BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Top SF authors attack the theme of galactic empires with armfuls of sensawunda.
PROS: Plenty of sense of wonder; impressive lineup of writing talent; worthwhile returns to some preexisting universes.
CONS: Although there’s not a bad story in the bunch, some of them vary in quality.
BOTTOM LINE: A very nice collection of stories by some of the field’s most prominent authors.
Galactic Empires is the latest original themed anthology from the Science Fiction Book Club. Immediately noticeable is the impressive lineup of top-notch writing talent attached to it: Peter F. Hamilton, Neal Asher, Robert Reed, Alastair Reynolds, Stephen Baxter, and Ian McDonald. These are some of the most prominent names writing science fiction today.
But how well do they address the theme of galactic empires set forth by editor Gardner Dozois?
Pretty nicely, actually. As promised, each story is set against a grand scale backdrop of a galactic empire. Some stories even manage to successfully juggle multiple empires with ease. This large canvas gives each story and air of drama and that much-loved sense of wonder. Taken together, there is enough sense of wonder between these covers for even the most discerning reader.
While none of these stories failed to entertain there was only one standout: Robert Reed’s “The Man with the Golden Balloon”. This was a riveting return to his Great Ship universe and embodies what I’ve come to expect from Reed and his imaginative playground. A few other familiar universes made appearances here and they were also welcome.
Full story reviews follow…
Peter F. Hamilton offers up another exciting Commonwealth story with “The Demon Trap”. There are some familiar faces here and Hamilton does his usual excellent job at world building while giving us a good detective story to boot. (A detective story, by the way, that would be equally at home in either of two other Science Fiction Book Club themed anthologies: Down These Dark Spaceways and Alien Crimes, both edited by Mike Resnick.) Here, Paula Myo sets out to find a terrorist responsible for taking down an airplane. Paula is genetically-engineered to be a thorough detective but, as usual, there is more than meets the eye with this case. Her assignment allows us to see the evolution of Commonwealth technology’s ability to copy memories and personalities. Those familiar with the Commonwealth know that humans have achieved near-immortality through rejuvenation. What is new – at least in the year that The Dreaming Void takes place – is the desire of people to have their single mind occupying multiple bodies. “The Demon Trap” is a nice bridge to that cultural situation and offers some more insight into Paul’s background as well. All told, this is a nice installment in the Commonwealth universe and a very good standalone introduction to it.
Neal Asher’s “Owner Space” opens with a group of people on the run from (1) the Collective – the dominating conformance society from which they escaped, and (2) an alien known to be dangerous to mankind. Their only salvation is to enter the mysterious Owner Space, an area of space that is home to a rumored God-like being equally intolerant of humans and aliens. Sound confusing? It may take a little time to get a clear picture of all factions and interrelationships involved (additionally there’s the Markovian society which fell to the Collective) but the conflict is actually well-imagined and intriguing. The most memorable characters are the evil Collective Doctrinaire named Shrad, who is power-drunk and evil to the bone; the Owner, an unassuming human with mind-boggling but largely unexplained powers; and the Grazen alien mother, a hapless victim to man’s atrocities. Some cool elements in the story – like the mind-controlling strouds and the automaton Guards it turns people into – round out a good story.
Robert Reed’s Great Ship stories have been a consistent source of enjoyment. The entry in this anthology, “The Man with the Golden Balloon,” is no exception. It takes place on a giant-planet-size ship, fortuitously found by humans and used as a Galactic cruise ship for themselves and alien passengers while it circumnavigates the galaxy. The time of this story is before the discovery of the planet Marrow at its center. Quee Lee and her husband, Perri, learn of a heretofore undiscovered part of the ship which they decide to explore. The months-long exploration of these deep caverns is filled with all the wonder I’ve come to expect from these stories and does not disappoint. But the story quickly turns to other matters of hidden Empires, nefarious plans, engrossing subterfuge, secret machines, mysteriously unnamed planets and the fate of civilizations – and does so while keeping the reader completely and totally captivated. The only thing keeping this from being a perfect short story is how it comes ever-so-close to revealing some all-important facts without actually doing so.
In “The Six Directions of Space,” Alastair Reynolds posits not one but several galactic empires, all co-existing in different dimensions. The crossing point is a huge, hollowed-out moon called the Infrastructure where vehicles travel between the inner and outer shells. Phantoms are observed in one dimension (ruled by the Empire of Mongol Expansion) and are investigated by secret operative Ariunaa Bocheng (a.k.a. Yellow Dog) and Qilian, the leader of the Empire’s Special Administrative Volume in Kuchlug. The situation is made a little more unusual because Bocheng was originally sent to spy on Qilian, who turns out to be a classically evil villain. Although circumstances lead them to work together, the switch is not entirely believable; especially when acting as a double agent would have made more sense for Bocheng, who is shown to be a dangerously effective and adept at what she does. Their explorations do evoke sensawunda in the form of startling discoveries and some jaunts between dimensions, but I found some of the events to suffer from discontinuity. For example, one scene ends with a prisoner seeming ready to reveal all, and the very next scene begins with that prisoner being tortured for withholding information. Then end result, while still decent, left room for reader engagement.
Stephen Baxter adds to his Xeelee stories with the ambitious “The Seer and the Silverman”. (This one takes place sometime during the Third Expansion. There are also references to past stories and characters like Jack Raoul and Joens Wyman.) Here, the main concern of the protagonist, Donn Wyman, is what’s been happening to the residents of the Reef, especially his younger brother; they’ve been disappearing and everyone suspects that it’s the alien Ghosts with whom they live in uneasy alliance. It’s not long before Donn finds out what’s going on, learns a few things about the Ghosts and realizes the huge odds that are at stake. As usual, Baxter is thinking big. Really big. Super-huge concepts permeate the last third of the story in a rapid-fire succession mind-blowing infodumps. There’s never any doubt about how the story will turn out, but this is still a fun ride.
Ian McDonald’s “The Tear” presents a water world culture that encourages multiple personalities – specifically eight- upon entering adulthood. At that time, its members relocate to a “Manifold House” where their other identities are born. This story follows the life of the protagonist born as Ptey, a male identity that is eventually replaced by eight others over the course of the story. Ptey’s passage to adulthood includes dealing with girls, a friend who cannot become multiple (Cjatay, a so-called “Lonely”), and – perhaps more prominently – the alien Anpreen that orbit the neighboring world for fuel. Ptey learns a terrible and dangerous secret of the Anpreen and their reason for emigration – a secret that forces him, against cultural taboo, to assume a ninth personality so that he can join them in their travels. Things only get worse for poor Ptey when the Anpreen situation comes to a boil. This is a very brief skimming over the central story, which itself is brief in comparison with the mind-numbing ideas being tossed about like balls in a lottery machine. Too many ideas may have taken the edge off this story, but it definitely has a most epic feel to it, the scope of which still has my mind reeling in wonder.