Book review

The Risen Empire

by Scott Westerfeld

The Risen Empire by Scott Westerfeld

If you like your science fiction with an emphasis on the science, as I do, then this is likely to be a great book for you. Set a few thousand years in the future, humans have spread out not only to the “80 Worlds” of the Risen Empire, but further, fragmenting and managing their own evolution as they go. In this future, we haven’t conquered the speed of light for travel, but we do use quantum-entangled particles for faster-than-light communication across the worlds. To make a multi-world system plausible you need some new science, and in this universe we have conquered gravity, at least to some extent. This allows anti-gravity on ships, which can allow us to live with much higher accelerations, so interstellar travel is still a matter of years not hours, but it is practical.

The final discovery around which the book is centered was the creation of immortality. Fourteen hundred years before the book’s setting, a brilliant scientist in search of a cure for his sister’s terminal disease created of a symbiote that can be implanted in the very recently deceased, and which brings them back to life – for ever, assuming no massive traumatic injuries. He first uses this on himself, and then on his sister. Fourteen hundred years later, he is the Emperor of the Risen Empire, planets are divided between the living and the “dead” (i.e., the resurrected), and the Emperor’s sister is treated as semi-divine. Unfortunately, as the book stars, we find she has also been captured by the terrorists known as the Rix, who view humanity as merely a stepping stone to planet-sized artificial intelligences.

Enter our hero, Laurent Zai, commander of a space frigate with the mission of freeing her. Complications, as they say, ensue.

There’s a lot to chew on in this book, as well as the intriguing plot. What does the creation of immortality mean to humanity? Does it stifle our creativity – science is often seen as being done by the young, who have to wait for the old to die out before their new theories take hold? How does it affect the transfer of wealth between generations?

‘If the old ones lived forever? Possessed all the wealth, controlled the military, and brooked no disagreement? We’d still be living there, stuck on that lonely fringe of Orion, thinking ourselves at the center of the universe.

We meet Nara, a senior member of the Senate, who is a fierce opponent of immortality. Laurent becomes her lover, and in many ways the book is about the contrast between their love, and the dead hand of the immortals and their worlds. She views immortality as the ultimate con trick:

‘Humanity is central, Laurent, the only thing that matters. We are what puts good and evil in this universe. Not gods or dead people. Not machines. Us.’ ‘The honored dead are our ancestors, Nara,’ he whispered fiercely, as if silencing a child in church. ‘They’re a medical procedure. One with unbelievably negative social and economic consequences. Nothing more.’

Then there’s the Rix – are they what they seem to be? What’s their ultimate motivation?

The Rix Cult did not recognize hard boundaries, especially between animate and inanimate; Rixwomen (they had disposed of the unnecessary gender) moved freely along the continuum between organic and technological, picking and choosing from the strengths of each.

The beating heart of the book for me is still the excellent extrapolation from the few inventions the author allows himself. Of especial note for me was the brilliant space battle, between Zai’s frigate and the incoming Rix.

It’s great writing throughout, with entirely credible weapons and their effects, and the various characters really leap off the page – Nara, Laurent and Hobbes, his Executive Officer, the surviving Rix commando on the planet, even the immortal Emperor. Different sub-sections take their points of view in turn, and it’s very effectively done.

Four and a half stars, rounded up to five for that great battle scene.