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In Conquest Born by C. S. Friedman

Cover art by Michael Whelan

Published by DAW Books

Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel

Space opera is probably one of the most stigmatized subgenres of science fiction. The very term was coined as a condemnation of stories that were regarded as nothing more than a Western or a tale of the Age of Exploration dolled up by the addition of some futuristic technology, often with little or no thought to underlying scientific principles. The result of this condemnation was an entire generation of science fiction stories that shied away from grand adventures of derring-do in galaxy-spanning empires, as well as the tropes that were associated with them -- faster-than-light starships, aliens, energy weapons, etc. Science fictional elements had to justify their existence in a story, rather than merely being an escape from the humdrum of Earth's historical eras or worse an excuse for avoiding the meticulous research that would be necessary to write in a historical era. John W. Campbell in particular was key in driving the shift toward a rigorous extrapolation of science and technology.

However, the love of the wide-open spaces science fiction could afford an author or reader never really went away. In a world in which every land had been explored and photographed from orbit, even a historical novel of exploration and discovery had the disadvantage that the reader would often know more about the region being explored than the protagonist. Furthermore, the development of modern nuclear weapons had put a constraint not only upon actual war, but upon writers' ability to write stories of grand and sweeping clashes of civilizations on land and sea. Realistic stories of warfare might be confined to brushfire wars on the peripheries of the spheres of influence of the two superpowers, but science fiction offered the possibility of telling stories of generations-long struggles between peoples diametrically opposed.

Two major works made such stories respectable once again. The first was Frank Herbert's Dune, which developed a fictional Galactic Empire of such cultural richness that it captured the imaginations of an entire generation and proved that science fiction could have literary values such as characterization and setting as well as a cool idea. The second was Star Wars, which brought exploding spaceships, beautiful space princesses and heroic young men to the wide screen with such financial success that even the most jaded cynic and the most ardent supporter of hard SF with rivets had to take notice that there was an audience that had a profound hunger for such tales.

In Conquest Born originally came out in 1987, three years after the original Star Wars trilogy wound up on the silver screen. It features the story of a generations-long war between Azea and Braxi, two star nations who have consciously shaped themselves in opposition to one another. On the surface, it appears to conform to the oft-maligned trope of entire societies being good or evil: while the Braxins are arrogant, despotic misogynists who flaunt their hedonism, the gender-egalitarian Azeans enjoy moderate pleasures in their quietly monogamous lives. Yet even in the opening chapter we see hints of virtues in the villain race and flaws in the hero race. For all their hedonism, the Braxin rulers, the Braxana, also live lives of stern self-control, never showing weakness before their subject races whatever the personal cost to maintain the illusion of total self-mastery, while the Azeans have a nasty streak of racism that would condemn an unborn child to death in the womb for the crime of having manifested long-hidden combinations of recessive genes that do not match the approved pattern of a proper Azean.

That child is of course Anzha lyu Mitethe, who through a combination of extraordinary talent and personal persistence overcomes all the obstacles her own government places in her way. Although her genetic heritage was supposed to bar her forever from Azean citizenship or any participation in the war effort against Braxi, she forces her way past those barriers. For she burns with a terrible determination -- to destroy the Braxin agent who murdered her parents with the infamous poison known as the Black Death or Waiting Death, which lurks in the victim's system for days or weeks before bursting forth in masses of black foulness that devour flesh and bone.

And thus she propels herself on a collision course with Zatar, called the Magnificent, who embodies both the best and the worst of the Braxana. Not only does he embrace the arts of the spy, but he also breaks his own people's laws when it can gain him an advantage in the intricate game of Braxin politics. But he also embraces the sacrifices of active participation in the war effort, not merely in the minor fronts where one can quickly sack a planet and gain a reputation, but in one of the most difficult regions where Azea had dealt repeated defeats to Braxin forces by use of innovative tactics.

This novel is unusual in that it does not restrict itself to straight narrative of the lives and adventures of its two principals. Woven into the primary narrative is a variety of documentary materials from various other characters who interact with them in various ways, each with their own agendas that shade their perceptions and reporting of events. The result is an interesting mixture of reliable and unreliable narrators that gives the novel a certain amount of literary value without ever crossing the line to pretentious or leaden. All the writers of the documentary sections have their own distinct yet accessible voices. And the final one throws a most surprising light on everything that has gone before, leading us as readers to re-evaluate everything we think we know about Azea, Braxi, and the War.

However, this mosaic-like effect of pulling together numerous divergent texts to create a larger whole may well have been a happy accident, for the author has always said that she did not originally write any of what would ultimately become this novel with the intent of having it published. Far from it, she wrote it originally over a period of years as a private amusement, as a way of relieving stress by coming home and writing an episode or scene that best suited her mood. Only after some years had gone by did she look over the pile of paper that had accumulated in her dresser drawer and realize that she had the makings of a pretty good novel and sit down with the deliberate intention of putting those pieces into order and fitting them together.

The fifteenth-anniversary reissue edition includes a glossary at the end which is very helpful, given the sheer number of alien names and terms that are introduced in the text, often in ways that assume one will be able to discern their sense from context. When I read the original version, it took me several readings to catch some of these nuances, which are now spelled out for the reader. In addition, the reissue edition includes a reworked cover in which Anzha lyu and Zatar stand together on the front and the back is completely covered by a blurb (the original edition had two versions of the cover, one in which Anzha lyu stood on the front and Zatar on the back, and the other in which the positioning was reversed).

Review posted February 1, 2009.

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