Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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Literary Draughts
Tonics for the Curious Reader
    Book Reviews by Tobias Buckell
April 2008

The Dragon's Nine Sons by Chris Roberson

Imagine that the Chinese dynasties continued on, absorbing much of the rest of the world and establishing colonies in the Americas. Imagine that the Mexica (we know them as the Aztecs), although at first dominated by the Chinese, have rebelled to form their own sovereign state. It is quite clearly not a history, or world, like ours. But it is a fascinating one that Roberson has posited, nonetheless. And it is a great backdrop for a space adventure.

Alternate history novels have, since I started reading genre, become quite a healthy subgenre all their own. Finding a point in history and wondering what might have happened if events played out a little differently has become so popular it's leaked out of the genre and into the toolbox of writers all around the world.

Usually alternate histories posit a change, and then show us what our world today would look like. But Chris Roberson has been working on an alternate history through a series of his short stories, and in them, continued running the history along into the future. That makes The Dragon's Nine Sons a very different book than your normal alternate history, or even normal science fiction adventure. The Dragon's Nine Sons features a setting in outer space, where the second major Chinese/Mexica war has flared up, in what we call the year 2050.

The two empires are fighting over control of the Fire Star, or Mars, which the Celestial Empire has colonized. However the Mexica have scattered footholds across the red planet as well. Additionally, a major Mexica base exists somewhere out in space, and it is from there they've been launching major attacks on the Fire Star.

But all of that is backdrop, slowly spun to the reader as they move through the book. The core heart of this novel is the adventure of nine discredited and sketchy members of the Celestial Empire. From all walks of life nine military men convicted of various capital offenses have been gathered at Funchuan Garrison on Fire Star.

Bannerman Yao rose in rank as a patrolman on the borders of Tejas facing off against the Mexica. He is here for ignoring orders to stop an investigation regarding dubious orders given his patrol unit. Captain Zhuan Jie is here because he refused to sacrifice his spaceship and the lives of his men to delay a Mexica spaceship from escaping Fire Star. Now both men have been offered a chance to redeem themselves by leading a near suicidal mission on a captured Mexica spaceship to the Mexica stronghold, an asteroid called Xolotl. Once there they will detonate a massive bomb in the heart of the Mexica asteroid.

As the training begins, more of the remaining seven personalities are revealed. As Captain Zhuan notes "…we have three murderers, a thief, a dealer in contraband, an insubordinate, and conscientious objector." And each of them has a fascinating tale to tell, some redeeming, some not. The 'man-mountain' with a protective heart, the Tejas-styled gunslinger, the drug-runner, and more come out through encounters (some peacefully, others violent) with each other. The story is set up much like the film The Dirty Dozen, where the violent, individualistic men are given a mission to redeem themselves.

But the turning point of this book, and where it deviates from its similarity to that film, comes when the crew of this suicide mission discover that Xolotl has a large group of captured prisoners on it, and the crew decides that this will become a rescue mission.

The strength of this novel is the wild setting. The soldiers reveal Roberson's rich vision of this alternate Chinese empire that has swept throughout much of the world. Particularly Bannerman Yao, who is punished for doing what many would consider the right thing as the story begins. And the Mexica's impact is no less compelling. The spaceship they steal features a sacrificial alter upon which someone must be sacrificed when the ship needs rebooting (one hopes their software doesn't have much in the way of blue screens of death too often) or started up. And once the characters decide to rescue the civilians on Xolotl, it's hard not to root for even the most dastardly crewmembers.

A unique use of setting, history, sub-genre, packed into a strong space adventure. Either Chris Roberson has created a super niche where only someone who is an alternate history reader and who also like space adventure will enjoy this, or, and I suspect this is more likely, anyone who likes near future SF, or space adventure, or alternate history will enjoy this.

Implied Spaces by Walter Jon Williams

Implied Spaces has been the treat of the month for me. Flushed with a reader's high just after finishing the last page I mentioned on my blog that it had been, so far, my favorite book of the year. I had to mull that over a bit for the column, and after looking over my reading list this year so far, I have to say I still think it's my favorite book of the year so far.

Walter Jon Williams' latest book is a semi post-singularity solar space adventure novel. It blends elements of the post-cyberpunk ethos one sees authors like Cory Doctorow and Charless Stross embody with the large structure space opera of Ian Banks, as well as a thread of high fantasy adventure. S.M. Stirling has a fun blurb on the back of the book that calls it a "Sword and Singularity" novel. It's an apt description.

Implied Spaces begins with Aristide, our main character, on an adventure in the desert in a high fantasy setting anyone familiar with a set of twelve sided dice would feel at home in. Walter takes you into this interesting future by starting with the easier-to-access fantasy tropes as Aristide crosses the desert with a wise-cracking cat that scouts the area out ahead for him.

But when Aristide wields Tecmessa, his sword, we start getting a real glimpse of the wondrous and cool. Tecmessa is a worm-edged sword, and Aristide's foes disappear into a sort of pocket universe that has been created for them. But Aristide's fun desert adventure falls apart when other wormhole-yielding attackers show up.

Because here's the thing, the desert-like area Aristide is hanging out in is Midgarth, and it is one of many pocket universes that have been created by artificial intelligences that compute and use resources on a planetary scale. Humanity has hobbled the AIs and created these universes to dwell and play in.

Aristide is not off adventuring with mythical creatures and swordsman on a whim, he's looking for "Implied Spaces," places in the constructed universes that are left in between other constructions that create places by accident. As Aristide points out, if you stand beneath a dome "you'll see that there are blank triangular spaces between the dome and the arches. These are called 'squinches,'" and Aristide is on a squinch hunt. The desert he starts the story off in is a squinch, a place where dangers to the pocket universes and world that man has made might gather. And the wormhole-yielding attackers are just the first sign of a new threat Aristide is going to have to head off if civilization is to be saved.

He'll have help. An old flame, Daljit. Bitsy the cat, who's really the avatar of one of those planet-sized brains that might be looking to curry favor with Aristide in order to allow him to unleash it from its shackles. Aristide has been around a long time, and seen just about everything, but he'll have to draw on all his resources to get through this.

This is a romp through a novel of wild ideas, pocket universes in which D&D like environments exist for the titillation of their inhabitants being just the first of a series of escalating wild ideas, and Williams handles each oncoming wave with a steady hand and a quick pace. This is a fast, fun, and wild read.

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