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Friday, May 8, 2009

The Grand Conjunction (Astropolis Finale) by Sean Williams (Reviewed by Liviu Suciu)

Official Sean Williams Website
Order The Grand Conjunction HERE:

INTRODUCTION: I have been following Mr. Williams' sf since his mind-blowing Evergence series (co-written with Shane Dix). That series is about a future Galactic polity, Transcendent humans, mysterious AI's, ruthless killers on an almost genocidal rampage and an amnesiac charismatic stranger that may just be the best "weaponised human" ever as well as being related to the killers; all these happenings fall in the lap of Commander Morgan Roche a seemingly junior intelligence officer, but of course she is not exactly what she seems either. That series just made any (original not tie-in) sf by Mr. Williams an asap.

The Orphans series (co-written with Shane Dix) followed with the Engrams, a zany as well as a mind blowing setting and a scratch your head ending. While not as brilliant as Evergence essentially because of the abandonment of the "personal" for Galaxy scale vistas that are awesome but colder, Orphans was still space opera on a grand scale and with sense of wonder galore.

I read and enjoyed The Resurrected Man a solo effort by Mr. Williams in the cyberpunk vein with a ruthless sex-predator and killer with a twist, and then the Geodesica duology (co-written with Shane Dix) came which had a great first volume, as good as any Evergence book, but it almost fell apart in its second volume - the best I can say is that it wasted its great premise of archons - post-humans made out of individuals that synchronize their memories - in a futile chase and a huge red-herring artifact.

So when Astropolis, a solo effort by Mr. Williams this time, was announced with Saturn Returns as its first part, I was not sure if I wanted to read it - the premise of hundreds of millenniums span of action seemed again a bit cold. But I browsed it and the story of Imre Bergamasc hooked me from the start and now after two novels and a novella, it arrives at its grand finale - and indeed this last volume deserves the title name.

Sean Williams is also a noted Star Wars novelist as well as a noted fantasist, but for me his mind-blowing sf is first and foremost.

OVERVIEW: In the distant future humanity colonized the Galaxy and essentially divided itself in three categories.

The Primes are much improved but essentially regular humans and there are even "old-timers" from the 20th century (C20) on still alive in the roughly M300-M2000 (Absolute), this span of ~1 700 000 years (yes 1 Million and) which is covered by the four books.
Of course there is no ftl and the action is galactic so going from here to there even as an encoded wave of light (hardcast) takes a while, while travel by ship takes even longer, and relative time is mutable so Imre Bergamasc say has been alive for about 2000 years subjective in all this huge absolute time span.

The Singletons are "multiple humans", independent instances of an original "Prime" who meet occasionally to share/synchronize memories, but are essentially separate.

The Forts on the other hand are the rulers of Humanity and they are truly galactic scale entities that think and act slowly as it behooves such. Formed of many "almost mindless" frags, ie human beings that merged their consciousness in the greater whole but lost their individuality and ability to act independently in return, the Forts are joined by Q-loops which enable instantaneous communication over galactic distances, so bypassing the light-speed limit.

Imre Bergamasc (b M275) has been a Singleton great general and leader of the Corps, one the best mercenary units used by the Forts to "guide" the Galaxy. At some point Imre rebelled against them and the Mad Times (M550-M772) ensued; on the brink of defeat, he "defected" secretly and joined the Forts as well as destroying all his "cached" earlier versions; except one on the Milky Way's edge.

That one is resurrected as Imre Bergamasc Prime in M878 and returns to a Galaxy in disarray where the Forts have been murdered by the Slow Wave that propagated at light-speed from near the Galactic Center destroying the Q-loops and leaving mindless and suicidal frags in their wake disconnected from the disintegrating greater whole.

