THEBES OF THE HUNDRED GATES by Robert Silverberg

12 12 2010

A short novel – 30,000 words or so, hardly more than a novella – by one of the grand masters of the genre.

In Thebes of the Hundred Gates, the Time Service in Home Era (like NOW) sends a young “volunteer” (none of the more experienced operatives will touch it) back to ancient Egypt in search of two of their own who overshot the mark and got lost in time a year and a half earlier. Now Service backroom-boys have managed to pinpoint them in Thebes – Thebes at the height of its splendour, under Amenhotep III, the great pharaoh whose son, Amenhotep IV, better known as the arch-heretic Akhenaten, husband of Nefertiti, attempted to reform the Egyptian religion. (I have a couple of books about those two, Nefertiti and Akhenaten, that I want to review here some time.)

Edward Davis, our all-American-boy hero, materialises in the heat and dirt of a secluded back alley and immediately falls ill. Not because of the filth …

Two donkeys stood just in front of him, chewing on straw, studying him with no great curiosity. A dozen yards or so behind him was some sort of rubble-heap, filling the alley almost completely. His sandal-clad left foot was inches from a row of warm green turds that one of the donkeys must have laid down not very long before. To the right flowed a thin runnel of brownish water so foul that it seemed to him he could make out the movements of giat microorganisms in it, huge amoebas and paramecia, grim predatory rotifers swimming angrily against the tide.

But he had been inoculated against anything Thebes might come up with. No, it was temporal shock – it’s like “a parachute jump without the parachute“, they had told him, jumping so far uptime, “but if you live through the first five minutes you’ll be okay.” He had been back 400, 600 years before, but never anything like this.

He loses consciousness; and when he wakes up, finds himself in a temple, in the capable hands of Nefret, Priestess of Isis. However, she seems only to want to be rid of him, and as soon as he recovers, arranges for him to live and work among the embalmers, the mummifiers, in the necropolis on the other side of the Nile.

It is a refuge for which briefly he is grateful, but it turns out that he is little more than a slave there and the overseers have whips and he has only thirty days – twenty-eight left now – before his rendez-vous for pick-up at exactly midday back in that alley. How can he hope to track down the missing time travellers from there, stranded on the wrong side of the river?

A wonderful glimpse, not only of the world of the future where chrononauts travel uptime and back downtime – it is still, obviously, the early days of time travel – but also of the past, of Thebes of the Hundred Gates, teeming with people, all of them, in the childhood of the world, concerned with only one thing: death, and the afterlife; and reincarnation.

This little book is perfect.

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