Science, space battles, politics and lurve : The Risen Empire by Scott Westerfeld (Orbit, 2006)

Envisioned by Westerfeld as “a space opera for my 14-year-old self, who always wanted big, ass-kicking space battles and hostage rescues and armor-suited ground actions, but ones that made some kind of scientific sense”, this novel is widescreen baroque through to its core.

Set about five thousand years in the future, the Risen Empire is a galactic civilisation made up of eighty worlds that have been ruled for over a millennium and a half by the immortal Emperor and a class of undead known as the Risen. Kept alive by a symbiant of his own creation, the Emperor has held on to absolute power by elevating only his most faithful servants to eternal life after death, who in turn donate their wealth and political votes to him.

Enter the Rix Cult, a terrorist group of AI-worshipping space Amazon cyborgs (“they had disposed with the useless gender” p164). To them the Risen Empire are heathens and deicides for their restrictive use of AI and thus the Rix’s mission is to create true artifical intelligences across the Eighty Worlds. To that end, a squad of Rixwomen commandos infiltrate the planet of Legis XV and seed the planet’s information net with a compound mind, a proto-AI of sorts. They also take the Emperor’s sister hostage to prevent any interference with the compound mind’s development.

Laurent Zai, a recently elevated hero and captain of the Lynx is tasked with rescuing the Emperor’s sister. Of course it all goes completely pear-shaped. The Child Empress is killed and the compound mind becomes a fully-fledged AI (absurdly named Alexander, after The Great) that is so entrenched in the planet’s infostructure that it can only be destroyed by bombing the planet back to the stone age.

Tradition dictates that Zai must commit ritual suicide to atone for his failure, but at the behest of his lover, Senator Nara Oxham, he refuses to do so. Oxham meanwhile is appointed to the War Council and must take part in prosecuting a war of retaliation against the Rix. Things should be straightforward enough, but the Emperor has a secret that Alexander the Rix AI has discovered and is willing to sanction the death of everyone on Legis XV to protect it. Oxham has to try and prevent this outcome by political wrangling on the War Council, whilst the pardoned Zai is given the impossible mission of destroying a Rix battlecruiser heading for Legis XV. Both tasks seems hopeless but if either one of them fails, then millions will die.

The premise is a good one, something of a mash-up of Dune and the more recent Dread Empire’s Fall trilogy by Walter Jon Williams, but its execution leaves something to be desired. Perversely it’s not down to excessive infodumping (although that is occasionally an issue) so much as a predictable plot, a lack of scale and the cliffhanger ending.

In general Westerfeld maintains the widescreen baroque without burying it beneath a deluge of HERE COMES THE SCIENCE!, a problem that usually besets writers working the hard-sf end of space opera. The military angle is high-octane entertainment as it should be and the extrapolated technology works really well. From the telepresence-controlled microships used to scout out enemy positions to enemies being taken out from space by mile-long railguns before power-armoured marines drop in from orbit in gel-filled capsules to protect themselves from gravitational forces, it’s all adrenaline pumping stuff. In space, the action is no less exciting. The Lynx and its Rix counterpart wheel in complex manoeuvres, firing relativistic drones at each other (Peter F. Hamilton called – he wants his combat wasps back) before engaging at closer range with energy weapons.

There’s the occasional bum note where nuclear weapons and prosthetic limbs seem woefully outdated amidst the high-tech seen elsewhere, and some of the handwavey science sounds off. When a plausible explanation is required to include artificial gravity, he makes up four types of graviton (hard, easy, wicked and lovely) and promptly shoots himself in the foot with: “Zai and his crew would be spending the next week suffering under the uneasy protection of easy gravity.” (p253). There was also this gem towards the end of the book:

The ensign flicked her hand. Mass readings overlaid the chromograph, a set of lines alongside the mountain range, as straight and parallel as maglev tracks.
‘As you can see, the silicon grains do not change mass when they transubstantiate. The object maintain a consistent density throughout, no matter what it appears to be made of. This elemental shift is somehow virtual. Of all our instruments, only the background-radiation chromograph detected any change at all.’
‘Virtual?’
Zai asked. ‘How the hell can elements be virtual?’
‘I don’t know, sir.’
(p527)

She’s not the only one. The eye-bleeding stuff is mainly confined to the last third of the book but to counter that we get the occasional flourish of science coupled with arresting imagery:

