Book Review: Galactic Empires, edited by Neil Clarke

26 Jan


In the 1970s Brian Aldiss published a seminal anthology of SF stories. Called Galactic Empires, it was a two-volume set of over two dozen stories set in such realms, with authors ranging from Arthur C. Clarke, Isaac Asimov and Poul Anderson to A.E. Van Vogt and Clifford Simak. The age of the stories spanned from the 1940s to the 1970s, not only showing a wide range of themes and ideas revolving around Galactic Empires, their rises, heights and falls, but also showing the breadth of style changes in the genre over that period. It was not only a snapshot of the subgenre, right at the time that Star Wars was dominating the cinema and changing SF forever, but a look backward to the roots of the subgenre as well.

Now, in 2017, Neil Clarke has stepped into the very large shoes that Aldiss has left, and created his own anthology called Galactic Empires. Clarke’s collection of stories have the same remit as Aldiss’: To show the Galactic Empire, in all of its forms, and with a wide range of voices, styles and authors. Clarke’s choices all date from the 21st century. While this does mean that Clarke’s anthology misses the 1980s and ’90s, he does manage to capture more recent eras in glorious diversity. For all of how important the Aldiss anthology was and is, Aldiss’ general overlook of half of the SF field and having an entirely American/British viewpoint was a weakness in his anthology. Only one female author, Margaret St. Clair, was included in Aldiss’ two-volume collection. By comparison, out of the stories Clarke has gathered, nearly half are by women. Further, Clarke’s choices includes significant contributions from the likes of Yoon Ha Lee, Tobias Buckell, and Aliette de Bodard. 

galactic-empires-600Beyond questions and concerns of simple diversity, however, though they must be raised in a time when diversity and voices in SF are a pressing concern, the meat of any anthology is, of course, the stories selected. Here, Clarke shows that one can have one’s cake and eat it too, to show off an array of stories from all points, exploring Galactic Empires in ways often far different than anything in Aldiss’ conception.

“Winning Peace” by Paul J. McAuley starts off the collection, a fine story of a post-war salvage operation, duplicity, and plans within plans.

“Night’s Slow Poison” by Ann Leckie fulfills the nearly mandatory need to include a story from her Radchaai universe in the anthology, given how much her novels have impacted the field. This story shows a subtler side to the Empire, and those who would try and expand it into regions not without defenders and defenses all of its own.

“All the Painted Stars” by Gwendolyn Clare gives us a space battle from an alien point of view, a shapeshifting sort with perhaps a bit of a touch of The Thing to it.

Space Opera is not his usual field; however “Firstborn” by Brandon Sanderson shows the author’s range in a story that has echoes of Ender’s Game, and explores questions of legacy and duty.

“Riding the Crocodile” by Greg Egan explores a couple of  far future post-humans, and that there are worlds, and wonders and things even to capture the attention of such beings.

“The Lost Princess Man” by John Barnes skewers the idea of lost heirs to Empires and thrones with a story about a confidence game, with twists.

“The Waiting Stars” by Aliette de Bodard, set in her Xuya universe of Vietnamese and other empires in the stars, explores acculturation and how long-suppressed memories and history can tear apart the present. The bittersweet tone in de Bodard’s fiction is in full form here.

“Alien Archeology” by Neal Asher, a favorite of the collection for me, brings us to his multi-novel Prador and Polity universe, where a Macguffin on an alien planet leads to a tangle of competing claims and double dealing.

“The Muse of Empires Lost” by Paul Berger takes a look at a forgotten world, on the edge of space, long after an Empire has fallen — but perhaps a seed of something new is to be found on this old world.

“Ghostweight” by Yoon Ha Lee brings a story of mercenaries, fighting war-kites, and ornate paper folding allegories and symbolism. It’s a far more accessible story than the much more fearsome Ninefox Gambit, but beautifully written just the same.

“A Cold Heart” by Tobias S. Buckell brings back, joyfully, one of his greatest character creations, Pepper, in a story of alien mistrust, dead-end habitats, and lost memories. Fans of his novels will find much to love here, and those who haven’t tried his novels might well wish to, afterwards.

“The Colonel Returns to the Stars” by Robert Silverberg gives us the “one more mission” trope, with a story of an agent confronting his past, and the nature of Imperium itself.

“The Impossibles” by Kristine Kathryn Rusch goes for the “Space Lawyer” story with full force, in the story of a Public Defender whose desires to escape public service comes face to face with the needs of the indigent.

“Utriusque Cosmi” by Robert Charles Wilson, with the usual twistiness combined with character depth of the author, of a story of digital rapture, multiple universes, time travel, and the ultimate enemy for any society, any species.

Jack Campbell, better known for his many novels, in “Section Seven” at shorter length brings us the softer side of making a world comply with Imperial standards.

The work of Ken Scholes has a strong theological bent to it. In his “The Invisible Empire of Ascending Light” he uses that as a hook for the future of an Empire caught in a moment of unintended stasis.

“The Man with the Golden Balloon” by Robert Reed brings us back to his world of the Ship, and a story of searching for secrets, and that not all Empires are as public as one might think.

“Looking Through Lace” by Ruth Nestvold gives us a story that reminded me both of Ken Liu in its focus on the power of translation and on Eleanor Arnason on its focus on an unusual, intricate but still very human culture.

“A Letter from the Emperor” by Steve Rasnic Tem, with a very Ming Dynasty feel (including a reference to Li Po’s Exile’s Letter), looks at loneliness and exile, and regret.

“The Wayfarer’s Advice” by Melinda M. Snodgrass, another of my favorites of the anthology, gives us a story set in her Imperials Saga. Years after his academy days, Tracy Belamor once again encounters Crown Princess Mercedes, in a most unlikely place.

“Seven Years from Home” by Naomi Novik shows the hand of Empire in agents formenting and fostering a balance of power between two rivals on a planet — and what happens when that balance gets out of control.

“Verthandi’s Ring” by Ian McDonald features epic galactic powers fighting, superstructures, and the largest scale galactic empire and conflict in the entire collection. It’s a capstone story worthy of the position.

The one thing that I think the Clarke anthology lacks, that the Aldiss anthologies had, were Aldiss’ sense of the field with the essays interspersed in between his stories. While Clarke’s foreword does set the tone for the anthology, I think I would have enjoyed hearing more from Clarke’s voice as well. Aside from that lack, however, as before, this is a strong set of stories, showing the anthologist’s sure hand, and a marker to readers of what Galactic Empires in the 21st century are like in science fiction.



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