Book review of The Sundering by Walter Jon Williams

This review of The Sundering (Book Two of Dread Empire’s Fall) by Walter Jon Williams was written in 2003 for the website Infinity Plus.

Pocket Books, 2003, £6.99, 452pp, ISBN 0-7434-2898-6

SunderingI know that starting with Book Two of a series isn’t the best way to be introduced to an author, but the back cover blurb of The Sundering caught my eye after I’d finished reading a couple of rather dull books (mentioning no names here).

Following the end of the 10,000-year reign of the Shaa who, apparently, have all committed suicide because of the sheer unrelenting pressure of running a galactic empire (it’s tough being management!), the various races of the former “Praxis” are falling inexorably into a vicious civil war. One race, the Naxids, have launched a vigorous and so-far very successful campaign to take over from the Shaa, all of which was detailed in the first book of Dread Empire’s Fall, The Praxis.

In book two, The Sundering, we follow the fortunes of the nominal good guys, just beginning to fight bravely back against the Naxid takeover. Lord Gareth Martinez is a minor noble from a backwater world who might just have the skill and inventiveness to make a difference in a conflict that has been going very very badly up till now – if only his provincial accent wasn’t such a handicap in the rigidly traditional world of the Praxis. Catherine Sula is, if anything, even smarter than Martinez, but hasn’t even minor nobility in her bloodline – except for that which she clandestinely (and illegally) assumed some years ago to help her “get on” in the Praxis and which has served her well until now, when she falls in love with Martinez…

Action in The Sundering is split fairly equally between crippling high-gravity combat manoeuvres spanning various entire solar systems and weighty political manoeuvres on the loyalist (i.e. non-Naxid) capital world of Zanshaa, where a society at once highly militarised but paradoxically blessed by millennia of peace is trying, despite the best efforts of the upper command echelons, to learn how to fight a real war.

To quote Walter Jon Williams himself talking about Dread Empire’s Fall in an interview at Computer Crows Nest – ‘I hope that Star Wars readers will find a lot in the series they can enjoy’ – which unfortunately rather summed up a lot of what was wrong with The Sundering for me.

It’s a technically well-written book for the most part – the space combat sequences certainly seem to adhere to real-world physics (as I mentioned the unpleasant effects of high-speed high-gravity manoeuvring in space are frequently mentioned), and Williams does a good job with Martinez, Sula and the many other characters we encounter, some human, many not. The aliens are not terribly alien, however, so you could be forgiven for imagining them as human when not prodded to do otherwise by the author.

Oddly enough, what seemed most alien was Martinez’s blasé amorality. At one point he becomes responsible for the death of billions of civilians (not thousands, or millions, but billions) and aside from a brief moment of quiet sorrow seems not to think otherwise of it. This is war, I know, and it’s hell, but even so, the man becomes responsible for genocide on a scale an order of magnitude greater than that of Hitler and manages to shrug it off. Hopefully, it will give him some sleepless nights in the third part of Dread Empire’s Fall

Where The Sundering also, unfortunately, fell down rather sharply for me was in the sheer lack of imagination put into this future world – most people in it seem to live just as we do now, albeit with bigger TVs on other planets and with potentially devastating spaceships hanging overhead.

This is supposed to be explained by the rule of the Shaa who, through the Praxis, have rigidly enforced social and technological stability for thousands of years, placing an interdiction upon any advances in technology for all that time. But it seems to me (perhaps because I’ve been reading too much Stross or Vinge or Sterling) that such an interdiction would be one of the few things that really is impossible in a galactic civilisation, and given that Williams at least acknowledges the existence of real-world physics (if not actually stringently adhering to them) it seems odd that he should opt for such an unrealistic technological set-up.

Plus, I rather liked the idea of a “science underground” of geeks and white-coated freedom fighters!

To return to Williams’ quote, it seemed to me that no doubt fans of “wookie books” would enjoy The Sundering because it doesn’t stretch the envelope and inspire that sense of wonder in the way that science fiction should – certainly the way that this reviewer feels it should – but instead sits in a nice, comfortable, not-too-challenging universe with some way-cool stuff added, dude.

Remove the spaceships and antimatter bombs from this book and it could just as easily have been set on earth at any time in the last 300 years, which although being far from uncommon in sf for me it rather defeats the object.

So, unfortunately, Williams has produced a perfectly well written but perfectly uninspiring piece of space opera: sort of science fiction for people who don’t really like science fiction.

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