Monday, 18 March 2013

Military science fiction done with violence and style in Dread Empire's Fall

From The Week of March 11, 2013

In the hands of tyrants, fear is a fearsome weapon. Not only does it have the power to scourge the courage out of the brave, it institutionalizes a sense of inferiority in those subject to the will of its wielder. It carves into their souls a belief that they must obey or face the prospect of punishments that will send their minds shrieking into madness. Fear compels us to abandon our sense of equality, of personal dignity. And without these virtues to bolster self-identity, without the belief that everyone is subject to the laws of the land, justice atrophies until all that is left is strict, authoritarian order, the likes of which rewards the rich while criminalizing the poor. This truth could ask for no better exemplar than Mr. Williams who demonstrates it to wonderful effect in his engaging trilogy.

For ten-thousand years, the Shaa have ruthlessly ruled the galaxy. Sewing conquest through the liberal use of force, intimidation and nuclear fire, they have subsumed the known races into the fabric of their dread collective, all in the name of their beloved Praxis, a vision of order and enlightenment that only they can truly comprehend. Naturally, most races resisted this shotgun unity, but the anti-matter bombs that the Shaa mercilessly dropped on their cities, their habitats, their worlds, put an emphatic end to that. Perhaps they even attempted to flee, but where could the intelligent species go when the Shaa had already seeded the known universe with stable wormholes through which they could spread their terrible power?

Eventually, unity came to seem natural to the Shaa's client races. As their faiths and traditions fell away, to be replaced by the omnipresence of the Praxis, they became compliant, even content in their bondage until, finally, after millennia of conquest and expansion, the Shaa began to wane. Having conquered every race they could find, having expanded their intelligence through unimaginably complex machines, they had experienced every emotion, explored every thought, sampled every horizon. The universe was no longer a mystery; it was a bore from which to escape. Slowly, through suicide, the Shaa's numbers reduced to one, one last god over the mortal races. And then even he removed himself from the board and exposed an empire of countless billions to a new, chaotic dawn, one far more terrifying than any the Shaa had imposed. This is the story of that dawn, a story of war and resistance, of fire and radiation, that might well burn hot enough to extinguish even the legacy of the Shaa and leave behind nothing but ashes.

Born from the mind of one of science fiction's most eclectic authors, The Dread Empire is a fascinating and engrossing journey through an apocalyptic war. Mr. Williams, who rose to prominence with the Hardwired Series of cyberpunk novels, turns his mind here to military fiction, reconstructing a universe of humans and aliens, of wealth and poverty, of aristocracy and criminality, with winning thoroughness. For the author has rejected the storytelling crutches of Transporters and faster-than-light travel to conjure up a wonderfully detailed reality that, for good and ill, is utterly faithful to its laws and customs. For this alone, the work should be celebrated. Not many possess such vision, much less the willingness to carry it out. And yet, the author has harnessed his talent for three-dimensional characters and deployed it here with vivid results that elevate the series from the mundane to the extraordinary.

Though war dominates the trilogy, The Dread Empire is notable for its politics. Mr. Williams has fused together futuristic technology with an Edwardian society to create a truly horrifying amalgam of privilege and corruption strongly reminiscent of our own colonialist history. In fact, it is an easy matter to regard the Shaa as the British, or the Roman, Empire, using its superior knowledge and tactics to conquer other races and impose upon them a societal structure that is both foreign to their minds and corrosive to their morals. Viewed this way, it is unsurprising that the characters in Mr. Williams' work devote much of their energy to subverting that order in the hopes of overturning it, of converting it into something that better suits ingenuity and personal skill.

Naturally, The Dread Empire has its fair share of flaws. Unlike the adrenaline-soaked pages of Mr. Williams' Cyberpunk work, this trilogy is characterized by long moments of quiet, cruel conniving followed by quick explosions of action and turmoil. Though this technique is not without its merits, the plod is too pronounced, too protracted, to be as engaging as the action sequences which are written with an exactitude that is admirable if somewhat bewildering for those not versed in non-conventional, three-dimensional military tactics. Moreover, Mr. Williams' choice to train the series' focus on only two primary characters leaves much of this universe unexplored. Martinez and Sulah are each wonderful conceptions, creatures of will and ambition who occupy a new space between hero and antihero, but they are both career military and both on one side of the conflict, leaving not only civilian life undeveloped but the enemy perspective as well. The trilogy could have benefited from dropping some of its Edwardian pomp in favor of a third point of view that would have balanced the tale.

Notwithstanding its flaws, The Dread Empire is wonderful work that ties together elements of politics, war, mystery and aristocracy to forge a world that is as familiar as it is foreign. Yes, the author uses thinly veiled conceits to ensure that this future is, in some ways, shockingly like our own, but these can be forgiven when they make possible a constellation of relatable characters and circumstances that keep us invested in the epic. A work of noteworthy imagination... (4/5 Stars)

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