Space opera is one of my favourite things. I love military science fiction—at least, when I can get it without the requisite dose of awful politics and queer erasure that predominates (with some few exceptions) in military space opera. It’d be really nice not to have to accept thoughtless imperialism, cultures that look a lot like 19th-century-European-countries-in-space (sometimes with added Rome or Stalinist Russia analogues), and a complete absence of queer folks as the price of entry, but in most cases, that’s the best one can hope for.
Richard Baker’s Restless Lightning, sequel to last year’s Valiant Dust, is a cut above thoughtless imperialism, but to be honest, it isn’t precisely what I was hoping for out of military science fiction or space opera, either one.
Valiant Dust showed promise and potential, but also seemed to suggest that we could look forward to a view of the future that reproduced the power dynamics of the 19th century with European analogues as colonial powers, and a military science fiction setting that reproduced a boy’s-own-adventure view of significant female characters—which is to say they exist to be the male main character’s temporary romantic interests, or as secondary antagonists, rather than as well-rounded individuals in their own right. (And, though Baker at least acknowledges the existence of queer people, one might look in vain for named queer characters.) Restless Lightning provides additional evidence that however Baker intends to develop his Sikander Singh North books, they seem set to continue in this pattern.
After the events of Valiant Dust, Sikander’s found his career shunted off to die quietly on the sidelines, far away from everything important. He’s an intelligence officer on a commodore’s staff, assigned to a commerce protection squadron in the Tzoru empire—a vast, ancient and hidebound alien polity that shares significant commonalities with the European view of 19th-century China.
And, as it happens, the events of the novel seem to be much inspired by the Boxer Uprising of 1899 to 1901. Anti-colonial feeling among the lower-class Tzoru leads to an uprising aimed at evicting the foreign interests, which have taken an entire district in the capital as their own. Political factions among the Tzoru elite means that the local response to this uprising ranges from opposed but helpless to actually act to quietly supportive of the anti-colonial movement. The “quietly supportive” faction is in charge of most of the nearby military assets, so when the anti-colonial Tzoru march on the foreigners’ district and put it under siege, relief can only come from foreign military assets based in a different star system. But the various foreign militaries have their own competing priorities, rivalries, and agendas. Even if they can be unified under one command, the question remains: will they be able to fight their way past the outdated-yet-immense Tzoru military to relieve the siege of their embassies?
In the middle of this is Sikander Singh North, minor royalty from a colonial planet within the Aquilan Commonwealth, and in an unusual position as a mostly-but-not-entirely assimilated officer within the Aquilan Navy. His immediate superior hates him for reasons dating back to his Academy days, and she’s determined to see him take the blame for not predicting the upsurge of anti-colonial violence—even though, as the squadron intelligence officer, his brief is military intelligence, rather than civil society.
Just before the violence breaks out, Sikander reconnects with an old flame, Dr. Lara Dunstan, an upper-class Aquilan, a Tzoru specialist, and a senior member of the local Foreign Service. He and Lara get an up-close view of the beginnings of violent reaction against the human presence at the scholarly conference that Lara’s attending, and barely escape. When they separate—Sikander back to the fleet and Lara to the foreign district in the capital—Baker continues to give us Lara’s point of view. We see the siege of the embassies through her eyes, as Sikander gives us a view on activity in the fleet.
Restless Lightning offers a third viewpoint character in the form of General Hish Mubirrum, leader of the elite Tzoru faction that’s using the anti-colonial movement to effect a transformation of Tzoru society back to its “traditional” values—a society that will value the General and his faction as he believes it deserves. What Mubirrum doesn’t realise, however, is just how technologically overmatched his people are.
Sikander’s Aquilan Commonwealth colleagues may practise a kinder, gentler form of colonial exploitation than many of the other powers, but they’re still imperial chauvinists. A different book might have given us a better argument about the ethics of realpolitick and resistance in amongst its military action: Restless Lightning is not, alas, that book.
This is a readable military romp of a novel. It suffers, however, from Baker’s lack of vision in terms of worldbuilding—this is a decidedly bland and familiar future—and from his decidedly middling gifts with character. Much of the novel’s tension rests on Sikander’s interactions with military office politics. It’s possible to make gripping drama out of this kind of thing, but that requires that the other characters be developed into believable individuals, rather than plot-relevant placeholders. Unfortunately, most of the characters here fall closer to the plot-relevant placeholder end of the spectrum than otherwise. Even Sikander himself sometimes feels more like a collection of tropes than an individual with an believable inner life.
Perhaps I judge Restless Lightning too harshly. But although it’s light and mostly enjoyable, it never succeeds in giving rise to a coherent thematic argument, or in becoming more than the sum of its parts. And when it comes to military action, it comes off the worse in a comparison with Valiant Dust. I wish I could have enjoyed it more, but for me, Restless Lightning fails to build on Valiant Dust‘s strengths.
Restless Lightning is available from Tor Books.
Liz Bourke is a cranky queer person who reads books. She holds a Ph.D in Classics from Trinity College, Dublin. Her first book, Sleeping With Monsters, a collection of reviews and criticism, was published in 2017 by Aqueduct Press. It was a finalist for the 2018 Locus Awards and was nominated for a Hugo Award in Best Related Work. Find her at her blog, where she’s been known to talk about even more books thanks to her Patreon supporters. Or find her at her Twitter. She supports the work of the Irish Refugee Council, the Transgender Equality Network Ireland, and the Abortion Rights Campaign.