The End of the Empire
Del Rey Books 
Synopsis: The Holy Human Empire, vast and corrupt, is collapsing. Has collapsed, in fact, down to a single planet, Portales, which itself is on the verge of being conquered by the FURDS Fleet, POUM Faction and its sympathisers on Portales. Colonel Saloman Karff is an intelligence officer for the Empire, who we first encounter burning files so the Rebels don’t get their hands on them. Karff has many problems, not the least of which is that his immediate superior, Bloyer, is a double agent working for the Rebels. Karff manages to escape Portales to the last Imperial Fleet, as, sadly for Karff, does Bloyer.
The fleet makes its way into a largely unsettled region to the sole system they know of in the area with “fruited” planets [I’m not sure if this refers only to terraformed planets or whether naturally life-bearing worlds count as well]. There they discover a double planet: Aqua Pura, larger than Earth, not easily terraformable but due to its geological history, with seas enriched in deuterium. The other world, Malusia, was settled 900 years earlier by the Mamnu people, fleeing, not all that coincidentally, from the world currently known as Portales. On examination, there are also some orbiting habitats and an orbital elevator and oddly, all of the food production is done on the habitats while much of the population is on the planet.
Karff is volunteered to go examine the planet by Bloyer, who knows Karff knows Bloyer is a traitor, Karff having openly said so earlier. Karff knows Bloyer knows Karff knows, so Karff suspects that Bloyer is hoping the Rebel fleet will show up, forcing the Imperial fleet to run further into unfruited territory and leaving Karff behind.
Malusia, it turns out, was settled by anarchists. Their population reached a point where they feared a government might autocatalyse itself into existence so they set up a minarchist government to fill that niche so a real government could not form. Excess population is sent down the elevator for educational purposes [The primary activities on the surface are universities and prisons]. Valuable people are brought back up. The rest rot on the surface in a ruthless, social-safety-netless anarchy. Because the system is set up to be static, they can not afford to build another elevator and the current one must at present planetary population levels be run at above design limits until it breaks down. Breakdowns last months. The planet only has days worth of supplies. Mass famine follows every breakdown and thus the population is kept to the level the desired political system can deal with. Because the system is static, new technology also having the possibility of enabling a government, the locals lack Mechanically Simulated Telekinesis, the basis on which Imperial transportation and military doctrine relies. Malusia is a plum ripe for the picking by the Imperials, if the Rebels don’t show up too soon.
Karff has a jolly time contacting the locals, learning the ins and outs of the local belief systems, which are largely based on some form of either the Libertarian or Anarchist faiths. Oddly enough, despite not having actually had contact with other governments for the better part of a millennium, the locals still have ingrained hostility to the idea of governments and firmly believe that what they have in its place is not a government.
Unfortunately, the Rebels do arrive. Karff is indeed abandoned on Malusia, along with some subordinates. The Imperial Fleet flees, pausing only to grant Karff a knighthood over the radio. All does not go well for Bloyer, who has coasted this far on the fact that he was one of the in-group and Karff was not [“Not a team player” and “not one of us” keep coming up as descriptions of Karff]. His obvious attempt to keep the Imperial Fleet in one place has no gone unnoticed and the Regent has Bloyer’s subordinates rounded up and shot, signalling the end of Bloyer’s career.
The only duty left to Karff is to fight a holding action against the Rebels. To do this, he must set up a government on Malusia. Prior to and while the Rebel Fleet is conquering Naxos, one of the orbital habitats, Karff introduces food producing technology which will help the locals feed themselves. He helps under raise the government of the Republic of Malusia, carefully making sure the ex-professor he places in the Presidency has no actual power. He makes a deal with the two biggest gangs, one getting the army and the other the police. Finally, he sets up elections for the parliament, all much faster than I would have thought possible given the prejudices of the simple Malusian natives.
The Great Houses, who run the system, had intended to go as far as atom-bombing the surface to prevent a government, stay their hand because the Rebel fleet is a greater menace. They accept the gift of MST, knowing it will destroy them in the long run. They do not prevent Karff from spreading the single-cell food technology. Given a year or so, they may well be able to defeat the Rebel fleet, which is more advanced than they are but without re-supply abilities.
The Rebels take much greater damage capturing Naxos than they planned for. The fleet is virtually crippled and unable to return home [Largely for political reasons, I think]. Hoping the Imperial Fleet will return, they decide to try to seize the planet. Karff manages to prevent this, at least in the short run but in doing so he is killed by the destruction of the Rebel spacecraft attempting to capture Malusia, sacrificing his life to preserve people from three different groups who saw him as a despised outsider. The novel ends with one of his subordinates getting into office but with the story of the Rebel-Great House-Republic of Malusia-Imperial conflict largely unresolved.
For some reason, this book is firmly stuck in the ‘light comedy’ part of my brain, despite the thorough hosing Karff gets from his superiors and allies. Karff is cynical on his surface but note that he is genuinely moved by the ceremony where he is given his knighthood, third class [First and second being reserved for members of the Imperial Household]. I am not sure that this qualifies as a tragedy by the classical definition, since Karff is brought low by noble motivations rather than character flaws1.
Parts of the book are very funny: the local politics, the way Karff deals with them, the Imperial Union Goon leather jacket he gets at one point [The locals are a bit fuzzy on the concept of secret police and the Imperial politics, for example. The FURDS/POUM folks get short changed but as I speculate later, if there where later books planned, they might have been the targets of humour in those.
The lack of resolution of the greater story makes me wonder whether or not Gilliland intended to make this part of a trilogy, like his earlier Rosinante trilogy and the later Wizenbeak trilogy. As near as I can tell, Del Rey ‑still- has not run entirely through the print-run, judging by EotE’s current availability [at $2.25, so not a new print run] so, and this is entirely a speculation on my part, sales did not justify publishing the next two books.
I had a chance to ask Gilliland why he apparently stopped writing with the third Wizenbeak novel. He told me that while the first book in the trilogy has as far as he and his agent could tell, sold through, Del Rey had cut the next two books’ print runs in half, giving bookstores the impression readers hated the series and killing their interest in stocking him. There are several solutions to a situation like that, including changing one’s pen name to escape the sales track record [see Robin Hobb and perhaps Ian Douglas]. He chose to wait the seven years, which are up this year and try again. It will be interesting to see if the new publisher does a better job of marketing his books and if his books are more to readers’ tastes this time round.
I think part of the problem is that Gilliland has actually taken part in real politics of the non-fringe variety and this excess knowledge of reality taints his books with an unpleasantly informed attitude towards the mechanics of real-world politics. Perhaps a surface layer of easily grasped explosions and shootings might help, with the sly commentary kept below the surface, where the average reader need not be bothered by it.
1: Which reminds me of a long discussion I had with the exgf over Life is Beautiful on a similar topic: I thought that
SPOILERS FOR LIB
since the protagonist had succeeded in his primary goal, it was not a tragedy. She thought since he had died achieving it, it was.