(don't, whatever you do, follow that link if you haven't read at least The Long Run and, ideally, The Last Dancer. If you wanna do the thing right, read Emerald Eyes first, but it's not really required. The other two will be.)
/me readies cash
I do hope he manages to get the next installment, Players: The A.I. War published, so I can buy it. Immediately. In hardcopy. Multiple times.
There is no shortage of science fiction that explores the Interstellar Empire. There are, in fact, whole series of collections whose short stories are nought but that. One of the most popular words in sci-fi politics, 'empire' is approached in popularity only by various forms of 'federation.' There are even explicit explorations of the Roman Empire extended interstellar, both explicitly and via political theory.
The Clockwork Empire
The Dragon Never Sleeps is another book about Empire, set in science fiction. It, however, takes a slightly unusal approach. The component of empire that is important (and, in fact, the only one that exists, really) is that of the Pax Imperia. Picture an empire where all that remains is the military, running on autopilot; a military whose job it is to enforce the simple dictum of there will be no war (or you'll regret it).
In the distant future, humanity has spread to the stars and conquered. Enough time and events have passed that humans no longer even remember where they came from. Interstellar travel is possible due to a deus ex machina artifact called the Web, which is a network of pathways of unknown size linking star systems. Ships can 'ride' the strands of the web from place to place, so long as the web goes there; the structure of the Web determines commerce, exploration, and conflict.
Humanity set up and comprises the Canon, an interstellar government in most administrative and bureaucratic sense. The Canon, however, has a strange relationship with its military. Rather than being an arm of the Canon itself, the Pax is maintained by the Guardships.
Thousands of years old, almost a civilization unto themselves, the Guardships are the classic force majeure. The 'Dragon' of the title, enormous war machines of technology higher than almost anyone else out there, they travel the Web from their home port of Starbase Tulsa, roving where and when they will and keeping the peace. The penalty for war: Guardship intervention, ranging from simple interdiction to the sterilization of those worlds involved in the conflict. The connection to the Roman Empire's Pax Romana is explicit - the Guardships themselves are named for Roman legions.
Crewed by both replicated humans (clones created to replace aged or killed crew) or by 'Deified' personnel - people uploaded into the Guardships' computer systems - the Guardships differ from each other in makeup and temperament. Some are aggressive, some are patient; some are crewed mostly by the living, some entirely by the Deified. As Guardships age, their near-omniscient Core systems can develop egos, or senses of self; this is almost always a sign that the Guardship is beginning to move towards the insanity of awareness.
Artifacts (construct life forms) and aliens are distinctly second-class citizens in Humanity's Canon space - but Humanity is senescing, with populations dropping and exploration waning. The more vigorous and growing non-human population is starting to take on more and more of the day-to-day tasks of running everything, and it's debatable whether the crews of the Guardships are even still human.
Into this world we are dropped, following the plotting and machinations of several individuals and groups. A human commercial House (essentially licensed governors of various planetary properties) plots to expand its influence; the ruling members of that house display varying levels of sanity and ambition. We are introduced to several stranded aliens and artifacts, trying to make their way in the DownTown slums of a human world. And as we join the universe, the Guardship VII Gemina sets out on the trail of a member of an ancient enemy, travelling on commercial House spacecraft through the Canon. That chase will take us through and into the various plotlines of the book, into deceit, war, and legend.
I didn't check the date on this book until after I'd read a good way through it, and I was surprised at how old the book is. It reads a great deal like a prototypical Iain Banks book; star-spanning civilizations, machine intelligences immensely greater than man, tying things together, and world-hopping plotlines. It appeals greatly to my sense of sci-fi as something that can aspire to a play and a stage so much larger than contemporary fiction.
It does not, however, pull off the game with as much slickness as the Banks books, such as the novels of The Culture. Part of that is due to the writing, where names are used with little explanation and, indeed, little background. For example, I couldn't help think that the author had drawn up at least a rudimentary map of the Web and its systems, at least those systems which figured in the plot; however, he neglected to share that diagram with us despite referring on several occasions to star systems by name and assuming that we understand their astrographic importance.
The technology is handled well. That is, it is handled in appropriately space-opera fashion - we are only given details when those details impinge directly on plot points. It doesn't matter how ships move on the Web - what matters is what happens when two of them meet in the process, and what must happen then.
Although a great deal of the book is setup, there is enough action and intrigue during that phase to keep things interesting. The problem really arises in the endgame, when several plot turns are occurring simultaneously as the various subplots converge. Then the complexity of the story begins to overwhelm the narrative - not in that the narrative itself suffers, but that it cannot support the level of plot it is trying to forward. On several occasions in the latter third of the book I found myself going back two pages and trying to puzzle out what, precisely, had just happened - that is, how what had happened related to the storyline. I knew it had, and I knew exactly what (in terms of moment-to-moment events) had transpired - but the relationship between those events and the larger story was sometimes either too subtle or simply obfuscated. I found myself skimming backwards looking for occurrences of a name that I knew was important but couldn't remember why.
