(2002) Kevin J. Anderson, Simon & Schuster, £10.99, trd pbk pp679, ISBN 0-7342-2045-5
Mankind is expanding out into the Galaxy to encounter the alien civilization of the Ildirans though there are the remains of former civilizations occasionally to be found. There are also the robotic Klikiss whose biological Klikiss creators are long gone. The humans develop the technology to turn gas giants into stars and this worries some Ildirans. The Klikiss also appear to have their own agenda.
The publishers have billed this as a dazzling space opera fit to stand with the classics of the genre, combing both the politics of Frank Herbert's Dune, the scope of Peter F. Hamilton's Night's Dawn trilogy and the pageantry and romance of Star Wars. This is not surprising considering that Anderson has written several Star Wars spin-off novels as well as co-authored with Brian Herbert follow-up Dunespin-offs. I dare say that these are quite reasonable reads (someone else on the Concat team gets these) and that Anderson can competently work with other people's universes and indeed other authors. Equally not surprising, since Anderson has worked on such spin-offs from block-buster hits, his books sell well. However do not expect great things from this first book in the Seven Suns series as Hidden Empire really sucks. Though it has to be said that the first 25 pages are actually quite good. The technology for turning a gas giant into a sun is well thought out. But the credit for this (which Anderson - decent chap - duly gives in the acknowledgement section) goes to Gregory Benford. As for the rest of the book, it is absolutely dire. I do not know where to begin to cite this work's numerous failings. The writing is uninspired. The plot is weak. The science is hopeless. There are countless events that simply don't hang together. It is long-winded. Formulaic. Blah. Blah. Blah. Blah.
Given that this website is the Science Fact and Fiction Concatenation I'll start by giving an example of the science (other than Benford's proto star technology). Part of the plot revolves around an exotic allotrope used in star drives. Fair enough. Exotic allotropes of common elements do manifest themselves and we are still making discoveries. cf.Buckmasterfullerine the recently discovered allotrope of carbon. However Anderson uses hydrogen as the element for his exotic allotrope. Now one might guess why. Hydrogen has a high nuclear binding energy which makes it the best elemental fuel for fusion. The problem is that it has a valency of one and this somewhat limits the number of variations in which it will bond with itself to... well er... one. (Carbon on the other hand has a valency of four, hence the possibility of stereochemical variations in addition to bonding configurations and delocalised electron rings etc etc. So Buckminsterfullerine is a real possibility as we found out in the 1990s.) As for elements of the plot failing to hang together, one of the first examples comes from a space general who on capturing pirates forces the pirate captain to kill his own crew by ejecting them one by one out of an airlock without a suit. Clearly Anderson is trying to shock us with brutality (or is it a crude attempt at character building?) but the whole episode is simply ludicrous, not just for the cliched writing but, because the general then orders his own crew to go outside to retrieve the dead bodies as they will become a navigating hazard! So leaving us the reader to wonder why he killed them that way in the first place? Why not just depressurise the airlock without opening the outer hatch? Because the General had a misplaced sense of grandeur, or the author just misplaced sense? Then there are the floating cities in the gas giants... Actually I can't be arsed to unpick these for you. You can read about these for your self if you have a spare proportion of your life to waste.
As you have probably suspected, I do not rate this book which to be quite frank is so bad I will not mind if I never ever receive another Anderson book to review. Yes, at some obscure level or another all fiction can be said to have its derivative elements but, in addition to the afore faults, Hidden Empire is so derivative that you can sense the elements of Dune or Star Wars (to which the publishers refer in their hype) much as one might, when barefoot an upturned drawing pin . Nonetheless Hidden Empire does have some virtues. Anyone with any ambitions to become a writer can use this book to see if they have reached a professional standard, for if you can read this and spot the flaws then you have the necessary perception to at least see where you are professionally going. The book is also of sufficient size that it can be usefully hollowed out to make a school boy's secret container. Then again at 679 pages this tome would be useful to have in the event of a bad case of the runs: though Andrex is cheaper and more absorbent.
Amazingly, this book may well sell! Anderson has a Star Wars and Dune following of those who do not (or cannot) discriminate between his spin-offs and the original classics ,and I dare say they will follow Anderson through his Saga of the Seven Suns. Hopefully along the way they may discover that there is some good SF being published though Hidden Empire is not one such work. You have been warned.
PS. Believe it or not, Hidden Empire is also out in hardback at £17.99.
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