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March 2003
© 2003 Ernest Lilley / SFRevu
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The Risen Empire by Scott Westerfeld
Hardcover: ISBN
0765305550 PubDate Mar 03
Review by Paul Giguere
pages List price $24.95  
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In the early days of science fiction, space operas were adventure stories most often associated with pulp magazines. The action was fast, the men faster, the women not quite so fast (this made them easier to catch), and the villains were, well, villainous. These stories involved tales that were epic in nature. The stories revolved around whole civilizations and races and usually involved themes and concepts that occurred on a vast, cosmic scale. Time, distance, and even the numbers of spaceships involved in battle (and there were always lots of battles) were exaggerated to help promote the sense of wonder and awe. Over the years, the space opera has evolved and changed in ways that I’m sure E.E. “Doc” Smith could not have imagined when he penned the famous Lensman saga.

 The evolution of the space opera has occurred in stages to the point where it is now a mainstream science fictional story (and quite an effective marketing moniker). This evolutionary process has added various lens through which this epic story is told. A military science fiction, a hard science fiction, and a social/anthropological lens have all been employed (sometimes all at once) to impart the tale. Recent writers in this sub-genre include the likes of Vernor Vinge, David Brin, Peter Hamilton, Iain Banks, Ken MacLeod, Alastair Reynolds, and Karl Schroeder. Indeed, many of the most popular writers in the science fiction field today are writing space operas. Scott Westerfeld is the latest author to throw his hat into the ring with his new novel The Risen Empire.

The Risen Empire, the first of two volumes, revolves around an interstellar empire that is ruled by a 1600 year old undead Emperor. The Emperor possesses the technology to grant eternal life to others in return for their service to the empire thus forming an elite class of immortals known as the Risen. The empire is under constant threat by the Rix, machine-enhanced humans who wage war by taking over planets through the introduction of artificially intelligent compound minds into the information and technology infrastructure. With an almost religious zeal, the Rix have made it their mission in life to spread the AI compound minds to all of the worlds that they encounter, including the worlds that make up the empire.

In a bold action that corresponds with a military offensive to infect several planets within the empire with AI compound minds, the Rix have kidnapped the Emperor’s sister, also one of the Risen, and are holding her hostage. The novel’s main narrative strand focuses on the rescue attempt and the political situation on the home-world as the situation evolves. The future of the empire depends on a captain who is charged with leading the rescue and his lover, a Senator for the empire, who has refused to join the ranks of the Risen, she is mortal, and is the leader of a movement to change the fundamental political structure of the empire.

The Risen Empire adds to the growing body of modern space opera novels that reviewers of science fiction have labeled baroque space opera. The novel contains a great story with interesting sub-plots, cool technology, and engaging characters. I found Risen a fun read full of intriguing ideas and is reminiscent of Iain Banks’ Culture novels in breadth and scope.

Be forewarned though that The Risen Empire is the first of a two-part series and in many ways, this first novel is really a build-up for what promises to be a great ride. Do yourself a favor and get on-board.

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