The science fiction and fantasy genre has always included brilliant, diverse creators, but when it comes to those outside the white cis straight able male category, they’ve often been denied their centrality, spoken of as an earnestly appreciated sideshow even and especially when their work was vital. The most powerful voices in genre fiction today come from, and speak of, a larger world.
With the same parochial bent, genre has often pushed back against the critical hegemony of traditional literature by deriding it, demeaning the mundane and the merely real, slighting the value of prose style and the importance of subtext or substantive critical theory. The development of style and critical thought in genre is not a recent matter, but the production values of writers like – to name a few of my personal inspirations – Kij Johnson, Kelly Link or Catherynne Valente speaks to me of a genre less afraid to be literary, to engage with the ‘pretentious’ ‘competition’ on its own terms.
With all that said, I’m going to spend the rest of this post talking about a cis white guy known for his young adult novels, because when I sat down to write this post, I’d just finished a re-read of his space opera duology Succession, and I wanted to say something about it. I’m sorry!
Spoilers for Succession abound.
I spend a lot of my spare mid-read brainpower on one question – how much did the author think about that thing she just wrote? Thoughtless, unintended lapses, whether a passage that slips into banal prose and stale metaphor or an author’s unexamined assumptions about gender, are the hobgoblins of writing. We value a Catherynne Valente sentence more than a random selection from a work-for-hire novelization because Valente has the inclination, the opportunity, and the ability to think about the choice and arrangement of every word.
Scott Westerfeld is an intensely smart person – I say this without textual support because I’ve met him. It would be churlish and inaccurate of me to imply that this doesn’t come through in all his books. But the Succession duo really drove the point home. Published in 2003, three years after Revelation Space (the novel that introduced a lot of readers to the new wave of space opera), Succession falls into the same broad subgenre: star-spanning stories of politics, warfare, and jeopardy, but set apart from predecessors like Star Wars by a new and profound respect for the sheer cold vastness of space and by willingness to engage with thorny questions of transhumanism.
Succession sold as two novels, The Risen Empire and The Killing of Worlds, but it should’ve been one, so let’s treat it that way. We begin the narrative with, perhaps, a certain sense of broad familiarity – the machine cultists called the Rix have invaded the Imperial border world Legis and taken the Empress hostage, and it’s up to Captain Laurent Zhai of the frigate Lynx and his crew to save her. Back home, Senator Nara Oxham plays politics with the Emperor, whose ability to dispense biological immortality in the form of a resurrection symbiote defines the Empire’s caste system – the competitive, expendable living supporting a thin elite of honored dead.
I read Succession in college and enjoyed it as what I suppose a jacket blurb might call a ‘romp’. I returned to it four years later with a little trepidation, expecting that I’d be embarrassed by my earlier failures as a reader. I wasn’t.
Westerfeld’s prose style isn’t flashy or overtly mannered, but it is what I believe one reviewer called finely machined – carefully considered in its directness, determinedly averse to cliche. It’s not just merely functional, some beige case for the story’s Big Ideas. Westerfeld thought about the momentum of his sentences, the scansion, the clarity of the exposition and action. The effect is remarkable, even though what it achieves for most readers is invisibility. There’s a lot of technology in Succession, weapons and gravity generators and socioeconomic trends described at length, but for all that it should be indigestible in the manner of a David Weber or Tom Clancy novel, Westerfeld keeps it lucid and engaging.
I talk about prose style because I think every reader should think about prose style, but I’ll admit what I’m really interested in here are those Big Ideas. New space opera, like the aforementioned Revelation Space, is, by design, often impersonal. Cold. Huge. It wants to confront the reader with both the immensity of an uncaring universe and with the mutability and disposability of the merely human. (Reynolds’ Ultranauts are clearly well-adapted to their deep space niche; their inner lives are also very clearly colder and more remote than ours). Like so much genre fiction concerned with the trans- and post-human, new space opera often achieves its emotional effect by rendering its characters flat, fragile, machinelike.
By contrast, Succession is a love story.
This is an interesting choice for a novel that is also about the clash of two wholly incompatible civilizations, about the ways in which people live embedded in systems that dictate and trap the actions of even the powerful. But it is, for all that vastness, for all its concern with the grinding tectonic forces of technological development and demographic entropy, a love story. Nearly every single important character is defined by her or his love for another, and by the pain it causes them.
