A few months ago, I embarked on a mission to read all of Chris Roberson’s Celestial Empire stories that were readily available to me – this after thoroughly enjoying The Dragon’s Nine Sons. Some of the stories are available online, others appear in anthologies I own. This is by no means a complete list of Celestial Empire stories, just a fun project I undertook because, you know, reading is supposed to be fun.
The Celestial Empire is one of better future histories I’ve read. Here, the Chinese (of The Middle Kingdom) and Aztecs (The Mexic Dominion) are the dominant, space-faring superpowers and they are at war with one another. The setting is well imaged and steeped in their respective cultures. The world building is interesting. There is space travel, sure, but otherwise the future is, in many stories, low tech. The Middle Kingdom strives for low tech solutions because of personal fear while the Aztecs remain low-tech out of religious belief. What you wind up with is imaginative solutions to some advanced problems, lending much to the overall flavor of the stories.
As intriguing as that backdrop is, it is upstaged by the intimate nature of the stories that play out within it. These are not military sf stories (per se) about missions that will decide the fate of the war, they are personal stories about realistic characters. They do not suffer from over-the-top action sequences that defy belief; they are (mostly) quiet stories about people, their choices and their actions.
Here are my thoughts on those stories that I’ve read so far, roughly in the order they occur in the history of the Celestial Empire…
“Fire in the Lake“ (2007)
[Source: Subterranean Online, Fall 2007]
In what is essentially a detective story, the Palace Jurist (named Xi San) is tasked with solving the murder of some important figures. Rather than simply being a quest for the throne by those who wait in line, they are merely pawns by the two main Imperial bureaucratic factions involved: the Confucian scholars and the Household eunuchs. Although the solution to the puzzle may be overly complex, along the way we are treated to “mini-episodes” of Xi San’s past cases as he converses with his nephew, also in training to join the Emperor’s service.
[Source: Asimov’s, July 2007, Author’s website]
In this story, Cao Wen, working for the Minister of War, is researching the enemy, Mexica. His search leads him to seek out Ling Xuan, a “temporary resident” (for the last 20 years) at the Embroidered Guard, a military unit of the Celestial Empire. Ling Xuan is suspected of holding vital information about the enemy, but Cao Wen learns that the prisoner holds information even more important to the future of the Empire. As with other Celestial Empire stories, this one transpires on a personal level; in this case, Ling Xuan is the focus of our sympathy. His only crime is having a desire to know the order of the universe. (There are laws to prohibit such learning.) To see him manipulate Cao Wen is a personal victory for him and an engaging event for the reader.
“O One“ (2002)
[Source: Live Without a Net edited by Lou Anders, 2003. Also available online.]
In Live Without a Net, Lou Anders challenged writers to imagine a future in which the normal tropes of science fiction – cyberspace, the Internet, artificial intelligence – did not exist. Chris Roberson’s excellent entry, “O One,” is set in a future where Imperial China has become a world power. The current Emperor dreams of space travel and has commissioned a team of mathematicians (called Computators) to wield their abacuses (Abacuses!) and make that dream a reality. The story concerns the Emperor’s Chief Computator, Tsui, as he faces off with a new British invention seemingly designed to quicken his removal from office: a mechanical analytical engine. What’s interesting here is not only the refreshingly appealing “low tech” future, but the surprisingly dramatic head-to-head battle between Tsui and the engine. It’s interesting to see the fate of an Empire decided at a decidedly more personal level.
“Metal Dragon Year” (2008)
[Source: Interzone #213]
This story is an essential entry in timeline of the Celestial Empire as it shows the Empire’s efforts to put the first man into space ahead of Mexica. Yusuf Ounaminou is leading the project and has been ordered to complete the project before the end of Metal Dragon Year, but intrigue and mishaps threaten that deadline. Superb storytelling marks this tale, but characterizations come a very close second. Through some well-placed scenes, we see firsthand Yusuf’s determination, honor, loyalty and good nature (as boss, husband, father and friend) and his situation becomes our own personal concern. Despite an obvious wolf in sheep’s clothing, “Metal Dragon Year” is a gripping read.
“Gold Mountain” (2005)
[Originally reviewed in The Year’s Best Science Fiction # 23 edited by Gardner Dozois]
In an alternate history where China is the dominant superpower, a female researcher with unresolved family issues gets the life story of an elderly man who helped build a space elevator. If it seemed to me that a little too much time was spent on the world-building of the China-centric setting, it’s because McAllister’s life story was both engrossing and moving. His hard-luck story and the history of the space elevator created an effective tug-of-war between sense of wonder and poignancy. The ending attempts to up the stakes by providing an emotional punch and succeeds wonderfully.
“The Line of Dichotomy” (2007)
In this episode of Roberson’s Celestial Empire stories, Bannerman Yao, a soldier of the Dragon Throne (and featured in The Dragon’s Nine Sons), responds to a distress signal from the Fire Planet (Mars), where he discovers Mexica warriors surrounding a bacteria farm. As Yao attempts to rescue them, readers come to learn a great deal more about the mysterious – at least to me at this early point in my traversal through these stories – Mexic race. We also learn details about the start of the war between the Middle Kingdom and the Mexic Dominion, as told by Yao and Blue-green Feather, a Mexic warrior he encounters, whose words are translated by Thien, a scientist who Yao is attempting to save. This is all great world-building stuff. One point of confusion though, was regarding the mention of the character Dea who, like Yao, was featured in The Dragon’s Nine Sons: both the book and this story mention conflicting fates for Dea, so it is unclear what happens to him. The ending of “The Line of Dichotomy” also leaves some question as to the fates of its main characters, but this is a very fun ride nonetheless, told in Roberson’s straightforward, no-nonsense storytelling style.
[Source: Asimov’s, Infinity Plus]
On the planet Huo Hsing (an alternate name for Mars, the Celestial Empire’s Fire Planet?), novelist Song Huagu has formed an uneasy connection to the shady Madame Jade, a socialite who invites Song to parties because of her celebrity. At one of these parties, Song meets a mysterious stranger named Jiang Hu who, Song suspects, may be part of the The Black Hands revolutionists – something that attracts Song as she herself has ideas that are revolutionary; things like equality for women. The story plays out innocently enough at the start, but things progress from bad to worse for Song (there is an illicit love affair, spurned love, and a little bit of subterfuge). Ultimately, an Imperial spy learns that you cannot kill an idea.