The Course of Empire
This article originally appeared in the November/December 2016 issue.
The Course of Empire. Eric Flint and
Original Publication: 2003 (Baen Books)
Current Availability: E-book (Baen Books free library)
Previously, most books reviewed in this section of Critics’ Corner have had a close connection with Traveller, or could be seen as stories and settings for a Traveller-compatible (though definitely not ‘Third-Imperium-compatible’) universe. That is largely my intent for the section. However, I occasionally break with that goal when a book offers material that would be of interest to Traveller players or referees, even if not of immediate and direct use. This book (and its sequels) let the Traveller worldbuilder see what a well-designed alien culture looks like.
Much of what I say about the reasons to read this book apply equally to the sequels, The Crucible of Empire (Baen, 2010) by the same authors, and The Span of Empire (Baen, 2016), by Eric Flint and David Carrico (with some of the background work written by K.D.Wentworth before her untimely death). These books, at the time of this writing priced at $6.99 and $9.99 respectively in ebook format, continue the story arc begun in this book, and equally deserve a place in your recreational reading library.
Twenty years ago, Earth was on the losing end of a war of conquest by the Jao. The rule of the Jao governor has been anything but benevolent, and resistance to the Jao continues. But there are also some Jao who think that the harsh rule imposed is the wrong answer, and have set up a situation where it might be possible to change. Aille krinnu ava Pluthrak, without knowing any of this, may be the agent of that change. From an assignment to commanding ground troops, he turns his hand to learning about the humans he commands, and ultimately comes to realize that there is a way to bring them into what the Jao call “association”—a concept much deeper, in some ways, than the common human understanding of the word implies. By taking on some humans as personal staff, and treating them with respect, in both the Jao and human senses of the word, and by listening to their advice, even when he cannot or ultimately chooses not to follow that advice, he brings Jao rule—now seen even by many Jao to be misrule—to a crisis situation, and it is one of his human advisors that, because of her intimate knowledge of Jao thinking and body language, proposes what is accepted as the solution to the crisis—and makes humans into partners, albeit junior partners, to the Jao.
Eric Flint says that his type of story is the story of ordinary people in extraordinary situations. I disagree; he writes stories where the seemingly ordinary person is placed into an extraordinary situation, and rises to the occasion, proving that they are not an ordinary person. That they continue to think of themselves as ordinary more-or-less emphasizes to the reader that they are not so ordinary.
K.D.Wentworth, sadly deceased since she and Mr Flint wrote the first sequel to this book, has, in some fan forums, been called one of the best writers of aliens ever to see print. In this series, she worked out the defining characteristics of the Jao and at least two other races that appear and play important roles, and (in my opinion) has given them the seeming of an existence independent of the stories in this series—they are not merely devices for moving the story forward; they are shown to have their own attitudes, their own ethics, their own strengths and weaknesses…they are people, not cardboard cut-outs, and the worldbuilder could do far worse than to look at them as examples to be studied before setting one’s own hand to creating aliens.
Together, they have produced stories as well-written and gripping as any by any of the “Golden Age” greats, without being imitative of those greats, in style or in story. The tapestry of science fiction has evolved in several different directions since that “Golden Age”, and has become richer and more nuanced in detail, and this work is clearly a product of that evolution, without succumbing to the memes of ‘message fiction’, or insisting on fitting a story to a character concept rather than letting the character, the setting, and the story develop “organically” together.
Why is it Traveller?
It’s not, plain and simple. It’s a great read, in my opinion, but there’s just no way to fit the Jao or the Ekhat or any part of the story line into a Traveller universe, especially not with humans not being the dominant culture. But besides being a great read, it’s worth reading because of the way that Ms Wentworth developed the Jao as a species and culture—they are clearly not just ‘humans in rubber suits’, though in Orson Scott Card’s Hierarchy of Foreignness, they are clearly ramen (or, if you prefer, they are an excellent answer to John Campbell’s demand for an alien “that thinks as well as a man, or better than a man, but not like a man”). The reader who seeks to build cultures for his Traveller games will see a culture that stands on its own, and is not merely a foil for human heroes—and, in addition to having enjoyed a good story, will hopefully come away from this one (and its two sequels) with a sense of what a well-developed culture will “feel” like.
A solid “Download this!” recommendation, and an equally solid “Buy!” recommendation for the sequels, which also have good stories and well-developed alien cultures.