This is another of what I consider the best books of 2013. This review of Evening’s Empires by Paul McAuley first appeared in Interzone 249, November-December 2013.
There has been a strange progression in Paul McAuley’s Quiet War sequence. The Quiet War and its immediate sequel, Gardens of the Sun, were set roughly 500 years in our future. The next volume, In the Mouth of the Whale, took a great leap forward in time, and there has been another great leap in this fourth book, which takes place around 1,500 years after the whole sequence started. But as the sequence has moved forward in time, so its focus has narrowed. The first book had a wide cast of viewpoint characters, this number was reduced in the next book, and In the Mouth of the Whale moved between just three viewpoints. Now, in Evening’s Empires, we follow the story of one character, Gajananvihari Pilot, known as Hari.
When we first meet him, Hari has been cast upon a deserted rock, like some far future Robinson Crusoe. His family’s ship has been taken over by pirates, and he alone has escaped, along with the head of Dr Gagarian. While he plans his escape and his revenge, we get our first clue that there was more than just piracy involved: cloned sisters of the group who took over his family ship arrive to attack him. Hari manages to turn the tables on them, leaving both assassins dead and making his getaway, but straight away he finds himself in peril again. So the novel progresses, in a breathless, nonstop sequence of flight and attack, capture and escape. Between the thrills, and McAuley writes the action scenes very well indeed, Hari begins to work his way through the layer upon layer of betrayal that lies behind the initial attack, and at the same time discovers the true worth of the files contained in Dr Gagarian’s head. Along the way he acquires a couple of unlikely allies, the untrustworthy adventurer Rav, and the independent-minded daughter of one of Dr Gagarian’s former colleagues, Riyya; but he acquires far more enemies, including a powerful religious sect known as the Saints, the cloned offspring of Sri Hong-Owen (a direct link with the other three volumes), and most disturbing of all, members of his own family.
Evening’s Empires works as a gripping action adventure, but it is more than that. Hari’s various escapades take him to a variety of settlements scattered across this far future solar system, and what we see is as convincing a portrait of everyday life in space as anything McAuley has written, with the possible exception of The Quiet War itself. But there is one significant difference, where that first volume presented a system of enterprise and optimism even in the face of war itself, what we see here, 1,500 years further on, is bankrupt, in social and economic decline. We see garden environments that have been abandoned, systems that are running down, economic structures that are close to slavery. The posthumans are turning their backs upon humankind, and what remains has neither the energy nor the will to sustain the diverse range of human habitation that had been built up.
One of the ways this comes across is in a turning to the past. The novel is filled with people telling stories about what happened; some are presented as the unvarnished truth, though mostly we recognize that they are partial or incomplete truths at best. This dependence on story is one of the major themes of the novel, reflected in a host of ways from the fact that Hari’s most treasured possession is a book, to the titles McAuley gives his sections: ‘Childhood’s End,’ ‘Marooned Off Vesta,’ ‘The Caves of Steel,’ ‘The Cold Equations,’ etc. This isn’t meant to tell us that this is a recapitulation of old hard sf works, but rather to suggest how much the stories we have been told shape the things we see.
The biggest story of all concerns the Bright Moment, when everyone alive across the solar system had the same brief vision at exactly the same instant. This happened before Hari was even born, but it is still the greatest thing in human experience, a mystery, a hope, the creator of cults and instigator of wars. It is what Dr Gagarian was investigating, but the truth about the experience matters less than the legend. The way that so much is invested in the Bright Moment seems to reflect all we need to know about how the expansion of The Quiet War has been replaced by the decline of Evening’s Empires. Hari’s quest inevitably entangles with this great mystery, but the solution may not be what anybody considered.
The Quiet War was one of the best books McAuley has written, and Evening’s Empires makes an excellent companion to it. These are books that, if there is any justice, will shape the stories we tell about our solar system for many years to come.