There are several themes that the book clings to relentlessly. One, the most visible, is the question of the Pax. What happens to a system when all that remains of it are rules? Conversely, what happens to the soldiers of a system when the rules have become stagnant? Are the Guardships in fact an Empire, or just a remnant of one? How do the Guardships relate to the rest of humanity (other than across gunsights)?
Probably the second most explored theme is that of individuality. In a world where people can be recreated, either during their life or after, what does it mean to state that you are person X? Do you have their memories? If so, what does it matter? If there are three duplicate copies of you, with all your memories and knowledge, can they be told apart? What happens if artificial distinctions are made for legal reasons? And so on.
A minor but recurring question is one of humanity. What is human? Is a constructed being human? Are aliens human, if they are subsumed into the system? Who is a Roman?
I don't know how to rate this book. I do know that it held me gripped tightly while reading. Looking back, it doesn't seem to slot in next to what I consider to be the 'big' books of sci-fi, but then I recall that it was written ten to twenty years before many of my genre favorites, and I have to award it lots of points.
If you like Iain Banks Culture novels, Neal Asher's Polity books, or Alastair Reynolds' work such as Revelation Space, then I strongly recommend this book. As you're reading it, remind yourself that it predates some of those books by decades. You'll put it down feeling like you've read an entertaining precursor to those modern space operas; one with depths that some of the modern intricate sagas fail to plumb.
The Dragon Never Sleeps
Written by Glen Cook
Night Shade Books; Reprint edition February 1, 2008
As is our habit, jyeo and I convened at midnight for the release of the new Harry Potter book. Since the bastard has relocated to Cali and I lost the coin toss, he elected to receive, which meant I gained new JetBlue miles and we performed our traditional bookrace in Mountain View.
Here, the miscreant prepares to begin the sprint.
Also finally started settling down to some serious work on Terry Pratchett's excellently funny Discworld stuff. I'd read Eric some years ago, along with a one or two others, but I just chewed my way through Going Postal, Small Gods, Monstrous Regiment and Guards! Guards! with much snickering. I look forward with much anticipation to the many Discworld books that lie in wait for me on bookstore shelves, sharpening their pages in preparation.
I was also forced to re-buy a Miles Vorkosigan book, because Baen Book still has one or two of the 'collection omnibus' editions to release in e-book format, at having just re-read the series, there was this awful hole in the middle, so I had to buy Memory again, couldn't resist.
Let's see, what else? I read and enjoyed some cyberpunkish stuff by a Joel Shepherd, named the 'Cassandra Kresnov Novels' (Crossover, Breakaway). There appears to be a third, Killswitch, in the offing for November. Karen Traviss will probably be dropping another in the City of Pearl series on us any month now. William Gibson will drop Spook Country, fictional high-energy event, sometime midsummer; Richard K. Morgan (author of the excellent Takeshi Kovacs novels and the twisted Market Forces) will have something for us late summer as well.
In the meantime, I am making slow but forward progress on writing something of my own, which is looking heartbreakingly derivative of a couple of my own favorite books, but ah well, what can you do. I make no claims of competence in that area.
It was riveting, and it opened my eyes to the potential of a universe richly detailed by television both good and mediocre being taken up by professional writers. Not only taken up, but stretched in a new direction, in this case expanded backwards in time, as well as from a different point of view.
That book was titled The Final Reflection, and it remains one of the finest pieces of Star Trek-related writing I have ever come across - and yes, I'm a Trek nerd, and I have examined a fair stack of it. It was written by John M. Ford.
He wrote another, later, titled How Much for Just The Planet? which was almost a Shakespearean comedy version of Star Trek. Also excellent, but it didn't stay with me.
He seemed to produce gem-quality work on a haphazard timeframe, i.e. 'when it was ready' and 'when he felt like it.' I didn't run across his short stories until later, when recent collections of them were published (Heat of Fusion, Leaving the Twentieth Century, etc.) He wrote an excellent piece of nearly literal Space Opera titled The Princes of the Air; he wrote my favorite magic/tech crossover book ever, The Last Hot Time. He revealed his fascination with railroads to me in Growing up Weightless.
I see, via Neil Gaiman's blog, that John M. Ford - who, I found out from reading about him, was properly addressed as 'Mike' - passed away a few days ago. I never met the man, but his works still leave my shelf for a good read every few weeks. I'll take a moment of silence, and a quick moment to push myself to keep writing - not to match him, but to follow his lead.
Goodbye, Mr. Ford, and thank you.