In this bi-weekly series reviewing classic science fiction and fantasy books, Alan Brown looks at the front lines and frontiers of the field; books about soldiers and spacers, scientists and engineers, explorers and adventurers. Stories full of what Shakespeare used to refer to as “alarums and excursions”: battles, chases, clashes, and the stuff of excitement.
Some feel that the heart of science fiction is science—the universe and how it works. But others use the universe and technology simply as a canvas on which to paint their stories. Often, these tales are space opera, full of action and adventure. But over the past few decades, Sharon Lee and Steve Miller have been writing books that, while they also brim with action and adventure, have the human heart at their center; stories which are built around love and family. So, let’s step into their Liaden Universe, as rich and well-imagined a setting as any in science fiction.
Like many books I discovered in the 1980s, I noticed Agent of Change in the local Waldenbooks because of its cover, wonderfully rendered by Stephen Hickman. It shows three figures standing in front of the entrance of a building, one looking like a giant turtle, and two humans engaging in a gunfight with someone offstage to their left. In front is a red-haired woman dressed in leather. Behind her is a dark-haired man in similarly practical attire, but with a puffy white dress shirt under his leather vest. The cover blurb talks about two people on the run, a spy and a mercenary, thrown into an impromptu partnership. Like all good covers, it presents as many questions as answers. What caused their trouble? Who were they shooting at? Why wasn’t that tough-looking turtle also firing? What was with that puffy shirt? What brought them all together?
It was enough to grab me, and I enjoyed the book from cover to cover. It had a satisfying ending, but left things open to further adventures. The story had more romance than I was used to in a science fiction story, but that romance was very well-handled and mixed with lots of adventure, and a wry sense of humor. I ended up wanting more, and resolved to keep my eye open for these authors in the future.
About the Authors
Sharon Lee (born 1952) and Steve Miller (born 1950), while they have both written solo, are best known as a writing team who created the Liaden Universe (in the picture above, you see Sharon on the left, Steve in the center, and their long-time cover artist Dave Mattingly on the right). They are natives of Maryland who married in 1980, and now live in the wilds of Maine with a number of enormous cats. Both have long been involved with science fiction fandom, and their connection with the fan community, both in person and on the Internet, has helped the Liaden Universe survive and thrive. Steve is a graduate of the Clarion Writers’ Workshop. Sharon has served as Executive Director, Vice President, and then President of SFWA (Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America).
The Liaden Universe started in 1988. Del Rey published the first three books as paperback originals. At that time, competition in the publishing industry was fierce, with an emphasis on blockbusters, and even authors with a good sales record might find themselves without any new contracts. But on Usenet and the new Internet, fans of those first three books had been gathering and discussing sequels. The mix of adventure and strong romantic elements in the books had attracted both male and female fans. Lee and Miller started writing chapbooks set in the universe, and found a new publisher, small press Meisha Merlin, who published the first three books in a hardcover omnibus and began to release new volumes to the series. The authors also received a contract from Ace Books to reprint old volumes in paperback. In 2007 the series found its current home, Baen Books, first with electronic reprints, and then with paperback omnibuses of older books and hardback releases of new books. The series now numbers more than 20 volumes, including both novels and short story collections.
The books are all set in the same universe, and while some are direct sequels, many of them introduce new characters and act as independent entry points for the series. The first books in the Baen run, for example, introduced a completely new character into the narrative. This strategy has allowed people unaware of previous volumes to join in at all different points over the decades. In recent years, the overarching story has grown stronger, and it is clear that Lee and Miller are building to a climactic event sometime in the next few volumes.
The Internet has long served to support this series, and a strong fandom has built up over the years. Lee and Miller set up a website, korval.com, as a gathering point for the fans, and have a strong presence on Facebook. In many ways, the strong attachment people feel toward the series mirrors its emphasis on family.
The Liaden Universe
The universe is inhabited by three human civilizations. Terrans are numerous, practical and undisciplined. It is indicated that the Terra they come from is not the first planet to bear that name, which suggests quite a bit of separation between our own time and the time of the stories. The Liadens are more formal and custom-bound, with extended family clans forming the backbone of their society. They are very attentive to the balance between themselves and others, in terms of each person’s status and place in the universe, referring to this balance as “melant’i.” The Yxtrang are fierce warriors, the cause of much disruption in the universe. Their ancestors may have been genetically engineered to wage war. Strong prejudices exist between these three very different peoples. There are not many non-human races, but one of the most prominent is the Clutch, a race of giant turtles who are known for growing incredibly durable crystal knives.
