- No. 4 in the Venture SF Collection
- A fix-up of three novellas
- Published by Hamlyn Books
- Published in 1985
- Space Opera
- 256 pages
Once upon a time, there was an Empire that ruled over the Galaxy. That Empire is now fading into myth, with only scattered pockets of civilisation remaining. But while the Empire may have fallen, humanity endures, even as it falls back on old and dangerous habits . . .
Today would have been John Brunner’s 88th birthday. I only became aware of this fact last week, thanks to a Tor.com article. Since I already had a copy of Interstellar Empire resting in my TBR, it seemed only appropriate to bump it up my reading schedule. A good thing I did too, because this small book has ensured I’ll be revisiting Brunner in the future.
As followers of this blog will know, I love a good story about empires in science fiction. I am especially interested in those that feature an empire in decline. Chalk it up to youthful exposure to Foundation and Space Viking, but it’s a theme and a setting I will happily revisit time and time again. Interstellar Empire fits alongside those two favourites of mine. Structurally, it’s a little Asimov. But in tone and delivery, it’s much closer to Piper. At the same time, it’s absolutely its own thing.
The premise for these three novellas is fairly straightforward. At some point in our future, humanity stumbles across a fleet of abandoned alien vessels that allow us to colonise the galaxy, and build the Argian Empire (centred on Argus). Thousands of years later, the Empire has collapsed for unknown reasons. The end result is that some planets remain strong and well-defended, while others have fallen into neobarbarism. This leads to a blend of sword and planet adventuring as various heroes and villains fight to carve a place for themselves. The decline of the Empire itself is more of a background detail than a feature of the plot, but it casts a long shadow across the events of the book.
The first two stories are the strongest. Each one shows how, in the absence of the Empire, bandits and warlords have sprung up to fill the power vacuum. Without a central authority to arbitrate disputes (and enforce peace), violence is the only recourse left. First we see Spartak, who in spite of being a sworn pacifist, soon finds himself choosing to overthrow a warlord through decidedly non-peaceful means. His brother is more of a Conan type, swaggering around with weapons and starships. But while he too is cast as a hero, he also has a history of pillaging, and keeps a slave for his own pleasure. I’m not saying this fits in with a certain other grim and dark future, but its far from an enlightened age.
The last novella in this book is the weakest. As well as being a little overstuffed and reliant on familiar beats (as Brunner himself admits in the foreword), it’s also more like a fantasy that happens to take place on another planet than the more science fictional stories that came before. A lot of this is forgivable given how young Brunner was at the time of writing, but it does result in the book trailing off rather than landing a final punch.
Sliding in among a forest of tropes and themes I enjoy, this was probably the best place I could have started with the works of John Brunner. So it’s a happy birthday to the dearly departed man, and for myself, a guarantee for many happy returns to his dark and vibrant writing.