Fiction Reviews

The Thousand Emperors

(2012) Gary Gibson, Tor, £8.99 / Can$15.99, pbk, 357pp, ISBN 978-0-330-51972-4


There is a preamble to this novel and this is it… A couple of centuries in the future humanity develops portals (or 'stargates' in sci-fi parlance) and at last the stars are in reach (once you have taken a destination portal to wherever you want to go by conventional sub-light means). However another ancient portal network is discovered. Exploration begins of this abandoned network of portals created by aliens long gone (see Gibson's 2004 novel Angel Stations). But when a portal exploration team investigates an alien ruin brings back ancient extraterrestrial technology, a technological infection occurs that threatens to spread out from the Earth's Moon's own portal hub or Lunar Gate Array (see Gibson's 2011 novel Final Days). The only thing to do is to shut the portal system down so isolating humanity's stellar colonies from Earth. Separated from Earth, humanities colonies split into two groupings of worlds: the Tian Di and the Coalition. The Coalition continues to develop at a rapid pace, while the Tian Di is more cautious due to memories of the technologically-mediated disaster that befell mother Earth and the Moon.

A century further on still and the Tian Di has had its ups and downs. It is now ruled by a small elite who have used technology to make them extremely long-lived while the rest of the population are near base human. However most in the Tian Di live contented lives though there were exceptions and a few despicable episodes including a massacre on the world Benares…

Phew… Have you got that? (The actual preamble is actually nearly three pages long.) Now for the novel's story.

Luc Gabion remembers the citizens of his world who died in the Benares incident and blames a terrorist. Accompanying forces to a base on a small world he tracks down one of the terrorist leaders but is captured and has alien technology implanted in him before he is released, and the terrorist leader escapes via a portal. Shortly after, elsewhere, there has been a murder of one of Tian Di's ruling elite and Luc is called in to investigate. He reluctantly accepts and becomes even more reluctant when the alien technology he now carries enables him to discern things he should not see. As his investigation continues it becomes apparent that the murder may have been motivated by issues that relate to others of the ruling class who would – if guilty – no doubt silence him permanently. These issues relate to the proposed opening of more cordial relations with the Coalition of worlds some of whose citizens have artificially evolved themselves into something more than human and who seem to know more about the alien network of portals than do those in the Tian Di…

The Thousand Emperors is a hard-ish SF space opera thriller cum adventure. As I have previously said in my review of Angel Stations that Gary Gibson 'mid-way in a spectrum between the space opera of Jack McDevitt and Eric Brown on one hand and Alastair Reynolds and Iain Banks on the other', and this applies to The Thousand Emperors too. Fans of all four authors – that is to say readers whose reading spans the entirety of this spectrum – will hugely enjoy this romp.

Having said that, Gary Gibson does like to wrap his novels up in a convoluted plot. Some readers like this, others might not. With The Thousand Emperors this convolution is compounded by the history of the plot's setting and so the introductory info-dump preamble is necessary and I did have to return to it two or three times in the course of the novel to get the hang of what was going on. While unwrapping copiously packaged plots can be fun, where the plot has been exceedingly wrapped it can get a little too much. For example, was it really necessary for all the principal worlds involved to have had names changed in their history? And then there are the plot inconsistencies or illogicalities. For example, if the implanted alien technology is a pain, why did they not record Luc's personality (as others do), wait for a clone body to be grown (without the alien implants) and then transfer the personality? Why did not the secret agent infiltrating a world light years away not take his own ansible (faster-than-light communicator) with him? (This last especially as it was anticipated that after decades of sub-light travel they had previously foreseen that there would be mission adjustments?) And (p290), how do you lie back on a mattress in a zero-G space station?

Fortunately the momentum of the novel's romp of an SFnal thriller cum adventure is more than sufficiently great to carry the reader over such hiccoughs. Nonetheless such stumbling blocks together with Gibson's penchant to over-do the complexities just a tad, prevent him from moving towards the Banks/Reynolds end of the Brown/McDevitt-to-Banks/Reynolds spectrum. Either he needs some more critical folk in his draft manuscript reading group or (assuming they are sufficiently critical) he needs to listen carefully to their comments. Doubly annoying is that some of these hiccoughs could be explained should the reader wish to hypothesise solutions, but readers should not have to do that: that is the author's job!

Now I do not take delight in highlighting these grumbles, it is just that Gibson as gives us a sufficiently satisfying tale I wonder why he cannot iron out a few of the wrinkles to make it that much better still?

And then there is the way Gibson's works are presented. Here the author and publisher would greatly benefit from sitting down together with a nice strong cup of tea to sort this out. Both the pre-publication publicity and the novel's front piece paragraph on the author's works cite this and Final Days as 'stand-alone books'. Now let us be clear, there are 'stand-alone books' and there are 'stand-alone books'. Gibson seems to be writing primarily in two universes: one with faster-than-light (FTL) space craft (the 'Shoal' novels) and one without FTL craft but with portals (the 'Angel' or 'Portal' novels). As such his novels do not seem to be truly stand-alone. True, Gibson's 'Shoal trilogy' is a trilogy being one story told across three books and so is not 'stand-alone'. No problem. Yet Gibson's latest book, Marauder, billed as a stand-alone book is set in his Shoal universe. So it would, I gently venture to publisher and author, that it be better marketed as a Shoal stand-alone novel. Equally The Thousand Emperors would be more accurately billed as being an 'Angel' (or 'Portal') stand-alone novel set in the same universe as Final Days. This is much in the same way as Iain Banks has stand-alone 'Culture' novels or Reynolds has 'Revelation Space' stand-alone novels but connected through their 'Culture' and 'Revelation Space' setting.  Just a thought.

OK, please do not take my gripes too seriously because Gibson's space operas are good romp reads, but ironing out the wrinkles would make them that much better. Indeed in the course of the slightly extra word count needed to iron out the wrinkles we could lose word count by making things just a little simpler (ease off the complexities just a tad) and then we would have a far finer set of works: this author is not realising his full potential but has easily demonstrated that he is worth more.

I do hope that these comments reach the author and publisher because truly I really want to read more of Gibson's works, just that I do not want to occasionally shake my head when doing so.

One final problem, but a good one this time, is that so far Gibson's works have come out over a decade and memory dims over this time: well, this reader's memory tends to. However, the great news is that 2012/3 has seen his backlist reprinted and so you can get all his stories in one go and so easily see how the novels within each of his two separate universes fit together. This will be a genuine treat for all those who like high-octane space opera.

Jonathan Cowie

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