An epic philosophical journey through the ancient world
These days a lot of praise, admiration, and money is heaped upon authors who create alternate worlds—J. R. R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books, or George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, for example—with all their myriad characters, intricacies, and intrigues. As they say, however, truth is stranger than fiction, and for my money no fictional world is ever as fascinating as the history of the real world in which we live. Rarely is this more evident than in Gore Vidal’s 1981 novel Creation. Set in the 5th century BC, Vidal’s book depicts the ancient civilizations of Europe and Asia with all the complexity, drama, and wonder of even the most innovative of fictional universes.
Cyrus Spitama is the grandson of the holy man Zoroaster and a citizen of the Persian Empire, at that time the world’s most powerful kingdom. Through his hereditary position as a religious leader, coupled with his conniving mother’s diplomatic skills, he develops close ties to the royal family. He and Prince Xerxes are raised almost as brothers. After reaching manhood, he is commissioned as an ambassador and leads diplomatic missions to present-day India, China, and Greece. Over the course of his journeys he meets a host of historic personages. To protect and further the interests of Persia, he matches wits with political figures like Themistocles and Pericles of Athens, Bimbisara and Ajatashatru of Maghada, Pasenadi of Koshala, and several rival nobles of the states of Qin and Lu. Spitama also takes advantage of the opportunity to debate metaphysics with some of the most notable philosophical and religious figures of all time, including Socrates, Mahavira, Lao Tzu, the Buddha, and Confucius. One question that continually puzzles Spitama is one that Zoroaster failed to adequately answer: What is the origin of everything—the secret of creation?
The list above merely represents the highlights of Vidal’s all-star cast. The fact that all of these luminaries existed on earth at the same time is truly amazing. Of course, it defies belief to think that one man could ever meet them all, but this is fiction after all, and great fiction it is. Rarely will you find a work that’s both as entertaining and as intellectually stimulating as Creation. In the 1970s and ‘80s, historical novelists were a dime a dozen, but Vidal’s work is clearly a cut above the rest. His comprehensive research and attention to detail is easily a match for the works of James Michener, but his literary skills are far superior, more on a par with classic authors like Henryk Sienkiewicz or Alexandre Dumas. Vidal’s characters are not just cardboard cutouts meant to represent famous figures in a history pageant. In addition to recreating the sights and sounds of the past, he populates his story with realistically complex characters who not only look and act like people of ancient times, they think like them too.
The one caveat with Creation is that it requires a fair amount of concentration. This is not a book you read on the beach while your kids are building a sand castle next to you. There’s a lot of historical data packed into every page. It helps to have some prior knowledge of the Persian Empire and its wars with Greece. In fact, the more you know about the history of this era the more you will appreciate how Vidal brings it to life. Anyone with an avid interest in the ancient world will love this book. It’s one of my all-time favorite novels.
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