Though colonialism has left behind a legacy of racism, classism and economic decay from which half the world is still trying to make a slow, painful recovery, its practice nonetheless imparted one enduring lesson that humanity would do well never to forget. In the name of self-preservation, of ourselves and our society, our interests and our resources, we will do anything. There is no crime too heinous, no betrayal too bitter, no compromise too dark, capable of dissuading us from preserving that which we consider ours.
If we are willing, in the name of ideology, to send our young off to die in the jungles of foreign wars just as readily as we are willing, in the name of self-interest, to make deals with the devils of our world, so long as they benefit us, then we certainly won't hesitate to exploit inferior societies with whatever technological advantages we have over them, not even if those advantages are nuclear, capable of annihilating entire populations when deployed. Though Mr. Gibson's cyberpunk-inspired space opera is packed with action and aliens, alliances and betrayals, this enduring truth is what underpins his epic. He uses it to thoughtful effect.
By the 26th century, life has become complicated for the human race. Having taken to the stars and colonized over a dozen worlds, humanity ought to be prospering thanks to a wide array of technologies which have improved the quality of life of its many members. However, all of this prosperity is contingent on a single technology, faster-than-light travel, a feat of engineering that, though still beyond human understanding, is essentially leased from the Shaol, an imperious aquatic species as long-lived as they are mysterious. Aware that they have humanity over the proverbial barrel, the Shaol can essentially write the treaties they have with humanity and the other races in the local arm of the galaxy, laying down terms they know their client races will tolerate in exchange for interstellar transportation.
One such Shaol stipulation allows them to evict their client races from their own colonies if said colonies are less than 20 years old. This mysterious clause is more of a curiosity to humanity until, for the first time in their history, the Shaol invoke it, forcing a human colony to relocate to Redstone, a human world dominated by a violent strain of political libertarianism that has inculcated its subjects with a dangerous bellicosity that, perversely, may eventually prove the downfall of the Shaol.
In Stealing Light, the sequence's first instalment, we meet the trilogy's three main actors. Dakota Merrick is a Machine Head, a military pilot who has been augmented with surgical implants that allow her to telepathically communicate with her craft. A human, deeply scarred by a genocidal incident in her past, she is manipulated, by some of Redstone's most virulent leaders, into hiring onto a mission to excavate an ancient, derelict spacecraft from the depths of a dead world.
On this mission, she meets Lucas Corso, one of Redstone's beleaguered academics. A scholar of ancient languages, Corso is blackmailed by the Redstone faction leading the expedition which requires his expertise to break the codes that have locked away the Derelict's systems for all these countless centuries. Understandably reluctant to cooperate with his enemies, he eventually finds an ally in the mission's strange machine-head pilot, but will they be able to overcome their distrust to extricate themselves from their bondage?
Though the mission is meant to be a secret from the Shaol, it is closely monitored by one of their oldest and most highly ranked members. Fearful of the consequences to the Shaol should the Redstone faction succeed in harnessing this ancient power, he attempts to steer events to a more satisfactory conclusion, but it may well be that not even his legendary experience can bring fate to heel.
In Nova War, the sequence's second entry, events have overtaken the ability of any faction to control. For a new alien race has appeared on the scene. The Emissaries From God are enormous beings whose destructive powers are on par with their religious zealotry. Here-to-for kept from human space by the machinations of the Shaol, they have surprised their old enemies with their proficiency and their willingness to weaponize faster-than-light technology to devastating effect. Intent upon destroying the derelict, and its kind, that Dakota and Lucas have worked so hard to understand, they will stop at nothing, no depravity, no amount of annihilation, in order to realize their merciless vision of the universe.
In Empire of Light, the trilogy is brought to a shattering conclusion when the Shaol and the Emissaries From God engage in a contest for the local arm of the galaxy, a conflict that promises to leave subordinate races on both sides devastated, their home systems laid waste by weapons of unimaginable power. Within this Long War, as it comes to be called, Merrick and Corso, now powers in their own right, struggle to steer the war away from its apocalyptic conclusion by pursuing a dangerous but critical piece of technology that is more myth than reality. Should they locate it and bring it under their command, then perhaps the long night ahead of all the known races can be avoided and something like sanity restored to all the parties involved.
Though plagued, at times, by poor pacing and repetitive plot elements, The Shaol Sequence loudly hits most of the notes it aims for. Having clearly drawn inspiration from the uneasy nuclear peace that troubles our own world, Mr. Gibson is successful in his attempt to broaden the question of nuclear deterrence, inject it with galactic gravitas and then position it at the philosophical heart of what is otherwise a futuristic techno-thriller. When technological innovation outstrips our wisdom and our morality, what do we do? When we invent weapons that have the capacity to annihilate us all, and then hand those weapons over to an elite over whom we have remarkably little sway, what is the expected outcome? These fascinating and momentous quandries are imagined and then spun out, to devastating effect, across a lively universe.
But as much as these philosophical musings lend the trilogy some intellectual heft, they cannot entirely rescue it from its myriad flaws. Mr. Gibson subjects his characters to amounts of abuse that, by the series' conclusion, have reached the ridiculous. Worse, when his characters understandably seek revenge for the stupendous violence heaped upon them, the author shamelessly manipulates events to block them from fulfilling their desires. Yes, all plot is, in some sense, a manipulation of events in order to reach an imagined conclusion; Mr. Gibson is merely following in the footsteps of a few thousand years of dramatic tradition. However, the extent to which he clumsily fails to hide these deus-ex-machina contortions leave the reader both frustrated and annoyed by the unrealistic circumstances his characters find themselves in. This, along with the author's inability to give depth to his universe, beyond the template necessary to tell his story,, burden the work.
Its challenges aside, The Shaol Sequence is quality science fiction. While a sizeable swath of the galaxy is being loudly and obnoxiously pounded into oblivion, the author's protagonists and his questions of morality and power are, respectively, pleasingly flawed and eminently engaging. A solid diversion... (3/5 Stars)