Post by Nic Quattromani:
I’m quite fond of tropes. Yes, when overused they can flatten a story, make it a bland template more than a work in its own right (looking at you, Starship Troopers: Traitor of Mars), but nevertheless they provide a tremendous library of ideas, stories, and tools spread across literary space, which no self-respecting author would relinquish in favor of some tropeless but incomprehensible work. Just recently I finished reading an anthology, titled Galactic Empires, organized around one of sci-fi’s most successful tropes: the galactic empire. It’s easy to imagine such an empire in its prototypical form. It spans the galaxy, or at least a chunk of it, organizing humanity under the sometimes benevolent, sometimes despotic, but always autocratic rule of the sprawling capital planet at its center. Its glittering battlefleets enforce peace at the end of a railgun barrel. Corrupt officials despoil their systems, while upstanding ones defend the frontiers from the aliens outside. In halls of power, noblemen play out their merciless intrigues, murdering and conspiring beneath statues from the Empire’s prouder, nobler past. Mixed with the triumph of countless Imperial conquests is the ever-present specter of decline, promising a day when the spacelanes fall silent and savages tread the capital’s marble steps.
I had those things in mind when I started Galactic Empires, expecting stories along the lines of the imperial states I grew up on, like the Galactic Empire (Star Wars), the Second Empire of Man (The Mote in God’s Eye), the other Galactic Empire (Foundation), or the Roman Empire (real life). That is not what I got.
Galactic Empires is a solid anthology, with a selection of twenty-two stories by big names like Brandon Sanderson and Naomi Novik as well as several I hadn’t previously heard of. Not a single one of those pieces was too badly written, per se, and editor Neil Clarke did a good job in terms of presentation and picking well-crafted work to showcase. Nevertheless, I left feeling a little disappointed. The theme tying everything together was very, very loose, going beyond just a liberal interpretation of the phrase “galactic empire” to encompass any story tangentially related to an interstellar
government civilization bunch of entities hanging out in space. There was certainly a dazzling amount of variety, for better or worse. Below I’ll give you a brief overview of the stories in this volume. Some I don’t have much to say about, either because I read them several months ago or because they just weren’t that interesting to begin with, but others definitely made an impression.
Below I have reviews for the first ten stories, with the rest to follow next week. Spoilers will be marked.
“Winning Peace” by Paul J. McAuley: During a cold war between two interstellar powers, an enslaved POW tries to escape to freedom. There’s a powerful alien artifact in the mix, too. This story has wonderfully compact worldbuilding and a riveting plot. The setting’s not that original, but that works in its favor, making “Winning Peace” a familiar current amid this book’s whirlwind of novelty.
“Night’s Slow Poison” by Ann Leckie: I read this one on a road trip, after missing part of a night’s sleep and downing entirely too much coffee in a failed attempt to compensate, so not much of it stuck with me. I think this one’s about a starship traversing a dangerous region of space for six months, during which time the crew and passengers succumb to cabin fever as they also confront the enemy agent in their midst.
Ann Leckie’s story has excellent psychological tension. The prose and dialogue were solid throughout, too. However, aside from the idea of one solitary vessel making a months-long voyage through a graveyard of ships, there wasn’t a lot in this story that really stuck with me, even accounting for the fact that I wasn’t in a great headspace when I first read it.
“All the Painted Stars” by Gwendolyn Clare: An octopus-like pilot, specifically engineered to serve no purpose but flying its space fighter, comes to the aid of a crew of humans taking a recovered alien spaceship out of the solar system for the first time. In the process the pilot is separated from its ship and must learn to find a new purpose in life.
I love this story. It’s from the alien’s perspective, so we get to look at humanity from the outside, and that alien has a strong character arc. The ending actually made me fairly emotional. However, this is another story that stretches the trope of the galactic empire further than I would have liked (the humans are just a handful of explorers dipping their toes in the cosmic water, and the society the alien serves is some sort of vaguely defined federation), and while it might seem unfair to so judge a superb work of fiction, I do question its place in this anthology.
“Firstborn” by Brandon Sanderson: If this isn’t my favorite short story in the bunch, it is a strong contender. “Firstborn” is imperial science fiction the way it was meant to be told. There’s a sprawling empire determined to unite the scattered systems at any cost, there are gripping fleet battles, there are aristocratic admirals in spiffy grey uniforms… it has it all, really, and the whole thing has the grandeur of history projected into the future. The plot itself is a delightfully clever concept. Our protagonist, Dennison Crestmar, is a fleet commander living in the shadow of his older brother Varion, an admiral whose conquests and battlefield excellence practically make him a modern Alexander the Great. Not only is Dennison incapable of matching that, his tactical intuition is so poor he can’t even put down a rebellion properly. Still, despite his consistent incompetence, the Emperor himself insists that he continue to command, for reasons unknown but vital to the High Empire’s future…
Have I mentioned that I love this story? The plot’s riveting, the main character is a fun subversion of the “competent, calculating admiral” archetype, and the conclusion was both original and thematically appropriate. “Firstborn” is a terrific piece of traditional science fiction that still brings some fresh air.
