Review Date: 21 January 2004
Succession, by Scott Westerfeld
The Risen Empire, by Scott Westerfeld
The Killing of Worlds, by Scott Westerfeld
Tor, New York, NY, March and October 2003, 304 and 336 pages, Hardcover, US$24.95 and US$25.95, ISBN:0-765-30555-0 and 0-765-30850-9
a review by Rich Horton
Succession is the collective title of Scott Westerfeld's diptych of space operas, both published by Tor in 2003 as The Risen Empire and The Killing of Worlds. They are really one long novel (though not that long, less than half the length of Mary Gentle's Ash and less long than any of Alastair Reynolds's novels as well). The Science Fiction Book Club offers them in one volume under the title Succession, and that's the form I read them in (with, I admit, a bit of time off between the two sections).
I enjoyed the book a great deal. It's exciting, intelligent, and thought-provoking, with a pretty interesting political setup. As the book opens, the sister of the Emperor of the Eighty Worlds is being attacked, on a provincial world called Legis, by missiles from the Rix, and a team has been sent by the new Imperial warship Lynx to try to save her. The opening sequence, then, is a long and exciting battle scene, featuring some cool weaponry (such as the teleoperated, gnat-size, scout ships).
Some explanation seems needed, and is slowly given us. The Eighty Worlds are one subset of the human-colonized Galaxy. They are ruled by the Emperor, who is immortal. The secret of immortality is controlled by the Emperor, who doles it out as a favor to political favorites, rich people, war heroes, and the like. The Emperor's sister is also called "the Reason", as it was apparently her illness that drove the Emperor to develop the immortality process, some 1600 years previously. The power of the immortal aristocracy means that the Eighty Worlds are somewhat technologically conservative, and for one thing they resist the development of AI's, which tend to form spontaneously once a planetwide network becomes big enough. The Rix are a fanatical cult of women, cyborgically enhanced, who believe the only purpose of humanity is to foster the development of these AIs, whom they worship as gods, more or less. The Rix resent the Eighty Worlds' position re AIs, and 80 years previously they fought a war, attempting to take over Imperial worlds to allow their networks to grow and form AIs. This new strike at the Emperor's sister seems an attempt at restarting the war, and indeed the Rix manage to push the Legis network to become self-aware, and it names itself Alexander.
Any attempt to further explain the political and naval machinations that follow (and I started one) grows very complicated: better to read the book, I think. The story follows several characters. The main ones are Laurent Zai, a damaged war hero and the Captain of the Lynx; and his secret lover, Senator Nara Oxham, leader of the "pink" faction that opposes the rule of the immortals and the consequent social stagnation. Various other characters include a Rix commando who escapes the original battle and is recruited by Alexander to try to help him propagate; several other crewmembers of the Lynx, especially including the beautiful executive officer, Katherie Hobbes, who has fallen for Zai, having no idea that he is committed to Oxham; Jocim Marx, the Lynx's Master Pilot, who controls the teleoperated scouts in the various battles; Oxham's House, which shows signs of becoming an AI itself; and Rana Harter, a brain-damaged savant on Legis who is kidnapped by the Rix commando and falls in love with her. The action ends up concerning a dangerous Imperial Secret that the Emperor wants concealed especially from his own people, political maneuvering on the Imperial capitol world that might destroy Oxham's career -- or break apart the Empire; some desperate actions by the Rix commando to try to reconnect the planetary network to allow Alexander offplanet communication; and some exciting and intriguingly designed space battles, as Zai must fight off the Rix warship while trying to avoid the potentiality of orders to destroy Legis. And there are of course a few surprising developments.
As I said, I really liked it. It's very fast moving. The tech is fascinating and well-imagined. The ideas, especially concerning immortality but also some other human modifications, are both SFnally cool and thematically engaging. I will say that the final revelation of the Emperor's Secret was a mild letdown, and it made some of what went before seem a little less important -- but perhaps I was simply asking too much. I still think this a first-rate Space Opera*, and considered as a unit, one of the best SF novels of 2003.
(*I note, if it's not already clear, that I regard Space Opera as a descriptive term for a subgenre of SF, and not as a pejorative term, though I concede of course that its origins were pejorative.)