And what fearless loves. The first hint I had that I might really like Succession came when we learn, offhand, that the transhuman Rix, the bogeymen who hound the Empire, are universally female. In the hands of a less thoughtful writer – faced with the challenge of expunging all 21st century gender performance from the Rix characters – this could’ve been a disaster. Westerfeld, in my admittedly straight man opinion, nails it.
The faceless Rix commando we meet near the opening reads at first like a stormtrooper, a bit player villain who’ll clash with the heroic Captain Zhai somewhere in the last fifty pages. Her mission leads her to kidnap and impersonate an Imperial citizen, Rana Harter. The disguise applied, Rana Harter now redundant, we wait for the commando to dispose of the loose end.
Instead, moved by some strangely human* impulse, she keeps Rana – first as a captive, then as a partner. Horrified by Rana’s untreated depression, by the rules of a neocapitalist system that have left Rana unable to correct her own brain chemistry or use her savant pattern-recognition skills to aid society, the Rix commando treats her and cares for her. They become lovers in a beautifully matter-of-fact and understated way, as if it were of no particular import compared to the injustices of Imperial systemic failure – both narratively unexpected and nicely queer-positive. (Like so much fiction I’m into, Succession shares this concern with The Wire.) The commando does all this between runs of superhuman augmented violence, never allowing the reader to forget that she’s nominally on the other side – not that the novel lets us believe there’s a clear right and wrong.
Again and again Succession takes the initially familiar and plays it in an interesting direction. I asterisked the word ‘human’ above because I think one of Succession’s core arguments, an argument that is deeply opposed to most of new space opera, is that what we parochially call human – love, sex, compassion – may become more, not less, important to our transhuman descendants. The vat-grown Rix have no biological need for sex, but they seem to have retained it as art, a form of expression and communication. Much of new space opera seems to want to chill us with the way that machines will reduce us. But it’s not machines that imprison us, Succession argues. It’s our own systems, doomed by game theory to generate and enforce crippling inequality. (An anti-capitalist argument in popular science fiction? Where are we?)
This isn’t the central love story of Succession. That comes between the protagonist – a butchered, multiple amputee veteran – and an iconoclastic liberal senator. The captain’s first officer battles her own unrequited love for him. These relationships define the central conflicts of the book. And how remarkable, how challenging, to make a military space opera about the need for death and change, the need to give up all that we cling to as humans, a love story. Love stories are often tired, often trite. But put any familiar story in an environment hostile to it, and you generate tension. Set a love story in a universe where love as a whole phenomenon seems like a risky, endangered luxury – in other words, in the cold reaches of a new space opera novel – and it gains a certain charge. Captain Zhai’s affair with Senator Oxham is threatened not just by distance (the first challenge they confront is the relativistic time dilation Zhai will experience aboard his ship) or tradition (Zhai is obliged to suicide if he fails in his duties) but by the whole political dynamic of the Empire, by the Emperor’s suspicion of Oxham and by the political divide between their worlds of origin. Westerfeld instantiates the central tension of his fictional Empire in this love.
The third central character, Executive Officer Hobbes, is a risky piece of writing. Surgically beautiful, raised on a hedonistic world, hopelessly in love with her stern and distant captain, Hobbes feels at first like a piece of a less successful novel: a Woman With Feelings, challenged by her emotions, her competence only a veil over inner turmoil. I read her sections with hostility, not to her but to the author, trying to catch Westerfeld in a slip-up. But here, too, there’s remarkable control. Hobbes never checks herself out in a mirror, never gives the prurient het male reader a matter-of-fact assessment of her genetically engineered physique. There’s no male gaze. Hobbes only notices her own beauty when it affects how people treat her in a professional sense. She sometimes pays the price – she’s called the captain’s whore, the only real case of gendered insult I can remember in the book, and her male subordinates, born from a society still somewhat patriarchal, don’t always respect her. If I let myself be generous I think there may be commentary here, not just on the way that women are treated and valued by male-dominated power structures, but on the way that new space opera often treats ‘strong woman’ as ‘defemme’d woman’, a woman with guns and muscles who doesn’t care about floofy things or have feelings, who assures the man reader that deep down, she, too, is a man, or at least a fuckable thing that values all the same things he does. The quite femme Hobbes is competent, capable, decisive, agentic – she draws out and destroys a mutiny, performs absolutely vital damage control, screws up and recovers, plays a vital role in the ship’s combat performance, and does all this while being unapologetically in love and having feelings.
