21st Century Space Opera: Kevin J. Anderson’s Hidden Empire and A Forest of Stars

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Hidden Empire (2002) and A Forest of Stars (2003) were the first two volumes in Kevin J. Anderson’s space opera series The Saga of Seven Suns. At the time these books came out, space opera was a genre whose main home had moved from the page to the small screen. The Star Trek revival, from The Next Generation through to Enterprise, lasted from 1987 to 2005; and even when it was running out of steam, Firefly, Battlestar Galactica and quasi-space-opera Doctor Who came along in 2002, 2004 and 2005 respectively to show that there was yet life in the genre.

Save possibly superheroes, space opera was the stripe of science fiction that made the smoothest trnaslation to television. This left its prose counterpart with a question: how to compete with the likes of Picard, Starbuck and Mal in keeping audiences coming back for more?

One answer, of course, was to provide more sophisticated space opera than television did. But with the best will in the world, Kevin J. Anderson’s Seven Suns books are scarcely more sophisticated than Star Trek: The Next Generation. Anderson’s main aim appears to have been creating a crowd-pleasing series of page-turners; and being no stranger to capturing the thrills of screen space opera on page – he cut his teeth writing Star Wars novels, after all – this was a job suited to his talents.

The first book, Hidden Empire, carries out its worldbuilding in a series of easily-digestible lumps. The humans who have spread out into space are divided into two chief groups: one is the Hansa, a sprawling interplanetary federation run along monarchial lines; the other group comprises the Roamers, nomadic “space gypsies” who do the sort of hard work around space that Hansa people spurn. A third faction is formed by the green priests, whose religion is based on a telepathic relationship with a semi-sentient forest; although technically part of the Hansa – they reside on the federation’s capitol planet Theroc – their spiritual way of life contrasts with the bureaucracy and corruption of Hansa leadership.

At the start of the story, the only extant alien race known to humanity – aside from the semi-sentient trees – are the Ildarans, who were responsible for providing humans with stardrives that power faster-than-light travel. The Ildarans are a telepathic people, their psychic link emanating from their leader, the Mage-Imperator. Another alien species, the insectoid Klikiss, are part f the novel’s backstory but are extinct by the time the story takes place.

The technological aspects of the novel’s universe are similarly digestible. The stardrives are powered by ekti, a substance harvested from gas giants by the Roamers for the benefit of the Hansa; this arrangement drives much of the intrigue between the two main groups of humanity. Also present are intelligent robots: the “compies” built by humans, and a population of still-active robots built by the Klikiss prior to their extinction.

The device that truly kicks off the plot, however, is the Klikiss torchm which is capable of igniting a gas giant into a star. Ostensibly a means of making the planet’s moons inhabitable, skeptical observers note that humanity has no need for further habitable worlds and that the usage of the Klikiss torch is no more than a show of power and glory.

Whatever the motive for using it, the Klikiss torch has a devastating side effect. It transpires that the gas giant that the Hansa so blithely ignite was one of many gas giants inhabited by a race of aliens, the hydrogues. The ensuing war between the humans and hydrogues offers plenty of memorable sequences, one of the strongest coming when a hydrogue emissary visits the Hansa king.  Contained within a globular craft, the inhuman hydrogue shapes itself into human form to communicate – or to mock:

Finally, a shadow congealed in the center of the globe’s compressed gases. The mists thinned, as if solidifying into a form, and a quicksilver silhouette became a shimmering humanoid shape-a perfectly formed man, complete down to every eyelash, every hair on his head, and a uniform of clothes with many pockets, clan emblems embroidered on a flowing cape, every wrinkle preserved. Yet the emissary was fashioned out of a flexible liquid crystal that looked like thick mercury. The creature moved toward the transparent curved wall of the environment chamber. The eerie molten features moved, the lips formed words. “I bear a message from the hydrogues to you, Frederick, king of the rock dwellers.”

What makes this sequence stands out is its effort to evoke the otherworldly in a novel that is, by and large, committed to the Star Trek vision of interplanetary life as people in unusual costumes, or sometimes trees. The hydrogues are a bomb thrown into a conventional setting; a dash of spice on those easily-digestible worldbuilding lumps. (Or, if you want to be a tad cynical, the result of an effects department getting CGI). The scenes of the hydrogues laying waste to inhabited worlds are handled well, and true to their roots in Wells’ War of the Worlds.

