Monday, August 14, 2017

Review: Galactic Empires

Title: Galactic Empires
Editor: Neil Clarke
Pages: 624
ISBN: 9781597808842
Publisher: Night Shade
Published: 17 January 2017
Genre: Science Fiction / Short stories
Source: Review copy from publisher

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Neil Clarke, publisher of the award-winning Clarkesworld magazine, presents a collection of thought-provoking and galaxy-spanning array of galactic short science fiction.

From E. E. "Doc" Smith’s Lensman, to George Lucas’ Star Wars, the politics and process of Empire have been a major subject of science fiction’s galaxy-spanning fictions. The idiom of the Galactic Empire allows science fiction writers to ask (and answer) questions that are shorn of contemporary political ideologies and allegiances. This simple narrative slight of hand allows readers and writers to see questions and answers from new and different perspectives.

The stories in this book do just that. What social, political, and economic issues do the organizing structure of “empire” address? Often the size, shape, and fates of empires are determined not only by individuals, but by geography, natural forces, and technology. As the speed of travel and rates of effective communication increase, so too does the size and reach of an Imperial bureaucracy. Sic itur ad astra — “Thus one journeys to the stars.”

Themed around galactic empires in their many varied forms Galactic Empires edited by Neil Clarke brings together some of the best voices writing in the genre today. The 22 stories collected here offer an amazing selection of tales that will enthrall and entertain with their varied styles and themes.

Initially I set out to read one story each day, but work commitments and the longer length of some of the stories soon proved that I was a tad too ambitious.  In the end reading the entire anthology took quite a bit longer than I expected, but I'm glad I took the time to savour each story. While I enjoyed all of them, there are a couple that stood out above the rest. Below you'll find some brief thoughts on each story.

“Winning Peace” by Paul J. McAuley: Two people from opposing sides become unlikely allies in the aftermath of war where the losing side are forced into indentured service. Plays wonderfully with the themes of greed and corruption in a rich setting of galactic scale. Loved the twist ending. Read before. 4/5

“Night’s Slow Poison” by Ann Leckie: A six month long journey through a perilous stretch of space, The Crawl, forces a guardsman to face his own past and results in a life or death decision. Leckie manages to capture the claustrophobic feel of people confined together as they slowly travel towards their destination. The ending is somewhat predictable, but still makes for a powerful conclusion. I can’t help but feel that this story would work far better for people already familiar with the Imperial Radch series. 3/5

“All the Painted Stars” by Gwendolyn Clare: A touching story about an alien fighter’s encounter with humans as they go in search of the legacy of a dying race left for humanity to discover. Told from the perspective of the alien the narrative has an endearing, almost funny quality to it as the creature tries to come to grips with the nuances of the strange human crew who find themselves completely out of their depth. I loved the uplifting outlook of the story, particularly the transformation from killer into nurturer and how redemption can be found in the most unexpected ways. 4/5

“Firstborn” by Brandon Sanderson: Forever living in the shadow of his older brother, a military genius without equal, Dennison Crestmar tries to live up to the expectations of his father and his Emperor. They want him to become a great commander just like his brother, but he just doesn’t seem to have the same aptitude. Some hard truths are revealed forcing him to become his brother’s greatest rival. This was one heck of a tale; a tense read with some great twists and a satisfying, albeit abrupt ending. Even perfect people can be flawed. 4/5

“Riding the Crocodile” by Greg Egan: A couple embarks on one final project before they decide to terminate their lives. This story might not have a lot of action, but I loved the concepts it plays with. The sheer timescales and technology involved is amazing and the galactic society, the Amalgam, is almost beyond imagining. 4/5

“The Lost Princess Man” by John Barnes: Deception within deception in this story about a con man in search of a lost Imperial Princess. It also speaks uncomfortable truths about our society “And the one real pleasure is getting one’s way over and against resistance. The only thing human beings really enjoy is making other people do what they don’t want to.” I loved the unexpected twists and turns; I definitely didn’t see that ending coming. 4/5

