*posted by Ross*
Steppe, originally published in 1976, was apparently one of Piers Anthony's earlier attempts at incorporating history into a science-fiction/fantasy novel, and one that succeeds moderately well. Fans of history and/or Anthony's flair for game-systems will enjoy the innovative way ancient history of the Asian continent is brought to life in a manner that even the casual reader can follow.
Alp, a chief of a nomad tribe from 9th century AD (think Huns or Mongols), is transported into the future seconds before death by four members of a futuristic society that hope to capitalize on his real-world experience with the events and history of his time period to get an edge in The Game. The Game, a re-creation of the historical events of the warring tribes and cultures of Asia, has participants "play" the role of historical figures, from kings and chiefs all the way down to servant girls, and earn 'points' (wealth and status) as a result of how successful their lives are. However, in this futuristic society, literacy barely exists and the true path of history is known only to the Game Computer, and of course, in part, to Alp. In an attempt to evade being arrested and sent back to his own time (and the demise that awaits him there), Alp joins the Game and hopes to use his nomad fitness, training, and cunning to best the rest of the Galactic participants and earn enough points to buy a pardon for his "illegal alien" nature.
The story, told from the perspective of Alp, simplifies a huge expanse of the history of Asia into game form. Civilizations are portrayed as "giants" and smaller tribes as "dwarves", and the time scale accelerated so a day of Game time corresponds to 1 year of history. In this way, Anthony is able to very quickly cover the rise and fall of Chinese dynasties, along with other Asiatic tribes, such as the Huns and Mongols.
Although the characterization leaves a lot to be desired, Anthony uses his knack for innovative game-systems to keep the reader guessing as to what will happen next. The concepts and true history behind the novel make it a worthwhile read for sci-fi fans, but it's probably not going to be considered a great novel by anyone. It's also a pretty quick read, and kept me wanting to cover "just one more chapter" all the way to the end.
In the Afterward, Anthony explains how he thought this book would never be published due to the educational aspects "hidden" within. He hoped the response from its single US publishing would be favorable, and would spawn another series of history-as-games novels (e.g. one about Ancient Egypt, or the vikings of northern Europe, or the obvious Roman Empire). However, since I've never heard of any of these other history-as-games novels, I expect people were not quite as enamored with the concept as the author. I can see this appealing to SciFi-fans-who-are-also-history-fans but it probably missed a big segment of the SciFi/Fantasy market that just isn't interested in that stuff.
If you're looking for something a little different, and think you might want to get something educational out of it, give Steppe a go. It's not a huge investment of your time and I'd say worth checking out. (3/5 stars)