However, the action scenes turn out to be remarkably few and far between. What really propels the plot of Hidden Fortress is not explosions, but revelations: the main drama derives from cover-ups, with a heavy proportion of the plot developments arising from one character or another turning out to know more than they are letting on.

One major plot thread concerns the Hansa monarchy. The king himself is no more than a figurehead; the true power is Hansa League chairman Basil Wenceslas, a cynical man who sees monarchy as no more than the end result of humanity’s tendency to pass the blame. Still, he remains committed to upholding the institution and so arranges for the senile king to undergo a fake death and a peaceful retirement while a successor is groomed for the role. Wenceslas chooses 14-year-old boy named Raymond, changes his appearance, renames him Peter, and passes him off as the heir to the throne. Ramond’s own family, meanwhile, perishes in a fire; he is led to believe that this was a tragic accident and that Wenceslas rescued him – but he later finds that, in reality, Wenceslas killed his family.

The Ildiran leadership also turns out to have some skeletons in its closet. A scholar learns of a past conflict between the Ildirans and the hydrogues that has been written out of history; he alerts the Mage-Imperator to this and is promptly murdered to sustain the cover-up. It transpires that the Mage-Imperator is involved with a multigenerational plan to breed hybrid “kiths” powerful enough to fight off the hydrogues. The kiths – artificially-bred subcategories of Ildiran with specific traits for various roles in society – are an intriguing piece of worldbuilding, albeit one that plays a small role in the plot.
Yet another cover-up concerns the fate of the Klikiss, which is investigated by husband-and-wife xenoarchaeologists Margaret and Louis Colicos. The novel final stretch has the pair realising that the Klikiss were wiped out by their own robots — the same robots who are present on the archeological site, which they then attack in an attempt to keep their secret.

Between them, the hidden histories of humans, Ildarans and Klikiss form a web of intrigue — indeed, it could be argued even the inciting incident of the entire plot, the accidental annihilation of a planetful of hydrogues, fits into the pattern of disturbing secrets being uncovered.

As a space opera, Hidden Empire fits into a genre with two poles. On one end is the derring-do pole, where the primary focus is on the characters and their personal stakes while the worldbuilding exists largely to provide hazards and spectacles for the hero. At the other end is the power-politics pole, where individual characters (save for the occasional emperor, overlord or quasi-divine saviour) blur into the background of a clash between planets and galaxies.

The two poles have existed since the early days of the genre, as evidenced by the career of E. A. “Doc” Smith. He started out very much at the derring-do pole with The Skylark of Space, but his later Lensman series moved closer to the power-politics pole, its characters engaging in the sorts of conversations that were adapted so faithfully to the screen by George Lucas in the Star Wars prequels. While it would be easy to assume that the derring-do pole is where we find the purely escapist work while the power-politics pole is the home of the more cerebral fare (Iain M. Banks, for example) this would not be entirely true: the Lensman books show how the power-politics pole can be used for purposes almost as pulpy and adventure-oriented as an Edgar Rice Burroughs planetary romance – and so does Kevin J. Anderson’s series.

By structuring his plot around a sequence of cover-ups, Anderson is able to keep the reader engaged from chapter to chapter not so much through depth of worldbuilding, nor even the stories if the individual characters, but through the question of what the next revelation will be. The main purpose of the characters is to either stage, expose or fall victim to the various cover-ups.

The second novel in the series, A Forest of Stars, is set five years after Hidden Empire. The war with the hydrogues is still ongoing, the aliens having damaged human and Ildaranan infrastructure by barring access to gas giants. Once again, the battles form a backdrop to a series of plot-pushing revelations.

The political intrigue surrounding young king Peter and Basil Wenceslas continues, although we now get a closer look at the human cost. Peter resents being an actor rather than a leader and deliberately rebels against a number of Wenceslas’ orders, but relents when Wenceslas threatens Peter’s new wife Estarra. Elsewhere, Peter becomes aware of the mass production of new soldier compies reverse-engineered from Klikiss robots – a scheme that the Klikiss robots themselves for their own dubious purposes.