At the core of these stories is the Clan Korval, a very old and powerful founding family on Liaden. At the center of the clan’s home is a giant tree, Jelaza Kazone, as old as the family itself, that shows signs of some sort of intelligence, and shepherds the family via edible seed pods that have mysterious restorative powers. Many very clever (if not intelligent) cats also inhabit the clan’s home. The clan is a major force in the interstellar trade community; this is seen as eccentric by some other clans, isolationists who do not favor contact with other worlds and races. As the series continues, Clan Korval clashes with a mysterious and malevolent Department of the Interior, an organization with an unhealthy influence over Liaden’s political system. The clan, and the various couples and families of which it’s composed, are the heart of the series.
Interstellar commerce is conducted by spaceships that operate cheaply enough that there is a trade in spices, rare items, and handcrafted goods, but not cheaply enough to allow trade in large quantities of commodities. Much of the trade is conducted by trading companies, but there are also independent traders that own their own ships. Ships are manually piloted, with pilots highly prized members of an exclusive guild. There were once artificial intelligences who piloted ships, but these proved difficult to control, and have been banned. While there are interplanetary organizations, there is no strong interstellar government, and planets generally rule themselves and manage their systems as they see fit.
There are also hints of extrasensory powers in the universe, including precognition and other powers that sometimes appear akin to magic. And when a couple forms a strong bond, they become “lifemates,” with a rapport that approaches telepathy.
Agent of Change
The book opens with action right from the start, and the pace rarely flags. Val Con yos’Phelium, a Liaden spy, is shown in disguise, assassinating a man for reasons that are not clear to the reader. After he escapes through a rough neighborhood, he stumbles upon a gunfight between a red-haired woman and five opponents. Without understanding why, he helps her to overcome them, only to have her knock him out. The woman feels guilty for that, and hauls him to her apartment. When he awakens, he surprises himself by telling her the truth about his identity, but she sends him on his way. As he leaves, he sees another group surrounding the apartment, and again intervenes to save her from these new attackers. The two of them go to dinner, and she tells him her story.
She is Miri Robertson, from the poverty-stricken planet of Surebleak, who recently retired from mercenary service and took a job as a bodyguard. But she picked an unscrupulous employer, and soon found herself on the wrong side of the Juntavas, an interplanetary crime organization. Val Con takes Miri to his apartment, and they agree to stick together for a while. At this point, with all the threats they face, both of them need backup. She finds that he is a virtuoso on the omnichora, a keyboard instrument. He is an intriguing mix of ruthless and artistic, something she has never encountered before.
In the morning, they get to know each other a bit better, and make preparations to escape—only to find that they have been discovered by the organization whose leader Val Con had assassinated, and once again have to fight their way out of an attack. They set fire to the place, and attempt to slip out with the evacuees, but in the lobby, they encounter a group of Clutch turtles, one of whom, Edger, has adopted Val Con as kin. It turns out that, before he was a spy, Val Con was a Scout, a member of an elite Liaden organization that explores the universe. (I later wondered, with all the mystical forces that exist in the Liaden Universe, if this encounter in the lobby was as random as it appeared. I also must admit that, the first time I read the book, I read Edger’s name as “Edgar,” which I though an odd name for a turtle.)
The turtles take Val Con and Miri under their wing, and offer them the use of their spaceship. At first the two humans resist this idea, and Miri considers rejoining her old mercenary force, which happens to be on planet between jobs. But the two find themselves continually pushed together by circumstance, and by an attraction that neither of them fully understands. Miri also realizes that Val Con has been brainwashed by the organization that employs him—an organization that clearly sees him as more of a tool than an individual. Val Con’s efforts to break free of his programming become a large part of the narrative. As the story progresses we see two tough and guarded individuals opening their hearts to each other, as they face threats from every side.
Agent of Change is a remarkable book. In some ways, it echoes the science fiction adventures of the 1960s, and the work of authors like Andre Norton and Anne McCaffrey. It brings romantic themes to the fore, but without compromising the action and adventure. It is an enjoyable and fast read, but it was clear from my very first encounter that there was a real depth and complexity to this universe. And as a series, the Liaden Universe has defied changes in the publishing industry and has grown more popular over time. Not many authors can point to a body of work whose fandom has grown so large and so passionate.
And now it’s your turn to comment. What did you think of Agent of Change, and its blend of action and romance? Have you read other tales set in the Liaden Universe? And if so, what are your favorite elements of the series?
Alan Brown has been a science fiction fan for over five decades, especially fiction that deals with science, military matters, exploration and adventure.