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Good Intentions

Some Desperate Glory

By Emily Tesh 

19 Dec, 2023

Space Opera That Doesn't Suck


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Emily Tesh’s 2023 Some Desperate Glory is a stand-alone space opera.

Humanity struggles on, despite the total destruction of the Earth and the death of fourteen billion humans at the manipulators of aliens. Most of the remaining humans have made peace with the wider galactic civilization. But there is one small pocket of fanatical holdouts that has dedicated itself to unending war on the galactics. They live on Gaea Station, under the command of Commander Aulus Jole.

Protagonist Valkry — Kyr for short — thinks of the Commander as her uncle Jole. Having been indoctrinated from birth, Kyr believes fervently in the human cause. The day when she can take her place in the struggle cannot come soon enough.… 

Or so Kyr thinks.

Gaea Station is isolated and its technological base is slowly falling apart. Even simple genetic engineering is beyond Gaea now, which means descendants of genetically-engineered supersoldiers like Kyr are valuable. Kyr assumes that her value and that of her brother Mags is to fight on the front lines. That is not how her life is unfolding.

Surprise one: she is not assigned to combat duties. She is assigned to the nursery, where she will gestate baby after baby, each one destined to serve the human cause in one way or another until they die. A grand destiny, or so she is assured, but not the glorious death in battle she expected.

Surprise two: Mags refuses his assignment and leaves the station. Ursa, sister to Kyr and Mags, had already defected. Kyr is sure that Mags could not be a traitor; hence he must have been assigned to suicide-bomb duty. He will infiltrate the human quislings on Chrysothemis by posing as a supposed defector, then sacrifice himself in some spectacular fashion.

Kyr resolves to save Mags. Step one: escape Gaea Station and make her way to Chrysothemis. Conveniently, the station happens to have an alien prisoner at the moment, a delicate being named Yiso. The station also has grabbed Yiso’s ship. All Kyr needs to do is convince Avi, the genius she is certain has a contemptible crush on Mags, to help her. Kyr, Avi, and Yiso seize Yiso’s ship and head off to Chrysothemis.

The plan works flawlessly until Kyr and company reach Chrysothemis. At this juncture, Kyr learns a few things.

  • Avi doesn’t have a crush on Mags. Mags has a crush on Avi.
  • Jole is not the hero he claims to be, but a mutineer who murdered Kyr’s mother.
  • Jole was molesting Ursa, which is why Ursa fled with Ursa and Jole’s son.
  • Jole had similar plans for Kyr, thus nursery duty.
  • Kyr is a brainwashed victim, fed lies her whole life.

All is not lost. The reason the aliens won is because their civilization is run by the Wisdom, a super-intelligent AI which can, under the correct circumstances, rewrite time itself. There is a Wisdom node on Chrysothemis and Yiso is intimately connected to it. A sufficiently skilled programmer could take control of the Wisdom and make it serve human ends. Avi is such a programmer. What could go wrong?

Kyr is about to learn that sometimes success is simply the opportunity to fail on a far vaster scale.


This is going to be one of those reviews where I am out of step with essentially every other reviewer.

This is a space opera, which means one should expect extremely pliable rubber science, spectacularly wretched operational security, and that, no matter how advanced the aliens, humans should be able to match them with a little effort1. Nevertheless, I got kicked out of the story right at the beginning when the aliens use a hilariously tiny antimatter bomb to blow up Earth. Earth’s binding energy is such that it would take a week’s worth of the sun’s output to disrupt it.

I started reading this book knowing that many reviewers had loved it , but not much more about it. I was astonished to find myself reading yet another time-travel book. I didn’t set out to have that as a theme in recent reviews. It just worked out that way. Having had a run of time-travel stories, I think I have discovered I dislike them. Or at least most of them. This example does, at least, touch on an often-overlooked issue: even small tweaks to the time stream may erase anyone born after the alteration. This is not a the dinosaurs survived! How does this affect Richard Nixon’s re-election chances?” novel.

In addition to this apparently unreasoning prejudice, I kept getting kicked out the story by the execution, by elements of the world-building that underlined how unrealistic this all is. This will probably not be an issue for other readers.

This particular time-travel book appears to fail the Bill and Ted rule2, which is that neither the Wisdom nor the humans appear especially skillful at using the tools at hand. In the humans’ defense, they’re brainwashed fanatics with limited resources. The Wisdom, on the other hand, is supposed to be able to pick the least bad future(s) … but there’s little evidence that it has done so. Why would a precognitive godlike AI pick a solution like blowing up the Earth when presumably it could have intervened in human affairs long before things got to that point? In the Wisdom’s defense, having been responsible for the fates of whole civilizations for a very long time appears to have left the Wisdom suicidally depressed.

Given what we see in the book, this is a reasonable reaction to the situation in which the Wisdom finds itself.

The author seems to be determined to set up stock space opera situations only to critique and subvert them. There’s a lot to critique: SF tropes such as killing whole planets for the greater good, conducting eugenic breeding programs, believing in human destiny (speciesism?), and raising kids to be weapons. The prevalence of these tropes show their popularity. Tesh goes to great effort to demonstrate that many of SF’s standard answers3, looked at more closely, are both stupid and cruel. It’s a worthy effort … although I suspect that the people who would most benefit from it would never pick up a Tor book by a woman.

Some Desperate Glory is available here (Amazon US), here (Amazon Canada), here (Amazon UK), here (Apple Books), here (Barnes & Noble), and here (Chapters-Indigo).

1: Humans uber alles. The characters subscribe to the hoary notion that of course humans will turn out be the most violent species in the galaxy (vide Andre Norton’s 1955 Star Guard, in which galactic civilization considers humans only employable as mercenaries). This isn’t even true on Earth. Pack a hundred adult chimpanzees onto a plane and expect violence. Don’t get me started with what happens if you give ants H‑bombs.

Earth being long gone, there are very few Terrestrial animals around for humans to compare themselves to. That humans are the most savage animals may simply be another deluded idea that humans have. 

2: Bill and Ted being the knucklehead heroes of the time-travel adventure film Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure. The Bill and Ted rule is that if you cannot use a time machine as effectively as those two boneheads did, you should not have access to a time machine.

3: Ah, memories of that week where I got two Evil-Space-Lizards-Mean-Genocide-is-OK-Sometimes books, both from a publisher that was at times the bane of my life. Different authors, though, and I think one book had evil space lizards who were always evil, while the other had evil space lizards who were always evil, but sufficiently faction-ridden for their conflicts to be exploited by humans.