The plot thread dealing with the Mage-Imperator’s involvement in generations-long censorship of official records is also continued, and explored through the Mage-Imperator’s eldest son Jora’h. This character obtains secret documents containing a redacted portion from the Ildarans’ main cultural text — the titular Saga of the Seven Suns — describing the previous conflict with the hydrogues. This introduces more aliens species to the series’ universe, but Anderson ensures that the worldbuilding remains as digestible as ever: this time, his trick is to map the non-human species onto the four classical elements. Earth is represented by the verdani, the origin of the sapient World Forest; fire by the faeros; water by the wentals; and air, implicitly, by the hydrogues

Such fantastical details do not detract from the fact that the second book is in large part, and in far larger part than the first, a horrors-of-war novel. Hidden Empire also had violent conflict, of course, but its depiction of an alien invasion’s initial strikes were fantastical. The second volume, on the other hand, is concerned with the wider ramifications of the conflict – the atrocities that occur outside of the battlefield. This is most clearly seen in the Ildarans’ attempts to breed hybrid warriors – mentioned in passing in the first book but a major subplot in A Forest of Stars.

The subplot is focused on Jora’h’s lover Nira Khali, a character who was presumed dead in a hydrogue attack at the end of the first book but is actually being held by Jora’h’s villanous brother in a breeding camp. Here, the healthy babies are snatched from their mothers within months, while others are born “so horrendously malformed that they were killed outright”. Nira has given birth to a son named Rod’h after a troubled pregnancy but is separated from her daughter. The descriptions of life in the rape camp are as horrific as the novel gets: we read of male prisoners being forced to copulate with hundreds of women, and getting castrated if they refuse. Nira is caught in the midst of atrocities:

Two weeks ago, Nira’s body had expelled the warped result of her joining with the scaly kithman. She had spent five days confined with the dry-skinned reptilian man …. But the miscarriage had seemed even worse. Looking at its distorted form, she considered it a mercy that her body had aborted the foetus. There was little enough mercy on Dobro…

The actual rapes occur off-page, but the glimpses we receive are enough to get the point across: Anderson is making an effort to explore the cost to individual characters caught up in the planet-zapping spectacle.

As the novel reaches its close, it sets up some of the worldbuilding elements for later volumes. The subplot dealing with Klikiss archaeology continues to develop, and we also get closer to the two new elemental alien species. The faeros rejoin the war against the hydrogues, their involvement turning out to be a double-edged sword: the fiery aliens can repel hydrogues but also leave trails of destruction in their wake. Meanwhile, Jess Tamblyn – a roamer introduced in the first book – runs into the sole surviving wental:

He heard a voice like a memory in his head, not a message of spoken words. He thought of how the green priests communicated with the worldtrees via telink… but this was another type of creature entirely. Or so he thought.
Once we were uncounted trillions, but I am the last. And you have brought me back.
“What are you?”
An essence of life and fluid; water flowing across the cosmos… It is difficult to find representative concepts in your mind. We call ourselves wentals.
“But you… are extinct? You’re the last of your kind?”
Now I am the first.
“What happened to all the other wentals? Was there some sort of catastrophe?”
We cannot die, but we can be… disassociated. This nebula is a gigantic graveyard, a battleground in an ancient war that once threatened to shatter the cosmos. We… lost that conflict.

So, across its first two books, the series has weird aliens – but weird aliens neatly divided by the four classical elements; the horrors of war – but horrors spaced far enough apart to allow ample breathing space on the part of the reader; and a complex network of characters and relations – but one that is conveyed through a simple plotting formula of cover-ups and revelations.

Throughout all of this, A Forest of Stars gives the impression that the character Anderson feels the most empathy with is not one of the sundry xenoarchaeologists or green priests but rather Anton Colicos, an academic who belongs to the Department of Epic Studies. Anton’s status as authorial mouthpiece is hard to miss when he takes a stand for populist reading material:

Anton nodded as the shuttle docked against the immense dome.
‘My university colleagues in epic studies devote so much time to obscure references, journal articles, literary pretensions, and self-importance – that they forget that, at the heart of the matter, they’re studying stories and entertainment. And if they can’t find an audience, then they have failed in their work.’
‘I sense you have had this discussion before, my friend?’ Vao’sh said. ‘Is it a thorn in your side?’
‘My fellow scholars resent anyone who has an attentive audience.’ Anton looked at the colourfully dressed Ildirans in the passenger craft. Outside, people in silvery suits and huge protective goggles walked about in the harsh daylight; others streamed through transparent tubes into the domes of Maratha Prime. ‘I feel like a medieval troubadour being sent to sing for kings and peasants.’

Kevin J. Anderson set out to write page-turners, and page-turners he wrote. Anton Colicos would approve.

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