There is no shortage of science fiction
that explores the Interstellar Empire. There are, in fact, whole series
of collections whose short stories are nought but that. One of the most popular words in sci-fi politics, 'empire' is approached in popularity only by various forms of 'federation.' There are even explicit explorations of the Roman Empire extended interstellar, both explicitly and via political theory.
The Clockwork Empire
The Dragon Never Sleeps is another book about Empire, set in science fiction. It, however, takes a slightly unusual approach. The component of empire that is important (and, in fact, the only one that exists, really) is that of the Pax Imperia. Picture an empire where all that remains is the military, running on autopilot; a military whose job it is to enforce the simple dictum of there will be no war (or you'll regret it).
In the distant future, humanity has spread to the stars and conquered. Enough time and events have passed that humans no longer even remember where they came from. Interstellar travel is possible due to a deus ex machina artifact called the Web, which is a network of pathways of unknown size linking star systems. Ships can 'ride' the strands of the web from place to place, so long as the web goes there; the structure of the Web determines commerce, exploration, and conflict.
Humanity set up and comprises the Canon, an interstellar government in most administrative and bureaucratic sense. The Canon, however, has a strange relationship with its military. Rather than being an arm of the Canon itself, the Pax is maintained by the Guardships.
Thousands of years old, almost a civilization unto themselves, the Guardships are the classic force majeure. The 'Dragon' of the title, enormous war machines of technology higher than almost anyone else out there, they travel the Web from their home port of Starbase Tulsa, roving where and when they will and keeping the peace. The penalty for war: Guardship intervention, ranging from simple interdiction to the sterilization of those worlds involved in the conflict. The connection to the Roman Empire's Pax Romana is explicit - the Guardships themselves are named for Roman legions.
Crewed by both replicated humans (clones created to replace aged or killed crew) or by 'Deified' personnel - people uploaded into the Guardships' computer systems - the Guardships differ from each other in makeup and temperament. Some are aggressive, some are patient; some are crewed mostly by the living, some entirely by the Deified. As Guardships age, their near-omniscient Core systems can develop egos, or senses of self; this is almost always a sign that the Guardship is beginning to move towards the insanity of awareness.
Artifacts (construct life forms) and aliens are distinctly second-class citizens in Humanity's Canon space - but Humanity is senescing, with populations dropping and exploration waning. The more vigorous and growing non-human population is starting to take on more and more of the day-to-day tasks of running everything, and it's debatable whether the crews of the Guardships are even still human.
Into this world we are dropped, following the plotting and machinations of several individuals and groups. A human commercial House (essentially licensed governors of various planetary properties) plots to expand its influence; the ruling members of that house display varying levels of sanity and ambition. We are introduced to several stranded aliens and artifacts, trying to make their way in the DownTown slums of a human world. And as we join the universe, the Guardship VII Gemina sets out on the trail of a member of an ancient enemy, travelling on commercial House spacecraft through the Canon. That chase will take us through and into the various plotlines of the book, into deceit, war, and legend.
I didn't check the date on this book until after I'd read a good way through it, and I was surprised at how old the book is (twenty years for the original edition). It reads a great deal like a prototypical Iain Banks book; star-spanning civilizations, machine intelligences immensely greater than man, tying things together, and world-hopping plotlines. It appeals greatly to my sense of sci-fi as something that can aspire to a play and a stage so much larger than contemporary fiction.
It does not, however, pull off the game with as much slickness as the Banks books, such as the novels of The Culture. Part of that is due to the writing, where names are used with little explanation and, indeed, little background. For example, I couldn't help but think that the author had drawn up at least a rudimentary map of the Web and its systems, at least those systems which figured in the plot; however, he neglected to share that diagram with us despite referring on several occasions to star systems by name and assuming that we understand their astrographic importance.
The technology is handled well. That is, it is handled in appropriately space-opera fashion - we are only given details when those details impinge directly on plot points. It doesn't matter how ships move on the Web - what matters is what happens when two of them meet in the process, and what must happen then.
Although a great deal of the book is setup, there is enough action and intrigue during that phase to keep things interesting. The problem really arises in the endgame, when several plot turns are occurring simultaneously as the various subplots converge. Then the complexity of the story begins to overwhelm the narrative - not in that the narrative itself suffers, but that it cannot support the level of plot it is trying to forward. On several occasions in the latter third of the book I found myself going back two pages and trying to puzzle out what, precisely, had just happened - that is, how what had happened related to the storyline. I knew it had, and I knew exactly what (in terms of moment-to-moment events) had transpired - but the relationship between those events and the larger story was sometimes either too subtle or simply obfuscated. I found myself skimming backwards looking for occurrences of a name that I knew was important but couldn't remember why.
There are several themes that the book clings to relentlessly. One, the most visible, is the question of the Pax. What happens to a system when all that remains of it are rules? Conversely, what happens to the soldiers of a system when the rules have become stagnant? Are the Guardships in fact an Empire, or just a remnant of one? How do the Guardships relate to the rest of humanity (other than across gunsights)?
Probably the second most explored theme is that of individuality. In a world where people can be recreated, either during their life or after, what does it mean to state that you are person X? Do you have their memories? If so, what does it matter? If there are three duplicate copies of you, with all your memories and knowledge, can they be told apart? What happens if artificial distinctions are made for legal reasons? And so on.
A minor but recurring question is one of humanity. What is human? Is a constructed being human? Are aliens human, if they are subsumed into the system? Who is a Roman?
I don't know how to rate this book. I do know that it held me gripped tightly while reading. Looking back, it doesn't seem to slot in next to what I consider to be the 'big' books of sci-fi, but then I recall that it was written ten to twenty years before many of my genre favorites, and I have to award it lots of points.
If you like Iain Banks Culture novels, Neal Asher's Polity books, or Alastair Reynolds' work such as Revelation Space, then I strongly recommend this book. If it doesn't feel as lavishly detailed as those universes, remind yourself that this is a single standalone book rather than a series or collection. It's not as tightly and linearly plotted as the Neal Asher books generally each are; it's not as intricate as the Revelation Space universe or as dynamic as the Culture. One reason for the latter two, of course, is that it is intentionally telling a tale of an artificially static world. As you're reading it, remind yourself that it predates some of those books by decades. You'll put it down feeling like you've read an entertaining precursor to those modern space operas; one with depths that some of the modern intricate sagas fail to plumb.
The Dragon Never Sleeps
Written by Glen Cook
Night Shade Books; Reprint edition February 1, 2008 (orig. printing 1988)