Books: The Risen Empire

…by Scott Westerfeld.  The Risen Empire is a book identified with ‘the new space opera’, which is exactly why I bought it.  That and a friend’s recommendation for Westerfeld’s YA writing on his Uglies series (which I’ve not yet read).  People are writing theses and dissertations on just what the ‘new’ Space Opera is and means, but since I liked the old version, and since I’ve recently read and enjoyed some other books that seem to fall under that label, I wanted to give this one a shot.

The Risen Empire begins at a breakneck pace, with no less than the Emperor’s younger sister held hostage by the borg-like Rix in a far-flung corner of the empire, Legis XV.  In a few short chapters, we meet several crew members of the starship Lynx, commanded by Captain Zai, and learn of the serious political ramifications of this incident.  The action come fast, with just enough explanation of the technology and culture to clue you in, peopled by the kinds of familiar archetypal sci-fi characters that don’t require elaborate biographical digressions.  These are short chapters from the p.o.v. from a host of different characters, and they prove effective not only at advancing the plot but also at gradually painting in character details while hitting some serious world-building.  What you end up with is a masterful first 100 or so pages.

As the book unfolds, the main characters – Captain Zai, First Officer Hobbes, Senator Nara Oxham, and the Legis XV Compound Mind – emerge.  Zai and Nara, the military man and the empath minority-coalition politco, present an interesting star-crossed romance.  Zai, we learn, is a war hero, who attempted to sacrifice himself for the benefit of his crew and found himself subject to tortures that make waterboarding look like the slap-and-tickle.  Nara grew up on a sparsely populated agrarian world, which partially masked her telepathic abilities until her first trip to the big city, at which point she lost her sanity (in the classic X-Men theme, wherein she cannot shut out others’ thoughts); however, she recovered and managed to get elected to the Imperial Senate, where her empathy and intellect make her a political dynamo.  Hobbes is interesting as the outsider within the Imperial Navy.  She comes from a ‘Utopian World’ rather than some far-flung colony or traditional military family and provides context and insight on the highly traditional military structure the author has constructed.  The Compound Mind, and later, its Rix-Surrogate Commando, don’t get many chapters, but they’re all quite good and give Westerfeld his podium for exploring and Artificial Intelligence-based culture.

Of course with any good science fiction, the world built by the author provides a major portion of character to the book, and this is where Westerfeld truly shines.  The Risen Empire, we learn, is based on the Emperor’s discovery centuries earlier of the means to cheat death through introduction of some kind of artificial symbiont.  It’s actually explained as a kind of undeath, in which the body dies and is reanimated while maintaining thoughts, memories, and sense of self.   The Emperor rigidly controls this technology to grant Risen status to the great, the good, and the wealthy, which has resulted in a fascinating cult of personality.  Westerfeld excels at explaining the nuances of an 80-world empire – its politics, how it has functioned and evolved, its cultures and structure – as the book advances.  This Empire, like all vast centralized entities, is interested in maintaining power and the status quo, which presents the characters with and array of poignant and timely philosophical functional dilemmas

On the other hand, we have the Rix, intruding on the Risen Empire, representing the external threat.  The Rix, it bears repeating, are very Borg-like – this offshoot of humanity venerates the vast A.I.’s or Compound Minds, surrendering their individuality and sense of self to serve the collective.  They’re mission is to find and free other Compound Minds as they emerge from the complex systems of planetary management, which is anathema to an Empire bent on controlling as many aspects of society as possible.  It’s a familiar sci-fi trope, but expertly realized here, through strong writing and a quick plot.

But as good as the book is, Westerfeld gets a major deduction for the abrupt and seemingly arbitrary ending.  Whether this was an editorial decision, the publisher wanting to stretch the story into a series, or the author feeling pressure to deliver a manuscript and collect a paycheck, I can only speculate.  At 350 pages, maybe the author and Tor Books felt they’d delivered enough product for the money – who knows?  I can report that the major plot point of the book’s final 1oo pages is not resolved in the final chapters and is in fact left dangling like so much intergalactic bait.  Bad form!  We can take some solace in the current availability of the next book in the series, The Killing of Worlds, is out there and ready for reading, but abrupt non-endings remain a major problem for me.  Still, I enjoyed The Risen Empire enough that I’ll certainly seek out the next book sometime soon, and the anti-ending is not enough to deter from an otherwise excellent space opera tale.

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