I opened with the notion of Succession as a love story, and I’ll close with it. We’ve all read so many stories about ~the power of love~ it makes us want to vomit, but Succession tells a story in which immortality, the possible obsolescence of human cognition, the unfair economic and political influence of an undying oligarchy, and the need for death and destruction as adaptive forces are the real drivers of conflict. Why, then, love? Why frame every divide in the story – Rix versus Imperial, pro-immortality vs. anti-immortality, loyalist vs. seditionist, authority versus subordinate – by taking two characters from each side and making them fall in love?
I think because Westerfeld cares about people, and about the effects of vast historical and cultural forces on people, even people who aren’t people as we recognize them: planet-spanning compound minds, commandos with corkscrew hearts and foreign cognitive architectures. He wants to make these conflicts hurt people. And in a setting and a genre where love feels like an archaic, fragile thing – what better way to create tension? We like star-crossed lovers, their bond endangered by outside forces. Westerfeld wants to put love itself in danger.
As a sort of critical postscript, let me talk about the physics, the science, the space battles. I reject the notion that all this crunchy stuff needs to be kept under the rug, or alluded to sidelong. A good science fiction writer can take the raw technobabble and make it a coherent, vital piece of the text, whether as a source of aesthetics and imagery (Reynolds, for all his flaws as a character writer in Revelation Space, excelled at this) or a driver of the story. A story can use its physics to make clear to the writer the stakes, the danger, the weight and speed of what could be a merely banal chase or shootout. (When a man with a gun, the archetypical plucky Han Solo, cannot hope to even harm a power-armored transhuman opponent, that tells the reader something about the setting, that informs the subtext. No part of a narrative should be left unconsidered!)
A very large part of Succession’s wordcount is spent on space battles. They aren’t dull. They are shockingly the opposite. They should be terrible, plodding and detached and expository: we have a universe without superluminal travel, in which ships obey the real-world orbital mechanics of apoapsis and periapsis, in which it may take days to match velocities closely enough to fight, in which the engagement is conducted mostly by flocks of drones hurled between the ships. Everything should be rather a dreary affair, determined by computer reflexes and pure kinetics, without human input.
Yet Westerfeld – through careful worldbuilding – keeps his characters vital to the action, their decisions and emotional arcs driving the pew-pew. The slugging match between the Lynx and a Rix warship is anything but. We get a series of clever tactical problems with clear and devastating consequences for failure. Sometimes we see those consequences, because sometimes the protagonists screw up. How long have the various incarnations of the Star Trek ur-crew bounced and shuddered on the bridge while the lights flickered and the consoles exploded? Succession may be the antithesis. We always hear that movies and TV shows shoot space battles as naval or aeronautical affairs because real space battles, distant and clinical, would be boring. But Succession renders them stark, tense, ferociously violent, deeply human.
The book has its weaknesses, I suppose. Some of the plotting seems to fray around the edges if you look at it the right way; but you won’t care, because the pacing is great, and because the book has bought your trust, and you suspect that Westerfeld could explain away your issues if he wanted. The Imperial Secret we hear about so early on in the book, that drives so much of the plot, is painfully obvious, though perhaps Westerfeld didn’t particularly care to hide it. There’s a vanishing planetary mind who really should have just copied itself rather than jaunting off like a corporeal, single-instance being.
I talked, near the opening, of literary merit. I wouldn’t throw Succession in the ring with Blood Meridian. But what I like best about this book is that Westerfeld sat down to write a space opera and he thought about it. He built gender performances appropriate to his setting. He wrote machines who behave like machines, not beep boop people. He grappled with the sheer scale, the crushing economic and bureaucratic forces, of an interstellar empire. He made me a little nervous about yet another space battle. He made me give a shit about the fortunes of a depressed net technician and a transhuman commando without, by our definition, a heart.