The frigate’s energy-sink manifold spread out, stretching luxuriant across eighty square kilometres. The manifold was part hardware and part field effect, staggered ranks of tiny machines held in their hexagonal pattern by a lacework easy gravity. It shimmered in the Legis sun, refracting a mad god’s spectrum, unfurling like the feathers of some ghostly translucent peacock seeking to rut. In battle, it could disperse ten thousand gigawatts per second, a giant lace fan burning hot enough to blind naked human eyes at two thousand clicks.(p345)

Like all good hard-sf writers, Westerfeld eschews FTL (and doesn’t resort to wormholes like that big cheat Walter Jon Williams) and embeds that choice into the plot itself. Similar to Dan Simmons’s conceit of time-debt in the Hyperion Cantos, Westerfeld’s characters refer to the Time Thief who robs soldiers of friends and family as they spend years travelling from world to world. The lovers at the centre of the story face a separation of decades as Zai is sent to the frontline whilst Oxham remains on Home to serve out her 50 year term as Senator. All of the relationship setup happens in flashback, ten years prior to the main events of the novel when Zai and Oxham first meet and fall in love. Whilst it’s well-written and does a fine job of showing how the two bond in spite of their diametrically opposed political views, the interleaving of the slower love story with the main thrust of space battles and politics has a detrimental effect on narrative pace. That recurring thread also suffers from humourous tangents about Oxham’s house, a Culture-esque AI that gets far too much story-time even accounting for its own part in the grand finale.

On the character front, Zai gets the bulk of the development as he goes from devout loyalty to the Emperor to breaking age-old traditions and ultimately engaging in treason. Oxham’s political dealings are complex and authentic and Westerfeld avoids the obvious trap of making her pine for Zai all the time. Zai’s executive officer, Katherine Hobbes, gets a bit of a bum deal however. She goes from hero-worshipping infatuation to hatred back to absolute loyalty all within the space of a few chapters. A mutiny sub-plot that Hobbes get wrapped up in is resolved all too quickly and stands as a missed opportunity to develop her character in a more interesting way.

Despite their front and centre position, the outcome of Zai and Oxham’s stories never seems to be in any doubt so you find yourself rooting more for the odd couple of Rixwoman commmando h_rd and her hostage Rana Harter. This is faintly bizarre as h_rd spends a lot of time slaughtering hapless Imperial troops who are just doing their job whilst Rana falls in love with h_rd, a plot turn that has such a massive whiff of Stockholm Syndrome about it that Westerfeld has to employ lampshading to divert attention from it.

The predictability of the plot also manifests itself in the Emperor’s Secret that you can see coming a good ten light-years off but isn’t actually revealed until page 658 (of 704). It’s not quite the book defenestrating frustration of Revelation Space but it comes a very close second.

Last but not least, for a book set amongst eighty worlds, there’s never really a sense of that grand scale. Restricting the narrative to Home, Legis XV and the Lynx means that it’s difficult to grasp the immensity of the Risen Empire. Additional narrative from Risen characters would have gone some way to addressing this issue as well as countering Oxham’s bald statement that death is bad mkay. Westerfeld does make some attempt at this towards the end of the book – Rana is elevated and her narrative style changes as a consequence of her internal conflict with the Lazarus symbiant (referred to as the Other), but sadly this comes too late to achieve balance and isn’t taken to a natural conclusion. Speaking about those…

The original Succession novel was split by Tor due to outside pressure and so the majority of bitching about the first half was that no one knew that it was half a novel and complained about the abrupt ending. Hah. The complete novel also ends on a bloody cliffhanger. After the Emperor’s painfully obvious secret is outed to everyone, the Empire is left on the brink of civil war with the Lynx in possession of the new Rix AI and Oxham leading the political rebellion against the Emperor. And that’s it. The end. Seriously?

Apparently more installments were planned but the series wasn’t selling very well and so these were abandoned. Westerfeld moved on to YA books which proved to be far more lucrative and left a sardonic faq comment on his website saying that he would only return to adult sf if he got really really rich, bored with YA books or some other bollocks (I’d link to the faq page, but it seems to have disappeared in a recent site redesign). It’s his choice obviously, but it’s a shame that he’s turned his back on adult sf. With The Risen Empire, Westerfeld laid down a good foundation for further adventures and the intervening years of experience would no doubt address many of my issues with this book. Here’s hoping he does return to adult sf set in this universe as for all my complaints I’d happily read more.

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