In the Hall of the Hunting Mosaics in the Imperial Palace, Maximilianus VI abdicates his throne to Basileus Andronicos. There is shock and disbelief among the Romans. Basileus designates his brother Stravospondylos as Emperor of the Western Empire.

Maximilianus’s younger brother, Prince Germanicus Caesar, believes that war is inevitable between East and West. Germanicus leaves Italy to live in exile in Gallia, one of the Western provinces of the Empire.

The Greeks rule the Empire for about 200 years.

In the 15th century, under Emperor Flavius Romulus, the Western Empire defeats the Eastern Empire, and only one Emperor rules over both. The governance and administration of the Eastern half is placed under a Roman procurator. (“An Outpost of the Empire”, ~ 1453 AD).

We learn more about the 15th century, the Emperor Flavius Romulus, and subsequent emperors in the story “Getting to know the Dragon” .

“Getting to know the Dragon” ( ~AD 1750)

A history of the Maritime Emperors, the voyages of exploration and expansion in the 15th – 17th centuries.

Tiberius Ulpius Draco is an 18th century Roman historian, from the Western Province of Hispania. He is currently writing a biography of the great Emperor Trajan VII (“the Dragon”), whose reign is regarded as part of the Roman Renaissance in the 16th century.

Tiberius Draco reflects on the 15th – 17th centuries of of Roman history:

Over the centuries, the Western Provinces have grown to include Gallia, Hispania, Britannia, and the lands of the Teutons and Goths. Flavius Romulus was from Hispania. In 1443 AD, he overthrew the Hispania provincial government, and joined forces with the other Western provinces – Lusitania, Britannia, Gallia. The rebels marched into Rome, and within a few years, the Eastern Empire fell. Flavius became the Emperor, of both halves of the Empire and reigned for 30 years. The next two Emperors were Gaius Flavillus, and Trajan VII.

During the reign of these three emperors, Rome expanded its influence and power through several maritime voyages. Roman explorers discovered the sea-route from  the southern tip of Africa to India, and sailing eastwards, they went on to explore and establish trade with various  islands and archipelagos, reaching  Japan  and China. 

The Great Emperor Trajan VII (the Dragon) was  from Hispania. He was an extraordinary emperor and traveler. He rebuilt Roman palaces, universities, theaters and renewed interest and education in the arts and sciences. He built a second capital at Venia (Vienna) on the river Danubius to bring the Western Provinces and Eastern Greek provinces closer together.

In Hispania,  Trajan had the port of  Sevilla rebuilt, and Sevilla  became the  main port for voyages to the New World.  The voyages across the Ocean Sea (the Atlantic) to Mexico, and  south to Peru  were now for trade .

The emperor Trajan  himself traveled to the Eastern Empire – to Constantinople, Syria, Aegyptus, Persia; he went on a voyage to India by way of the sea-route around the tip of Africa.  

In the 25th year of his reign, in  1522 AD,  Trajan  went on a  five-year voyage around the world.  He became the  first voyager  to circumnavigate the globe.  He sailed first to the New World, and then sailed south, searching for a possible channel to the west.  Through  a narrow strait  (Strait of Trajan)  at the southern tip of the New World, he  sailed into the  Western Sea,  the  Pacificus Sea, with its calm seas and  blue sunny skies. He completed the voyage, sailing westwards across the immense Pacific Sea, and eventually to the
now familiar lands of  Khitai and Cipangu and India  and Arabia, and then rounded the southern tip of  Africa, and returned to Sevilla.


As trade and commerce expand, the European provinces of the Western  Roman Empire grow more prosperous, and gradually the  provinces of Sicilia, Belgica, Gallia, and Hispania become virtually independent with their own languages and cultures.

“The Reign of terror” (~ 1815 AD)

The Emperor Demetrius II   has ruled the Western Empire now for  20 years.  Due to his extravagant expenditures,  Rome’s treasury problems have  grown  steadily worse.

One of his two Consuls, Valerian Apollinaris has pacified the  rebellious western provinces. Consul Apollinaris and Consul Larcius Torquatus plan to bring the Emperor’s expenditures under control. However, Torquatus takes drastic reform steps: the Emperor Demetrius is placed under house arrest. Many of the people who served him are executed.
When Torquatus begins to execute Senators, Apollonaris arrests Torquatus for high treason. In the meanwhile, Emperor Demetrius escapes from his palace and tries to assert his power again.
Apollinaris acts quickly to have the Emperor and Torquatus killed.

There is increasing chaos as Timeon, a leader in the ancient Subura slums of Rome, calls for a return to the the Republic form of government that existed prior to Augustus.

Apollinaris has Timeon and many plebeians arrested, and plans their executions. With the support of Appolinaris and the Roman Senators, Prince Laureolus , of an ancient Imperial lineage, becomes Caesar. Laurolus realizes that Rome will fall into chaos if Timeon is executed. And he grants amnesty for Timeon and other political prisoners. He also has Apollinaris arrested when the latter challenges Laureolus’s decision.  Apollinaris  is assassinated.

“Via Roma” (1850 AD) is the story about the overthrow of the last Emperor Maxentius. He is the grandson of the Emperor Laurolus.