“The Waiting Stars” by Aliette de Bodard: A beautiful, touching tale about an unconventional rescue mission. It deals with identity and how another culture can be forcibly subsumed, being forced to abandon the very things that provide their own cultural identity. 4/5

“Alien Archeology” by Neal Asher: The discovery of an alien artefact sets the stage for an incredible adventure filled with alien races, AI, huge spaceships and double-crosses. It’s amazing how much action and intrigue Neal Asher can cram into such a short story. This is an excellent primer to his Polity universe. Even having read this one before it still had me on the edge of my seat throughout. 5/5

“The Muse of Empires Lost” by Paul Berger: In the aftermath of a collapsed empire two people with unusual talents meet. Their chance encounter might just usher in the rise of a new empire. I absolutely adored the world-building in this story. Unusual and utterly captivating with a character you’ll love to despise. The ending is outstanding. 5/5

“Ghostweight” by Yoon Ha Lee: A bittersweet tale about revenge and the nature of truth featuring strange war-kites and origami inspired technologies. Due to the unfamiliar terminology this story was quite confusing at first, but it soon hits its stride with some unsettling revelations. 3/5

“A Cold Heart” by Tobias S. Buckell: A search for stolen memories turns bloody. Filled with loads of action an extremely interesting world sets the stage for conflict and, ultimately, a chance at redemption. 4/5

“The Colonel Returns to the Stars” by Robert Silverberg: A retired Colonel is called back into service to face the protégé who betrayed him. Great use of distance, both physical and emotional, to drive the narrative with an unexpected ending. 3.5/5

“The Impossibles” by Kristine Kathryn Rusch: A lawyer has to defend her client in InterSpecies court and discovers some uncomfortable truths. A surprisingly captivating story dealing with the legal aspects of galactic civilizations. 4/5

“Utriusque Cosmi” by Robert Charles Wilson: A story about the end of the world, but not quite. While the premise is difficult to describe this is a brilliant read. Vastly complex and staggering in implication. 5/5

“Section Seven” by John G. Hemry: A group of operatives work their subtle magic in keeping a planet within the fold of the Federation. A fast-paced tale of espionage. 3/5

“The Invisible Empire of Ascending Light” by Ken Scholes: An Emporer gives up his throne in order to save his Empire. Quite an unusual, but touching story. 4/5

“The Man with the Golden Balloon” by Robert Reed: While exploring their ship two humans stumble upon a enigmatic agent of a galactic Union who imparts staggering truths about his machinations in their lives. A superb story, filled with tension and unexpected twists and turns. 5/5

“Looking Through Lace” by Ruth Nestvold: A group of xenolinguists encounters an alien culture far more complex than first suspected. An immensely interesting read dealing with social constructs and gender roles. 4/5

“A Letter from the Emperor” by Steve Rasnic Tem: A censor stationed on the fringes of a declining galactic empire finds compassion in the most unexpected way. A touching story about compassion and the malleability of truth. 3.5/5

“The Wayfarer’s Advice” by Melinda M. Snodgrass: A princess gets a brief respite after suffering unimaginable trauma that shifts her worldview forever. This brilliant, touching story is definitely my favourite in the anthology. 5/5

“Seven Years from Home” by Naomi Novik: Two galactic agents work on opposite sides of a conflict in order to entice the warring sides to join their empire. Beautifully written with an intriguing juxtaposition between the two cultures as they follow two very different paths. 5/5

“Verthandi’s Ring” by Ian McDonald: Two galactic empires battle each other on a truly epic scale. Strange, and thought-provoking. I particularly enjoyed the malleability of identity and form used in the narrative. 4/5

The Verdict:
Galactic Empires edited by Neil Clarke is a stunning collection of short fiction dealing with galactic empires in all their varied forms. It showcases some of the best voices writing in the genre today with some remarkable stories that will stay with you for ages.

The Rating: 8 (Great!)