May 26 2009 3:38pm

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.

Sean Fagan
1. sef
Ironically, I just picked these up at B&N yesterday. I'm having a hard time getting further into the first one because the Empire is evil, and I am pretty sure that it's not going to change in any significant fashion.
Sandi Kallas
2. Sandikal
There is one thing that peeved me about this series. The order isn't readily apparent. I read "The Praxis" for a book review and liked it a lot. I went to order the second book and wasn't sure which one it was. I ended up ordering and reading the third book instead of the second one. Fortunately, Williams included just enough exposition that I was able to figure out what was going on, even if I knew I was missing something.
Tom Marcinko
3. Tom Marcinko
I love these books and have been urging them on others since they came out.

I love how he deals with such real-life space problems as time, distance, acceleration, and zero-g.

I love that the subject races seem slavishly devoted to the Praxis even when they presumably don't have to follow it anymore. They seem to have been thoroughly conditioned. I for one read social commentary into this.

They are obviously inspired at least in part by the novels of Patrick O'Brian, which is all I needed to know.

Plus, everything Jo said. These books deserve more attention than they've received so far.

Fans of the gritty realism of the newer Battlestar Galactica should definitely check this out. The heroine could kick even Katee Sackhoff's butt.
Jo Walton
4. bluejo
Sandikal: See comments on the "Series" thread about not numbering books. It's supposed to make them sell better. The logic of this escapes me. I read these as they were coming out so it wasn't a problem for me, but they are definitely books that would make more sense in the right order.
Ian Tregillis
5. ITregillis
I love, love, love this series. I've been a fan of WJW's work for years, but this is one of my favorites. On top of all the great things Jo mentioned in her description of the series, there's also an incredibly well-crafted love story threaded through all three volumes.

Tom @ 3:
Walter Jon Williams is an expert on the Age of Sail, which might explain the comparison to Patrick O'Brian. I believe one of WJW's first series was Privateers and Gentlemen.
Jo Walton
6. bluejo
I don't think they are like Patrick O'Brian. Or rather, they are in a way, and a good way, but they're not like the other things that people mention when they say "like O'Brian". They don't do "Napoleonic war in space", they're much more subtle and original than that. They're so much more their own thing that I want to reject the comparison, even though I love the O'Brians and I love these too.
Tom Marcinko
7. Michèle Laframboise
Maybe WJW should have numbered his books.

But, like the Asimov's Foudation series, with the prequels, you must find an order of optimal satisfaction in reading...

I read it following the chronological order of publication dates.
Stefan Raets
8. Stefan
I enjoyed these books very much. We had the first one as book of the Month over in Beyond Reality a few years back. Jo, you are absolutely correct: WJW is a great writer. Aristoi is probably my favorite of his books. The only novel by him I really disliked was his latest one, "Implied Spaces" --- it seemed like a knock-off of an Iain M. Banks Culture novel, but lighter on ideas, interesting characters and plot.
Jo Walton
9. bluejo
Stefan: I quite enjoyed Implied Spaces but I didn't find it as chewy as some of his others. He has a newer one than that out, though. I haven't read it yet, due to spending all my time re-reading things for here, it's called This is Not a Game and it's sitting on my inpile.
Stefan Raets
10. Stefan
Oooh, thanks for the tip - somehow that book slipped by me. Another one for the to-be-read pile!

My (spoiler-filled) review of Implied Spaces is copied here. It may be a bit harsh, but I attribute that to my unreasonably high expectations for anything WJW writes.
Tom Marcinko
11. Alain Ducharme
I finished reading Conventions of War a few days ago and I must concur: this series is just plain fun!

I first encountered it while reading the novella Margaux, published in the May 2003 issue of Asimov's (an excerpt of the first volume detailing Sula's background). It was reading that story that convinced me to buy into the trilogy.
Tom Marcinko
12. Zach Dillard
Got to agree with everyone else, this is a great space opera series. If you can buy the wormhole transit between star systems, the rest of the physics is relatively believable, and that's one of my favorite aspects of the series... days, weeks, months spent under high-gee acceleration/deceleration, and how the crews cope with it. I thought the series overall could have used some editing; there was too much boring detail about clans' social rituals and marriage scheming.

Implied Spaces is one of Williams' best, explicitly because of its philosophical content and the whole idea of an implied space. The action thriller components are well done but nothing terribly original. This is Not a Game I thought was not quite as good, more fannish than sf, but still a worthwhile mystery thriller.
Soon Lee
13. SoonLee
I really enjoyed this too & agree that it was a fun read.

Is it just me or is WJW an under-rated writer? All the books of his that I've read have been well worth the effort. The only thing I can think of that doesn't work in his favour is his versatility. I find that except for the ones set in the same universe, his stuff tend to be so different from book to book that they could have been written by different writers.
Jo Walton
14. bluejo
Soon Lee: I entirely agree with you. I keep expecting Walter Jon Williams to produce a "breakout" book and become a superstar, because he really is brilliant, but it never seems to happen.

I do think versatility tends to work against you as a writer. People like to know what they're getting, they want an author to be like a brand, and lots of them are. For those of us who write lots of different kinds of thing, it can be a problem
Blue Tyson
15. BlueTyson
I'll disagree. I like most of Williams, but these are poor.

Dull, tedious, uninspired military sf, too long, what have you.

