Aliens, spaceships, and fun: Walter Jon Williams’s Dread Empire’s Fall

Walter Jon Williams is a terrific writer, and whatever he does, he does very well.

Dread Empire’s Fall consists of three books, The Praxis, The Sundering and Conventions of War. They need to be read in that order to make sense, though each volume has a good volume conclusion. And they’re my favourite favourite kind of thing. There are aliens, and spaceships, and planets with funny names. There’s a space navy. There are great characters. The background all makes sense as it comes into focus. There’s a war, in which the characters get to do clever things and get promoted. If you like military SF you’ll like it. And if you don’t like military SF you might well like it anyway because it’s funny and clever.

There’s an alien race called the Shaa, who have conquered humanity and half a dozen other nifty alien races and forced them into an interstellar empire. The empire is ruled by the truth of the Praxis, which forbids things likely to lead to boring singularities (no AI, no nanotech, no uploading, no immortality, etc.) while promoting things likely to lead to space-opera (spaceships, space navies, space stations, conquest of aliens, aristocracy, exploration of wormholes etc.). The empire has been the same for centuries, and the navy is kept in top shape despite having nobody to fight since the Shaa stopped expanding. Now the last Shaa is dying, expecting everything to go on unchangingly, with the most exciting events being the rescue of a runnaway space yacht and a soccer tournament. But (perhaps you could guess from the title) there’s a rebellion, and everything changes. Our heroes have to improvise tactics and strategy and cope with a navy that wants to do everything by the book—only the rebels have the same book.

There’s a male and a female hero. The female hero, the woman called Caroline Sula, has an unusual background, which is revealed in flashback throughout the first book. She’s a ruthless but surprisingly sympathetic character. The male hero, Lord Gareth Martinez, is an aristocrat with a provincial accent that makes him unpopular in the capital. Unusually, they’re both decidedly on the side of the Empire, unpleasant as it is (and Williams doesn’t pull any punches in trying to make it nice, it’s really awful especially for ordinary people) the rebels are worse. The rebels are an insectoid alien race called Naxids who can talk but often communicate by flashing lights. They want to restore the Praxis with themselves on top and make everything worse for everyone. There’s a wonderful sequence when the rebellion begins where Martinez guesses what’s about to happen but can’t convince anyone. There are a lot of wonderful sequences.

Williams does very well with the wormhole system and its implications, and also with making it feel as if it is a navy full of different intelligent species that haven’t had anyone to fight for three thousand years. The battles feel like battles, and the war like a war, and arising from the geography, without being visibly based on any historical battles or war. The aliens are weird and different, and they’ve all been conquered by the Shaa and each other (the Shaa use the conquered races in their navy) and have certain uniformities of culture because of that. It doesn’t feel as if it’s as far in the future as it is, but as one of the Shaa’s goals is to keep everything unchanging, that’s a lot more forgiveable than it might otherwise be.

The only thing I can find to say that’s even mildly negative about these books is that there aren’t any real surprises and the third volume is perhaps a mite over long for the shape of its story.

For out and out space opera fun you can’t beat this series. They’re just fun.


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