The Emperor Maxentius and most members of the royal family are murdered.  In a return to the Republic form of government of the days of Julius Caesar, The Second Republic is established. There are to be no emperors. The governance of the Empire is placed in the hands of a consul. The First Consul is Gaius Junius Scaevola.

One member of the Emperor’s family escapes. And his story is told in the “Tales from the Venia Woods”.

“Tales from the Venia Woods” ( ~ 1897 AD)

This is a story about the last surviving member of the Imperial family. The story is told by Tyr, who is now ~70 years old (~ 1967 AD) . Tyr is named after ancient Teutonic gods, not Roman gods. His family lives near Venia, part of the Teutonic Roman provinces for many centuries. The people have retained their Germanisch language. Venia is a historical city: a great statue of Basileus Andronicus stands in the city, to mark his victory over Maximilianus about 800 years ago; and there is also a palace built by Trajan VII in the 15th century.

As a young boy, Tyr is curious about an old house deep in the Venia woods near their home.. It is said to be the hunting lodge of the Emperors and to be  haunted by the ghost of one of the Caesars. Tyr thinks of exploring the house, perhaps to find some treasures of the Imperial days.

Tyr and his younger sister Friya often take walks in the woods. And one day, they venture deeper.  In the wilderness of ancient trees, Friya sees  a rustic hunting lodge.  An old man lives there. He is the “ghost” — frail, gaunt, white beard. The old man says he is the the caretaker.  The faded paintings, the  sculptures, armor and arms show that it was once an  Imperial hunting lodge. A couple on the other side of the woods had looked after the old man  for years but he has not seen them recently.

Tyr and Friya become the old man’s friends.  He gradually talks about the Imperial days, about the last Emperor Maxentius.  He knows that there are no emperors now.

Friya notices the striking resemblance of the old man to the painting on the wall, of the Emperor Maxentius. The old man is in fact Quintus Fabius Caesar, the youngest brother of the last Emperor;   he has been living in exile and in hiding since the downfall of the Imperial house, since the time of the First Consul Scaevola.

For their kindness, the old man gives them gifts from the past, including an ancient figurine of Pan.  The children give the figurine to their grandmother as a birthday gift. But her keen eyes see the crest of the Emperor.  Angry, she asks the children where they had found the figurine. The children are afraid, but they talk of their visits  to the old hunting lodge, and of meeting the last Emperor’s brother, the old man who lives there. Their grandmother, and their parents are Republicans.  Tyr and Friya are  told to stay away from the old house.  But the children are afraid for the old man’s safety and well-being. They return to the hunting lodge and find the lodge  in shambles — the  arms and armor gone, sculptures smashed, and the paintings slashed.  There is  blood on the floor, and there is no sign of the old man himself. Some years later, the old house burns down.


“To the Promised Land “(AD 1970)

This is a story about a group of Jews, and their hopes for a second Exodus.

Moshe is a young Jew, from Egypt. He and his followers have established a small Hebrew settlement in the desert east of Egypt. Their plan is to establish a new land for the Jews in space. They build a spaceship for a test launch to the moon and back.  However, the spaceship explodes within moments of the launch.  Moshe is killed. His followers do not give hope, they see him as the beginning of a new messianic religion in the East.



Orson Scott Card: “Pastwatch: The Redemption of Christopher Columbus” (c) 1996.

This is a sci fi story about changing the future by changing an event in the past.
The story is therefore told in two different time periods: in a future, many centuries from our own time; and in the 15th century, the time of Christopher Columbus.

For me, the most interesting part of the story was how the two time periods become tightly connected through the Pastwatch Project: scientists, scholars and historians working together, using increasingly advanced time machines to visualize Earth’s past in great detail. Eventually they build time travel machines:  to travel back to a given time in the past, to change an event, and to thereby change the future.

The story begins centuries in the future: Earth has been devastated by war and natural disasters. It has become vital for people to share resources,  to rebuild for a better future by learning from the past.

As I read the story, two major characters emerged: Tagiri  and her daughter Diko.  Both are   historians, in Juba, North Africa.  Tagiri’s Pastwatch research leads her into the history of slavery in Africa, in the Americas and the slave trade across the Atlantic. The turning point for her comes when she views the discovery voyage of Christopher Columbus, and the Spanish attack on Hispaniola. Tagiri realizes that a woman from that past is able to see her, and is seeking her help. How can the past be changed to stop the Spanish conquests and slavery in Central America?

Diko  becomes actively involved in the research group. There are intensive discussions on whether it would be right or wrong   to prevent or change Columbus’ voyage to the Caribbean. Ultimately, the researchers decide to put into action a plan to let Columbus sail to the Caribbean, but stop his return to Spain for several years.

Diko and two other Pastwatch researchers, Hunahpu and Kemal,  travel separately to the past,  at different times.  Each is aware that their actions  will change their own future, and of others in the future.  They  put their plan into action: Columbus loses all his ships in the Caribbean. He is stranded. Diko and her team thus prevent him from returning to Spain for several years. And in that time, the Central America kingdoms continue to develop their civilizations, and not be devastated by European conquest and slavery.

With Diko’s help,  Columbus eventually learns to live among  the peoples  of   Central America.  He eventually returns to Spain, in ships built and commanded by the people of Central America. The Europeans and Central Americans meet, on equal terms, in a peaceful way. 

The novel ends with a postscript: In the changed future, Earth is utopian.