Whether the novels, or novellas, none of it is any good.
Maiane Bakroeva
16. Isilel
Yes, this series is criminally underrated IMHO. I love it - it has everything I want in a space opera:

Huge scope, grand politics and strategy

Interesting characters and interactions between them. Strong emotions.

Exciting battles, with logical maneuvering and cleverness, which never descend into techno-babble

Believable, cohesive worldbuilding, with a few cave-outs.

Very well written.

My one pet peeve are the very unsubtle hints at Gaius Marius and Lucius Cornelius Sulla et al. in the character names and biographies. This was completely unnecessary, IMHO.

Dread Empire series was my first encounter with Williams and it turned me into a rabid fan (and caused me to read "The Rift", which is thoroughly mediocre).

My mad dream is to see more of the Praxis universe and/or for Bujold to write something with similar scope in Vorkosiverse...
Tom Marcinko
17. Rayc
I thought the first two of these were very good, but the third was relatively poor. WJW was tied into alternating between Sula and Martinez, but in the 3rd book Martinez has essentially nothing to do, so a whole pointless subplot has to be bolted on to fill his pages.
The great thing about these books is that they work as derring-do, battles and explosions, opportunities for our heroes to show how smart, resourceful, brave etc... they are and hooray for them. But at the same time, if you're paying attention you should be thinking that this may be tremendous fun, and the 'right' side may win, but really only a tiny proportion of people actually benefit from the victory, and a whole hell of a lot of plebs end up dead.
Maiane Bakroeva
18. Isilel
Well, IIRC, the story arc was supposed to go further, but the books didn't sell enough. Thus a bit of a "middle book" syndrome for the 3rd volume.

And umm, it is realistic that only a small proportion of population directly benefits from a victory, although benefits will trickle slowly downwards with time. Happened and happens IRL often enough. In fact, in many cases masses suffered from victories in the long run.

Also, is it the "right" side? Or just human side and we cleave to our species? Gray stuff like that heightens my enjoyment of the books.
Tom Marcinko
19. Rayc
We're agreeing violently. It is realistic, and that's a good thing. It was essentially a war between two sets of aristocrats, in which the order was shaken up and some people found themselves rising very quickly - but most people were unaffected, or dead.
Maiane Bakroeva
20. Isilel
"It was essentially a war between two sets of aristocrats"

But that's immaterial, really. IRL wars between aristocrats could lead to improvements for society in general and various "people's movements" and revolutions to decades of fantastic bloodbaths and oppression.

I would say that rejection of Naxid primacy and gradual abandonment of the Praxis will have far-reaching consequences for galactic civilization in general and human part of it in particular. Some of which may even be beneficial for masses at large. We are just too close to in the trilogy to see where it all might go eventually.

I mean, even in current RL democracies wars very seldom benefit masses in the short term, no? And even more rarely are they truly undertaken for idealistic reasons.
Tom Marcinko
21. Rayc
Sure, these things could, eventually, happen. But there was no indication in the books that they were going to. You could equally argue that the Naxids were incapable of dominating as completely as the Shaa, and so the fall away from the Praxis was inevitable and all the war accompished was to hurry things up a little.
Maybe I'm reading too much into it, but I thought WJW was good at reminding you that the cost of this war (not the Naxid takeover, but the war in response) was billions of lives and economic damage that would take decades, at best, to repair.
David Dyer-Bennet
22. dd-b
I enjoyed these, but not as much as David Weber or The Mote In God's Eye or Doc Smith. They're too ponderous to be first-rate space opera, and there isn't the technological development that's often the driving force of the sub-genre.

WJW in general is somebody I've been expecting to become a fantastic author for decades now. I liked Knight Moves, I recall, and liked Aristoi, but totally hated Days of Atonement. Rift was what it was marketed as, and a good enough disaster novel, but not SF. Really, the only books of his that have totally come through for me were the Drake Maijstral stories.
Martin Wisse
23. Martin_Wisse
I loved Days of Atonement even if its ending is flawed, as it has such a tremendous sense of place and the protagonist is somebody who isn't actually that bright, which is rare in science fiction.
Tom Marcinko
24. Peter D. Tillman
Jo, I haven't much to say re the Praxis books: I liked them, but found them second-tier WJW (which is still pretty damn good) -- but I'm thoroughly enjoying your series of reviews and retrospectives here. Keep up the good work!

Thanks, Pete Tillman
AS OTHERS SEE US: `I bought Aldous Huxley's _Brave World_ thing, but simply can't read it. What a bore these stories of the future are.' (P.G. Wodehouse, 1932 letter in _Performing Flea_, 1953)
Ian Tregillis
25. ITregillis
Isilel @ 18:

It's my understanding that The Praxis is in (or past) its 5th printing right now, and The Sundering is in its 3rd (I think). So it's actually selling really well-- I asked a bookstore owner about the series a few days ago, and he said he couldn't keep it on the shelves.

As for why we don't have more Praxis novels to enjoy, that's a mystery of the publishing world.
Rob Munnelly
27. RobMRobM
Hi all - just read the first one from our library, and liked it very much. The Martinez dialog with the Naxis during his planned escape was priceless.

One note re popularity of the series or lack thereof. First book was in my local library. Tried to get the second one and it was not available anywhere in our entire regional library system covering 40 large suburban communities - had to get it from another system. Only one copy of the third book was available anywhere in the regional system. Given that, I'm surprised it has sold relatively well in bookstores.

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