Evening’s Empires by Paul McAuley (book review)

This new novel, ‘Evening’s Empires’, is set in the same well-imagined ‘universe’ as the author’s ‘The Quiet War’, ‘Gardens Of The Sun’ and ‘In The Mouth Of The Whale’ but 1,500 years have passed since ‘The Quiet War’. I wondered where the title, which sounds like a quote, came from and found it in Bob Dylan’s ‘Mr. Tambourine Man’: ‘Though I know that evening’s empire has returned into sand…’ Near the end of the book, a character says: ‘The sky is full of evening’s empires, and every one of them is founded on sand.’ As indeed our lead character (I hesitate to say ‘hero’) finds out during the progress of his journey.

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In essence, this is a quest. Not a magical one, of course, but, for most of the book, this is about the search for Dr. Gagarian’s head. It is also a good example of modern space opera. Some 70 years before this story starts, the True Empire of true humans or Trues sent a huge armada against the seraphs, the AIs of Saturn. In retaliation, the seraphs blocked half of the sunlight falling on Earth, triggering a new Ice Age. This is part of the back-story, but becomes relevant later. Some of the story takes place around Saturn, but most of it in the Asteroid Belts between Mars and Jupiter, which by now have been fully taken over, industrialised and exploited by humans and post-humans and turned into elaborate habitats and ‘gardens’.

Nineteen year-old Gajananvihari Pilot, usually known as Hari, is effectively marooned on a barren C-type asteroid known as 207061 Themba. It contains little in the way of metals or rare earths but, one thousand years ago, it had been seeded with vacuum organisms, weird plant-like life forms which make use of sunlight to grow and spread across the cratered surface. His family’s spaceship, Pabuji’s Gift, had been hijacked 174 days earlier, leaving him in a crippled lifepod. His only companion is an ‘eidolon’ in the form of a young woman, who comes as an attribute of his pressure suit or p-suit.

Hari’s father, Aakash, has died but migrated into a ‘viron’, meaning that he is still able to interact with the living. This was several years after the Bright Moment, when everyone, everywhere had experienced the same brief vision: a man on a bicycle turning to look at the viewer as he glides away into a bright flash of light. People are still trying to explain and understand this on both religious and scientific grounds and many cults have been formed around it. The general consensus is that it had been created by an ancient gene wizard, Sri Hong-Owen. One problem I had with this book is the profusion of characters and names, nearly all of them long and difficult to pronounce! Why do writers do this? Salx Minnot Flores, Ivanova Galchan, Ioni Robles Nguini and these are just a few examples. But I digress.

Aboard Pabuji’s Gift, Hari had helped his father’s friend, the 300 year-old Dr. Gagarian, known as a tick-tock philosopher, in his researches on the Bright Moment, which he believes to be a jitter or wave in the ocean of the Higgs Field. The family runs out of funds and the Pabuji’s Gift heads out to search for salvage in an abandoned garden, actually a large group of bubble habitats around a 10 kilometre sliver of rock known as Jackson’s Reef. Then the ship is hijacked. His father and his brothers Nabhoj and Nabhomani are gone and Dr. Gagarian’s head has been cut off but rescued from their grasp. The hijackers believe that it contains valuable files which their employer badly wants, so Hari’s only choice is to use it to bargain for his ship and for anyone left alive, perhaps including his brothers.

The remainder of the book is, as I said, a quest to find the ship, the truth of why it was taken and by whom, what is in Dr. Gagarian’s head and the nature of the Bright Moment. Above all, he wants revenge. We follow Hari in his tortuous journey through space, on the way discovering who has deceived him and who are his real friends or who is just using him for their own ends. One of these is Rav, a winged Ardenist, who takes Hari in his own ship, Brighter Than Creation’s Dark, to Ophir where he might meet his recently discovered uncle, Tamonash Pilot. There are many twists and surprises, many of them unpleasant and if Hari learns anything it is: ‘Trust nobody’.

I noticed, of course, that the book is split into sections. It took me a while to realise that these sections are given the names of well-known science-fictional standards: ‘Childhood’s End’, ‘Marooned off Vesta’, ‘The Caves Of Steel’, ‘Pirates Of The Asteroids’, ‘The Cold Equations’ and ‘Downward To The Earth’. A nice touch!

It will help if you have read the previous books, as above, set in this wonderful and generally believable universe. Indeed, you probably need to! As a standalone, it is not an easy read, but it is worth the effort.

David A. Hardy

April 2016

(pub: Gollancz, 2013. 374 page enlarged paperback. Price: £14.99 (UK only). ISBN: 978-0-575-10079-4. Ebook Price: £ 7.99 (UK))

check out websites: http://www.orionbooks.co.uk/ and www.unlikelyworlds.blogspot.com

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