In Conquest Born
Perusing the archives here in The Attic, I discovered a shortage in my book diet: a potentially serious deficiency of the 80s. Fortunately for me, C.S. Friedman came through with a book that satisfies several urgent needs: it’s from 1986, it’s by a woman (yay equality), and it comes from the Two Dudes personal library. I have to dig into that once in awhile, or Mrs. Pep casts increasingly baleful glares at the shelves and asks just what on earth I propose to do with all of the books.
In Conquest Born has the feel of a world long in the making, and a story worked out at great length. This being Friedman’s first novel, I imagine she mulled it over for years; this is somewhat backed up by comments I have seen in interviews. While the book is character-centered, it is space opera at heart. This is the rise and fall of galactic empires, war spread over centuries, men and women larger than life, and a battle not just between governments, but between two diametrically opposed philosophies. It’s not bug-eyed alien invader space opera, or sweaty palms while gazing at the armada space opera; it feels like the New Space Opera coming out of the UK recently, though I doubt Friedman had any connection to that at the time. Very much ahead of its time and holds up well thirty years on.
The book is a series of vignettes, almost a short story collection. The structure might be a turn off for those look for chronologically focused arcs, but allows Friedman to catch the grand sweep of history. Because we are looking mostly at the two most influential actors in their respective societies, the only other option would be to write an interminable series; compressing the changes that wash over the empires into a comfortable, bite-sized narrative would rob the book of its grandeur. On the other hand, it does make the book easier to put down. The individual chapters can be compelling, but the long breaks between can dull the momentum at times.
No apologies from the author though. Conquest is a demanding book in many ways, not just the dedication required to plow through the long decades it covers. It is also a dark, almost brooding novel. No clear cut heroes, no shining knights, or cities on the hill. The Azean empire is nominally the good side, but it is uncompromising and weird in all sorts of ways that make contemporary readers uncomfortable. The Braxin empire is much worse however, as though Friedman tried to cook up the most vile culture imaginable for a feminist. Misogyny and cruelty are the very foundation of the empire, about which the reader sees a disturbing amount. (Never gratuitous or gleeful, I should add. Just present.) Anzha and Zatar are the respective representatives of their homelands, though their places within are fraught and convoluted. This is a morally twisted universe and is, at best, a very prickly place to spend five hundred pages.
Of course the best parts for me are the political systems and their interactions. The Braxin empire in particular is train derailment level compelling; so hard to look away from the awful carnage. Beneath the goth horror exterior is a complete societal edifice that has convincingly survived for a few centuries, but is equally convincingly on the brink. Zatar’s quest to preserve the empire through reformation is easily the best part of the book for me. Anzha is a racial outsider in Azean, but forces her way to prominence by sheer, bloody-minded, stubborn brilliance. She is no more likable than Zatar, and while the Azeans are at least not godawful, I wouldn’t want to live there either. They are the only group unified enough to oppose the Braxins though, so we must grudgingly cheer for them and their whacked out eugenics. Miles Vorkosigan fans might see the seeds of his universe, if Lois Bujold were to repaint all of her novels in gray, black, gray, and the colors of torment.
That said, Anzha and Zatar, who despise each other utterly, churn more electricity into their relationship than seventeen romance novel couples combined. “Planet destroying obsession” sounds overly dramatic, but it’s pretty much dead on. “Dear, I hate you so much that I crisped this Earthlike world for your birthday.” “Thank you for the gesture. Here’s a plague.”
It all makes me wonder who the target audience was. Or, for that matter, what the editor thought when he/she picked this up for publication. (I suppose the target audience is me, but how many of me are there?) If forced to sum it up in two words, I have settled on “grimly magnetic.” After about three hundred pages, I couldn’t stop reading. The buildup is very slow, with an extensive foundation that must be laid, but Conquest provides a steady buzz once Anzha and Zatar key in on each other. Yes, it is ethically compromised from start to finish. Yes, the Braxins are disgusting in every way, and yes, there are few if any white hats. On the other hand, the evolution on parallel personal and societal levels is several steps beyond most SF out there. I probably can’t recommend this to everyone, but I thought it was great, so potential readers can make of that what they will.