[Book Review] Empire of Silence

Empire of Silence (Sun Eater #1) / Christopher Ruocchio

This month I got my hands on a pre-pub copy of Empire of Silence, Christopher Ruocchio's debut novel.   It is, at this point, already out and on bookstore shelves, but I've been busy and at about 600 pages it took a little longer to get through.

As a side note, my copy has a quote from James S. A. Corey rather than David Drake on the cover as shown in the image here.

Empire of Silence gives us an Space Opera with flavors of epic fantasy, starting us at the very end with our narrator awaiting execution.  I'd say it's a good read for fans of Pierce Brown's Red Rising.

From the publisher:

Hadrian Marlowe, a man revered as a hero and despised as a murderer, chronicles his tale in the galaxy-spanning debut of the Sun Eater series, merging the best of space opera and epic fantasy.

It was not his war.

The galaxy remembers him as a hero: the man who burned every last alien Cielcin from the sky. They remember him as a monster: the devil who destroyed a sun, casually annihilating four billion human lives—even the Emperor himself—against Imperial orders.

But Hadrian was not a hero. He was not a monster. He was not even a soldier.

On the wrong planet, at the right time, for the best reasons, Hadrian Marlowe starts down a path that can only end in fire. He flees his father and a future as a torturer only to be left stranded on a strange, backwater world.

Forced to fight as a gladiator and navigate the intrigues of a foreign planetary court, Hadrian must fight a war he did not start, for an Empire he does not love, against an enemy he will never understand.

For the release of his book, I was able to secure a brief interview with the author about his new book and his writing.  Read on!

Rather than create the entire culture and it's cultural artifacts out of wholecloth, you included things from our here and now, including not only pop culture references but more mundane things like naproxen. Can you talk about how you decided on what would be carried forward into this future, and what would be lost? What sort of development went into the history of the man in the intervening years?

A lot of it is admittedly arbitrary, but in my defense, that is sometimes how it works. I tend not to be an intense worldbuilder, truth be told. I flesh out just enough to make the story work, and then I stick to it, so that in later stories I don’t/won’t contradict myself. But I don’t have reams of notes on the political culture in Jadd or how the warp drive works—yet. But the Sollan Empire tries, quite deliberately, to cling to ancient traditions. You see, about sixteen thousand years before the book begins, the Empire was founded by the few thousand humans who survived our machines’ attempt to wipe us out. I’m extremely pessimistic about artificial intelligence and about computers in general, and at any rate if I’d allowed the story to be full of cyborgs and networks it would distract from the human element of my plot, so I built a society founded on a rejection of high technology in favor of the human element. The very long-lived nobles in the Sollan Empire cling to the traditions of our cultural past the way the Renaissance relived the glory days of the Roman Empire in its art and architecture—the way the British Empire borrowed from the Romans, too, and the way we Americans borrow from Athens and Rome. You see a similar thing in Japan, where the Japanese government pays artists to maintain traditions of dyeing, or music, or even swordplay. The Sollans believe, fundamentally: human good, inhuman bad. Old books are good because they come from our shared past, so too old systems, like monarchy, hence the Empire itself. There’s no method to it, per se: I just do what suits the tale. One character quotes Rod Serling at one point, because I needed the quote to suit a theme. Do I think people will quote Rod Serling in 20,000 years? Probably not. But our methods of data storage are fairly robust and comprehensive—and becoming moreso all the time. Who’s to say some obscure scholar won’t know Serling in millennia? Some other things are more common sense. As you say, I reference naproxen at one point in the book. That’s the generic chemical name for drugs like Aleve. Long after the Bayer company has crumbled, that chemical will still be useful. We still use the names of constellations that are centuries old—I don’t think it’s much of a stretch to think some medicines may go by the same names in the distant future. But my goal was to make a world that was just familiar enough for audiences to feel a part of. That’s why I reference/emulate other works, that’s why I include cute nods to things like The Twilight Zone and Star Wars (and yes, even Dark Souls). I want my readers to feel they have a place in this universe, and to find that place for themselves.

What were your inspirations for this story? Both from media and your academic interests?

Well, I got the idea for the setting because I disagreed with Iain M. Banks. Now, I’m a big fan of the Culture books (Use of Weapons especially), but in his essay “A Few Notes on the Culture,” Mr. Banks supposed that travel in space will mean an end to tyranny and to all forms of governmental control. But it’s hard to get off planets (most of us can’t do it), and the methods for doing so can be quite easily controlled. People will continue to exercise control. That’s what people do. So the Sollan Empire was my response to the Culture. I was also fond of galactic empires, from Star Wars to Dune to Foundation. And then there’s my interest in the great empires of the past, from Rome and Byzantium to Britain, Spain, China, and Japan. As for the plot itself, there was no specific inspiration. At its core, it’s an alien invasion story: humanity against the Cielcin. That’s about the oldest story in science fiction, but we don’t seem to see a lot of them played straight anymore.

If you could have any author provide a review blurb for something you wrote, who would it be and why?

Counting the dead? I would be afraid to ask Tolkien, but of all writers living and dead he means the most to me. But since that is impossible (unless there’s one psychic medium in the world who isn’t an absolute charlatan, and there isn’t), Gene Wolfe would be my choice. Some may find this hard to believe, but I didn’t actually read The Book of the New Sun until after I had finished Empire of Silence. I was always aware of it, and knew what it was about, so if the details in our two stories overlap at times that may be why...but I’m glad I didn’t read it before I wrote Empire. Mr. Wolfe is the finest living science fiction writer—perhaps the finest living writer in the English language—and I would just about implode if he so much as breathed an approving word in my direction.

To you, does this story have a hero? Is the narrator a hero or antihero? What influenced your choices in this?

The best stories are questions, and it’s the role of the artist to pose those questions as strongly as possible and in such a way that the reader arrives at the right answer. Solzhenitsyn once said that the line between good and evil runs down the middle of every human heart, and the same is true—may be even more true—of the great heroes and villains of history and literature. To me, Hadrian is a hero. This is a tough thing to talk about without ruining the end of the series, but on page one Hadrian tells us that he’s wiped out an entire alien species. That’s an awful thing, an awful crime. But it isn’t only that. He also makes it fairly clear that his actions saved billions of human lives—maybe even every human life. To my mind heroes are people who take the weight of those sorts of world-changing decisions on their shoulders and bear that burden willingly, so that ordinary people like you and me can live our lives. Hadrian may have killed these aliens, but how many lives did he save?

As to the question of antiheroes, I’m not sure I believe there is such a thing as an antihero. Is the Punisher an antihero because of his methods? Is Batman? Where’s the line? I think Hadrian is just a hero, no anti. That doesn’t mean he doesn’t do terrible things, but the fact that good and evil are complex moral phenomena doesn’t mean they aren’t real. As to influences...I’ve been really bothered by the postmodern insistence that good and evil are only a matter of opinion or perspective, that everything is just a question of the culture in which someone was raised. I don’t buy that, and so I decided to pick a fight with that idea. I wanted to depict an extreme case, a character that embodies maximal good and maximal evil and just...see what happens. Now, you may come away with a different answer, and that’s great. If everyone came away with the same feelings about this book, I wouldn’t be doing my job.

Advance Reader Copy courtesy of DAW (Penguin RandomHouse) in exchange for an honest review; changes may exist between galley and the final edition.


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