Dread Empire’s Fall: Conventions of War, Walter Jon Williams

EOS, 2005, 677 pages, C$10.99 mmpb, ISBN 978-0-380-82022-1

I may be one of the few who still remembers that in the wild and woolly days of 1997, Walter Jon Williams launched a short-lived on-line SF criticism magazine called “Hardwired”. It was meant to be by and for working SF writer trying to advance the state of the art and warn against the perils of commercial publishing. The second issue was dedicated to Fat Fantasy, the pernicious tendency of fantasy to be spread over lengthy volumes. (The magazine disappeared from the web in 2005, but The Internet Archive remembers everything!)

But fast-forward ten years later, and even the snarkiest writers can do things that their earlier selves might have found ironic. So it was that between 2002 and 2005, Walter Jon Williams saw the publication of a space-opera trilogy called Dread Empire’s Fall. A big straight-to-paperback 1,500-page trilogy.

There are probably excellent reasons for this. Despite William’s continued brilliance, he has never completely caught fire commercially. Brilliant early-nineties novels like Aristoi might have anticipated the post-human SF craze that gave rise to Charles Stross’ Accelerando by a good thirteen years, but they haven’t made Williams a best-selling SF writer. The post-Aristoi phase of William’s career was marked by attempts to broaden his scope as a writer, but those efforts didn’t pan out as planned: His ambitious fantasy trilogy begun with Metropolitan remains unfinished (a victim of publishing industry reorganization, we’re told), and the fat disaster novel The Rift (by “Walter J. Williams”) wasn’t followed by any further attempt at the mainstream thriller market.

What we got next was Dread Empire’s Fall, a trilogy going after the same military-SF audience that have made David Weber a bestselling author. Clever career move? Maybe. As a reader, I’m only qualified to say that the trilogy felt less interesting than Williams’ previous novels, and the thing that fascinated me the most about it was how it wobbled more than what it did well.

I haven’t reviewed the first two volumes of the series in part because they seemed a bit light: The plot-to-page ratio felt closer to Fat Fantasy than to most contemporary SF. As Williams set up his universe, his characters and his plot, the trilogy seemed stuck in one set piece after another.

(For reference, a nutshell summary of the trilogy: The last of the galaxy-controlling aliens dies, plunging the “Dread Empire” in a civil war that’s roughly humans-against-nasty-aliens. Against that backdrop, competent but badly-connected captain Gareth Martinez falls in love with the ruthless pilot Caroline Sula. Numerous complications due to the highly rigid nature of their society make their love difficult and their military career dangerous.)

The good news is that Conventions of War delivers a satisfying (albeit not happy) conclusion to the entire trilogy, and that it ties up the subplots that took so long to set up in the first two thirds of the trilogy. Williams writes entertainingly no matter what he does, and so Conventions of War is a pleasant diversion from beginning to end. His characters alone are worth the ride: Martinez is sympathetic yet beholden to an awful system, whereas Sula is a force of nature that’s as deadly as she’s worth cheering for.

But the series feels like a badly-controlled experiment, and the third volume is worse than the others in reinforcing that feeling. At roughly 50% longer that the first two volumes, Conventions of War physically gives the impression of a story that has sprawled out of control. The move away from space battles into ground-side resistance and shipboard murder mystery also smacks of a runaway plot: in order to give interesting alternating chapters as he flips between his two protagonists, Williams finds himself spreading the story thin. And, throughout, the same thoughts bubble up: Is there a point to making this story 1,500 pages? Couldn’t this have been done in a single volume?

Because even with the triumphant space battles at the end, even despite the amusing details about a society engineered to be rigidly hierarchical, Dread Empire’s Fall feels like a minor work, a writer playing games on his readership. The society described here feels too stunted to survive long (it does change during the trilogy, though not enough to preclude further volumes) and the overall feel is closer to a comfort fantasy trilogy than an authentic work of extrapolative science-fiction. But, then again, this is meant to be a military space-opera, and as such, Dread Empire’s Fall is more interesting than most examples in the genre. Williams certainly earns point for delivering an uncomfortable conclusion that remains true to the emotional arc of the characters.

Not having access to Bookscan numbers, I can’t say whether this side-trip in Fat Space Opera has been fruitful for Williams. It’s certainly not a complete artistic success despite good moments here and there. But that only makes my anticipation for his next book even bigger: What will he try next?

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