Visions of Paradise

Saturday, March 01, 2008

Galactic Empires

In 1976, Brian W. Aldiss edited a two-volume compilation entitled Galactic Empires, featuring classic stories by authors such as Arthur C. Clarke, Poul Anderson, Isaac Asimov (the original “Foundation,” one of the proto-type galactic empires), Cordwainer Smith, Clifford D. Simak, A.E. van Vogt, James Blish, and Harry Harrison. Galactic Empires have long been one of the staples of far-future sf, a sub-genre which I often prefer to “space opera” since it does not carry with it all the baggage of warfare and fast-paced thrillers (which, admittedly, does not describe all space opera, but a much higher percentage of that sub-genre than galactic empire stories in general).

Now Gardner Dozois has published an SFBC collection of 6 original novellas under the same title Galactic Empires. Considering the high quality of other recent SFBC collections (including Robert Silverberg’s Between Worlds and Dozois’ own One Million A.D.) as well as the excellent authors included in this collection, I ordered it as soon as it was announced, then waited two months for it to arrive.

The first novella in the book is Peter Hamilton’s “The Demon Trap.” Hamilton writes very interesting sf mysteries, such as “Watching Trees Grow,” a PS Publishing chapbook which was reprinted in the excellent four-novella collection Futures. However, I was not as enamored by his hard-science story “Blessed By An Angel” in The New Space Opera.

Fortunately, “The Demon Trap” is another mystery involving a galactic Confederation dominated by a handful of rich families, and one world which has been using terrorist tactics to force the Confederation to let it secede. A detective named Paula is investigating one of the terrorist attacks, and is determined to solve it even after Merioneth has achieved its goal of secession. Several subplots float through this mystery, including Paula’s own background connection with the Merioneth Forces, but Hamilton juggles all the various elements well, as well as providing sufficient teasers about his Confederation to make me want to read more about it (which is apparently the setting of his massive Night’s Dawn trilogy).

I’ve never read a Neil Asher story before, but “Owner Space” is an interesting story about a ship filled with escapees from a repressive government called the Collective. The Collective, in addition to repressing and enslaving much of its own population, has been waging war with an alien race called the Grazen, whose powerful empire borders that of the Collective. So when the escapees find themselves on the border of the two empires, caught between two dangerous enemies, they suddenly receive a mysterious invitation from a third source hidden within an unexplored portion of space under the control of a mysterious “Owner” who was never been seen by humans.

Both the Collective ship pursuing them and a Grazen dreadnought follow the escapees to an amazingly Earthlike world inside Owner space, where all three groups encounter the mysterious Owner himself. The story’s climax is a scene out of either a wish fulfilment or a comic book, and while it is mostly satisfying, it does rob the story of any power it might have otherwise had.

My other minor complaint with the story is Asher’s tendency to describe every technological aspect of the spaceships’ functions whenever they operate. It’s as if the driver of a car feels obligated to discuss pistons and crankshafts everytime a car tools down Route 80. Such descriptions might entertained a technogeek, but they were mostly irrelevant to the story itself.

Robert Reed’s “The Man With the Golden Balloon” is one of his Great Ship stories, which are usually among his best stories. “The Remoras” is still my favorite Reed story ever, and this story features the same two main characters as that previous story, the rich immortal Quee Lee and her young, non-immortal lover Perri. At a party, they encounter a man who tells them rumours about a distant corner of the great ship which has never been mapped by the ship’s captains’ extensive surveying. Considering this a grand adventure, Quee Lee and Perri gather a small group of explorers and seek out that hidden corner. While they do find such an unexplored place, it is little more than a cave hidden among a labyrinth of caves. In that cave they encounter a strange being who claims to be a representative of a galactic union which secretly controls galactic affairs without the knowledge of most of its inhabitants. He tells them a story about an Earthlike world which may or may not be true, but which becomes increasingly believable to Quee Lee and Perri as he tells it.

This is not one of Reed’s major stories, but it is interesting and the story told by the unseen man never lags. However, I am not sure Reed achieved his main goal in the story, which seems to be instilling a sense of awe and wonder, and perhaps a bit of trepidation, that the world as we know it is only a facade lying over a secret world of which most people are unaware.

Alastair Reynolds’ “The Six Directions of Space” begins as a tale of espionage as a secret agent from the headquarters of a huge galactic empire visits one of its outer worlds where the government’s control is not as tight as it might like to be, so the agent falls into the clutches of a mostly-independent warlord who treats her more like an enemy than an ally.

The tale of espionage becomes a story of first contact from the point of view of a repressive totalitarian state and ultimately veers into a tale of parallel universes in which different groups have built galactic empires: Mongols in one, Moslems in another, Nestorian Christians in a third; but other universes have non-human empires whose brutality make the human ones almost acceptable. Overall, this is a fascinating look into the many-worlds which cries out for sequels.

Stephen Baxter’s “The Seer and the Silverman” displays his usual bravado in a tale of the hostilities between the human Third Expansion and the aliens known as Ghosts, although they more resemble floating eggs, on the precipice of intergalactic war. The story is set on the Reef, an artificial world built from numerous spaceships somehow linked together, and which was independent until a self-proclaimed Commission for Historical Truths rose to power in human space fueled by their belief that a galaxy not dominated by humans has no reason to survive.

The narrator is Donn, a young trader who serves as a liaison between Ghosts and humans. The story begins as a series of abductions have taken place on the Reef, which most humans assume was done by Ghosts. A Ghost ambassador comes to the Reef along with a virtual version of a long-dead human to ask Donn for help, telling him he is needed. Before he can protest he is abducted and ends up on a Ghost world living among other abductees–self-proclaimed “rats”– surviving by waging an underground war against their Ghost captors.

The theme of the novella is that the Ghosts are abducting humans to study them, because they do not understand humans any more than humans understand Ghosts. As the Ghosts are portrayed in the story, and in other Baxter works in which they appeared, they are so inhuman that they do not understand humans’ instinctive need for expansion and attempts to control the galaxy. While they are very advanced, likely far beyond humans, they seem totally unprepared for warfare so that fleeing is their only option against the Third Expansion if they are to survive as a race.

There are a few problems in the novella, such as one long section devoted to Donn and the Ghost ambassador babbling scientific theory to each other inside a giant sun on the verge of turning into a supernova, and Donn seems incredibly brilliant, perhaps too much so for a simple trader. Fortunately, neither of these flaws matter since Baxter, as usual, is primarily interested in the big picture and his story’s philosophical implications more than the nuts and bolts which drive it.

The only story I could not finish was Ian McDonald’s “The Tear,” which on one hand offered some of McDonald’s evocative writing and flurry of ideas, but on the other hand also showed his occasional tendency to so overload the story with those ideas and writing that whatever point he was trying to make was mostly lost to me.

Overall, Galactic Empires was a worthwhile book with two superior stories (Reynolds and Baxter) and three mostly enjoyable ones (Hamilton, Asher, and Reed). I would recommend you wait for the paperback, except since it is a Science Fiction Book Club book, that paperback might not be forthcoming. So wait for one of their Buy 2 – Get One Free online offers instead.


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