One quibble: Sanderson sticks the word “high” in front of freaking everything. There’s the High Empire, the High Officers, the High Dukes, and so on. After reading Mistborn, where “maladroit” appeared several times with all the subtlety of a strobe light, I think I’ve figured out that before Sanderson starts each story, he picks some random word to overuse when writing it.
Anyway, that’s just me being snarky. “Firstborn” doesn’t seem to have much in the way of problems.
“Riding the Crocodile” by Greg Egan: Like “All the Painted Stars,” this one packs an emotional punch. In it the couple Leila and Jasim, having been married for ten thousand years in a galaxy-spanning, utopian civilization, decide that before they voluntarily end their lives they will tackle one last challenge: uncovering the secrets of the enigmatic civilization at the heart of the Milky Way. So far the aliens have refused communications and rebuffed probes sent to spy on them, but Leila and Jasim just might have a way to discover the undiscoverable.
This story was breathtaking. The galaxy portrayed in “Riding the Crocodile” is a dazzling society filled with species of all shapes and sizes, where consciousnesses beam themselves from star to star, and far-future technology allows anyone to fabricate almost anything at will. It’s a magnificent setting, believable in light of all the advances yet to come in AI, bioengineering, and nanotechnology. Nevertheless, it has the same problem as “All the Painted Stars”: it doesn’t stick to the theme of the anthology. It leaves “galactic empire” territory for “a bunch of entities hanging out in space,” and that’s why I must deduct a point (still making it my second favorite story here).
“The Lost Princess Man” by John Barnes: Now we have reached the first story in Galactic Empires that I didn’t like. There were some standout moments, such as one near the beginning where an aristocrat uses cybernetic tendrils to stop a man’s heart, but it didn’t grab me. The main character is a “lost princess man,” who runs a scam involving telling young, poor women that they are actually lost princesses, and I found the concept both boring and somewhat ridiculous. Altogether there wasn’t anything too grand or thought-provoking here.
“The Waiting Stars” by Aliette de Bodard: This one was a bit of a chore to read. The prose is beautifully crafted in places, but it’s downright opaque, and the author attempts to cram a complex, kind of bizarre setting into a story too short to handle it. As a result, little is explained and the reader is left wondering what on Earth (or off of it) is going on. From my recollection it’s about a Vietnamese-themed spacefaring society, which hardwires people to spacecraft to create mind-ships. The protagonist, a woman taken at a young age and raised in a different culture, yearns to return to her home out in the galaxy. Maybe I just didn’t get it, but “The Waiting Stars” was too strange for my tastes.
“Alien Archeology” by Neal Asher: Here’s a story that, instead of shying away from AI and transhumanism like many sci-fi properties do, embraces the notion and runs with it. The result is wild, to say the least. Its plot revolves around two characters attempting to secure an artifact containing a million-year-old alien consciousness, and along the way they encounter nasty crab aliens (the Prador), an AI living in a crashed spacecraft, and a roving space dreadnought. Battles are fought with computer-assisted reflexes and resolved within split seconds. While there’s a vast setting here, it’s conveyed in a streamlined and unobtrusive way that does little to detract from the tension.
Overall I quite like “Alien Archaeology.” Its setting has proper spacefaring empires, though the focus is not on them, and stylistically it is an interesting blend of Firefly-esque space opera with cutting-edge technology and cybernetic modifications. Nevertheless, the characters aren’t developed too strongly. Judging by this story, and two of Neal Asher’s other works (the novella Shell Game, which was quite good, and the novel Prador Moon, which I put down because it was amateurishly written), the author prefers to stick to popcorn sci-fi where plentiful action and eye-popping weapons take the spotlight. I can respect that.
“The Muse of Empires Lost” by Paul Berger: This one made me salty. It starts out promising, with a biologically engineered space station and humanity struggling to survive after nanites crippled its technology, while the plot is an instantly compelling one—a young girl meets a man with mysterious powers, who has set out to restore the human empire to its former glory. What could be the problem? The problem, you see, is that it’s all annoyingly hippy-dippy in the end. I’ll talk about the twist here only because it ticked me off. It turns out that—SPOILER START—the mysterious man trying to restore the empire is the bad guy, and the self-centered protagonist successfully thwarts his plans because she’d rather live in the gullet of a space whale than dig humanity out of the hole it’s fallen into—SPOILER END. No, I wasn’t rooting for the villain, the story was. Ugh. Still, “The Muse of Empires Lost” gets points for its ideas and superbly polished writing.
“Ghostweight” by Yoon Ha Lee: Well, we’re looking at something pretty surreal. I’m not altogether sure what to make of it. This author paints with a light brush, dropping hints of a setting brimming with strangeness, and the story ends well before it can all come together into something cohesive. What I got out of it involved space pirates, and deadly high-tech origami, and also a ghost. I understood it better when I read it, but that was many months ago. It’s a bit too opaque for me to dive into again now.
And there is an Imperium, too, which the protagonist resists with guerrilla attacks on its infrastructure, so that was pretty cool. All in all I think this is a passable story with strong concepts that trips over itself in execution.
All right, that’s all for now. Next week I’ll finish up this review. After that will come a third post about galactic empires, and for that be sure to grab your peaked caps and rayguns, because I’ll be discussing what makes imperial science fiction awesome.