A Desolation Called Peace by Arkady Martine

I kept having to pause in my reading of this sequel to A Memory Called Empire because I found it a bit of a drag. I paused three different times, and read three PD James mystery novels as a kind of palate cleansing sorbet course between the heavy stodge of this tale of galactic empire.

I enjoyed A Memory Called Empire, though disputed its classification as space opera, since it was set on a planet. The sequel is, ironically, more of a space opera, since much of the ‘action’ takes place on the flagship of the empire’s fleet. It’s also a first contact story, or wants to be, as the alien threat identified at the end of the previous novel comes front and centre here.

I used scare quotes around the word ‘action’ above, because one thing this isn’t is action-packed. There are so many scenes of people in rooms talking that this is almost a Menippean satire, but there is a plot, and the story does slowly progress and eventually reach a kind of conclusion.

The title comes from Tacitus, from Agricola, and it’s a quote attributed to the Caledonian (Scottish) chieftan Calgacus: “To ravage, to slaughter, to usurp under false titles, they call empire, and where they make a desert, they call it peace“. Or, in the translation by William Peterson clearly favoured by Martine: “To plunder, butcher, steal, these things they misname empire: they make a desolation and they call it peace.” And onwards from Tacitus to Byron:

Mark where his carnage and his conquests cease! 
He makes a solitude, and calls it — peace.

Bride of Abydos (1813)

You get the picture. In her day job, Martine is an historian of the Byzantine Empire, and like a lot of these science fiction far-future galactic empire stories, you really get a sense that this empire is very much based on that. And here’s where my problems begin. As I said recently, when I was getting into science fiction as a teenager, I very much preferred Arthur C Clarke to Isaac Asimov. I couldn’t get past the first few pages of Foundation, but I avidly consumed everything Clarke wrote, and then moved on to Larry Niven’s Known Space series. And the key difference between something like Known Space and Foundation/Empire is this idea of empire. In Niven, you very much get the idea that alien races compete and collaborate without there being any centralised controlling power. There’s much more of a sense that the future is capitalist, which is the same sense you get from movies like Alien and Blade Runner. It may be dystopian, but it’s far more convincing to me than the idea that the Roman/Byzantine/Chinese/British empirical model might succeed across multiple solar systems.

By this time, I’m very much lost in the weeds of why an Empire, what’s the metaphor? And I’ve completely lost interest in the detail of the novel and its characters. I’ve stopped caring, and instead I’m comparing. Ann Leckie’s Imperial Radch, Asimov’s Empire, Simmons’ Hyperion (maybe?), whatever crap is happening in Dune, Le Guin’s Ekumen… And that terrible Disney franchise I won’t dignify with a name.

So what is the metaphor? Are we interested in how Empires fall? Is this the itch that keeps being scratched? That the centre cannot hold? Or that the factions within the empire (between the military and administration, for example, as in Byzantium/Martine) cause it to fall apart from within? Or, rather, is the metaphor about cultural hegemony and its threat to diversity? In Martine’s case, it seems she might be arguing that the empire itself might be saved by those non-conformists who manage to survive within it, notwithstanding its oppressive attitude to difference. Only diversity can save us? But why do we want an empire to be saved in the first place?

In the end, I just grew tired of the whole thing; hence the breaks for PD James sorbets. All the things that charmed me in the first novel were disenchanting in the second. It turns out, there’s still a 14 year old inside me who finds stories of galactic empires boring.

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