Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Thoughts on Walter Jon Williams "Dread Empire's Fall"

Lately I've been craving some military SF, which is a sub-genre I usually steer pretty clear of. In particular, I've been looking for shouting-distance-of-realistic space opera, hard SF kind of stuff. It's tough to find work that doesn't bring in too much "magitech": technology that doesn't have its basis in any known science. Artificial gravity and inertial dampeners, for example.

I'm quite willing to forgive some specific types of magitech in the pursuit of a good story--some kind of faster-than-light technology is all but necessary for any kind of interstellar tale that has humans as major characters. But too much magitech (or just plain old ignoring physics) is why there are almost no realistic depictions of space combat in film SF. The Star Wars model of 18th century naval battles, spiced up with World War Two-style dog-fighting, remains the default representation. This may make for entertaining visuals, but does so by sacrificing the intellectual and emotional impact of a higher degree of physical realism.

Cherryh, of course, got me thinking this way. The strength of her alien and culturally-focussed "softer" work tends to overshadow books like "Rimrunner" and the "Heavy Time/Hellburner" sequence; revisiting them recently was a real delight, as they are incredibly tightly, even claustrophobically scripted, more interpersonal and psychological than the broader casts of her other sequences.

But what has really been grabbing my imagination is the space combat aspect. Her particular take on it is more like submarine warfare than anything else--a lot of waiting, a lot of carefully calculated decisions, a very tense wait-and-see environment. This is built on a framework of immense distance and high velocities, one that makes good narrative use of uncertainty, of the desperately hard limits set by simple Newtonian rules on fragile tin cans in the vacuum.

Finding SF novels of that general species has proven strangely difficult. I find that scarcity particularly weird given the large slices of SF generally designated "hard" and/or "military". The truth is, I think, that without bringing a lot of magitech into the equation, space travel & combat are hard to deal with in an interesting fashion; much of the fun of SF is in off-the-wall creativity, and there's not much room for that in rocket physics.

But! That intro aside, searching for this kind of stuff lead me to Walter Jon Williams' "Dread Empires Fall" trilogy. And it's quite good! There is a glorious lack of magitech, excepting the device of wormholes for interstellar jumps--and even there, he posits a mass-balancing requirement that necessitates wormhole stations flinging junk mass through them to prevent disruption by passing ships.

Most pleasing to me in terms of what I was looking for was the time and acceleration constraints of long-distance, high-v maneuvers. The medical cost of high acceleration, the time needed to decelerate afterwards, the months-long turnaround time for miscalculated maneuvers--all very well done.

Williams uses a narrative device similar to the Butlerian Jihad to set his board--the suicide/abdication of a supremely powerful race called the Shaa, who have bent all known species under a totalitarian system for millennia. In addition to outlawing AI and genetic sciences with extreme prejudice, the Shaa have generally created an extremely rigid, feudalistic, and conservative society among their conquered nations. The absence of advanced computer intelligences, coupled with a few characters suddenly innovating in a military world dominated by rigid formations and rank based on politics rather than merit, allow the reader to discover and enjoy some of the nuances of the space environment along with the main characters.

The biggest strength of the trilogy is those two main characters, Gareth Martinez and Caroline Sula. Except for a few odd departures, the narrative viewpoint focuses on the two of them throughout the trilogy, and, despite a hint of corrugation and a few eye-roll inducing tricks (like including a long mathematical passage that makes Sula go "oh, of course!" to prove that she's a smart or whatever), it's these two characters that pull you through--Williams does a good job of using their often-frustrated desire for each other to move the reader back and forth between two increasingly distinct plots.

A little bit of help is good, because the pacing is pretty unsteady. Clocking in at a "mere" 1,500 pages or so, "Dread Empire's Fall" isn't on the extreme side of genre-bloat, but it's still rough going at times. The serialization seems almost random--chapters and novels end without satisfying plot or prose, and there are a few meandering sequences (such as Martinez's abrupt switch to procedural-crime-type investigation) that do little to deepen our appreciation for the world or characters.

My biggest complaint with the trilogy is its strangely amoral feeling. Its lack of critical engagement with issues it puts to the forefront but never really takes a stance on is particularly weird: both Sula & Martinez give us perspective on a society that is founded on violence, that has deeply troubling and clearly unfair class issues, that is failing to rise to the challenges facing it largely because of its ossified system of cronyism and nepotism in its arrogantly aristocratic structure. These conservative tendencies are villainized, or at least ridiculed, but there's no real move to replace the forms with more legitimate ones. After leading the most inventive, merit-based, and democratic branch of the resistance, the self-made Sula is packed off to an obscure post, with the potential romantic relationship with Martinez solidly nixed in a final passage that seems bizarrely punitive towards her character.

Furthermore, no-one in this series seems to be even slightly troubled, on principle, by the use of torture, mutilation, and massacring of innocents at a huge scale as political tools. The series also embraces the oldest and most thinly-veiled racist trope of all, the bug-eyed monster: the "villains" employ the exact same tactics and rationale as everybody else, but are to be feared and hated because they look like insects. So it's totally okay to brutally murder them even if they're noncombatants!

The book doesn't read as particularly grim; it's actually quite light. Eddie Izzard's bit from Circle on the British Empire ("We lost it by going 'Oh, do you think so?' and 'ummm...' A lot! And "Oh really? Have they?!") was in my mind a lot. That very lightness makes the issues of violence and corrupt power all the stranger as I get further away from it. One walks away with the idea that being incredibly inflexible and hide-bound can be a disastrous thing, which is well and good...but the slightly-more-savvy, still totally unjust system of kleptocracy and nepotism is largely unshaken.

Still, an enjoyable and fairly light read, and made me think a lot about varying biological response to g forces, which honestly is all one can ask from a novel, yes?

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