Hooking up with the remnants of the Corps - treacherous Helwise
(Singleton, intelligence) who has a penchant of killing "herself", ie her instances kill each other on sight rather than cooperate, Al (Singleton, Exec. Officer) the "perfect officer and second in command", Emlee (Prime, Signals) once Imre's lover and later his bodyguard, and Render (Prime, "old-timer", killing machine) - Imre Prime embarks on a mission to return order to the Galaxy, find out the murderers of the Forts and extract vengeance as well as find out the fate of original Bergamasc whose all instances vanished mysteriously.

In the process he discovers a name "Domgard" that signifies the "last mission" of the original Imre (Singleton, later Fort) and which is related with the Slow Wave, the Barons a mysterious organization set on stopping by deadly force if necessary any attempt at Fort recreation, and Luminous which is something of extraordinary power, regarded by some as "God" or at least "His Manifestation" and which turns to have a special interest in (our resurrected) Imre Prime.

Saturn Returns deals
with Imre's resurrection at the edge of the Galaxy as a woman by the Jinc a group mind with ulterior motives, his escape and return to prominence and the back-story.

The novella Cenotaxis deals with the Conquest of Earth and introduces some essential "characters" in MZ and The Apparatus.

Earth Ascendant is about the power struggle inside the Returned Continuum between First Prime Imre and Regent Heloise, while now we get back to the big picture and the original questions.

The Grand Conjunction stands at about 330 page divided into seven major named parts. It starts with an introduction Metapshychoses outlining what came before and it ends with a map of Milky Way, a chronology up to the end of Earth Ascendant and a very useful Glossary. The ending is pitch perfect bringing together all the threads of this "cosmic scale" series.

ANALYSIS: After the superb Saturn and Cenotaxis, Earth Ascendant suffered a little bit from the middle series syndrome, but the action heated at the end, we finally got a taste of the Barons and Luminous, understood more about them and of course there was a great twist which I'd rather not spoil. Also Earth Ascendant introduced the "Veil" a mysterious symbiotic parasite that allows memory sharing in "infected" humans and which takes a very important role now.

When The Grand Conjunction truly starts with "This Impossible Dream" part, I had to close the book and look at the cover to make sure I am reading the right book and then flip some pages to make sure pages from another book were not inserted inside by mistake - so great was the cognitive dissonance I suffered finding myself plunged into a typical 50's noir atmosphere with an amnesiac woman looking for her missing sister - somehow she *knew* she had a missing sister but essentially nothing else - a private eye, gangsters, bars, intrigue, all taking place into a generic 50's city. Far away from the Returned Continuum for sure...

But wait, the PI Mac(abre) Grimes is also looking for a mysterious shadowy Imre Bergamasc at the bequest of Monsieur Li and a lot of things slowly make sense to truly show Mr. Williams' plotting skills in some stunning developments that occur later when we rejoin the Host - as the "new, improved or degenerated" depending on perspective - Returned Continuum is called nowadays.

This opening gamble also pays off as a very nice change of pace and perspective from the "cold, impersonal, millenniums" to the "individual level" and puts in place the building blocks for the aforementioned developments.

As with previous volumes Imre Prime is the focus of the action and the way he ties into the opening chapter is just amazing, though there are hints on the way but I still could not believe the author could be so audacious and unconventional.

From then on, the action moves to the big picture and everything built-up in previous volumes finds its way here, we meet again with old acquaintances and we explore issues on a true Cosmic scales; not only Galactic, but truly about the whole Universe, its past, present and future.

While some of the main characters like Emlee ( in one small hint I note you can split her name as Em lee) are too distant for the most part of the novel to truly connect with, Render is still his own cranky self, and the interplay between Imre and him counterbalances nicely the now political relationship between Emlee and Imre.

However when selves are replicable as a normal occurrence in hardcasting and bodies are trivially manufactured to specs, there is no reason beyond Emlee's dedication to "Primehood" not to have a private version too.

I also found the issue of "how to interact with God" or at least an indistinguishable facsimile thereof from humanity's POV, very well done and very plausible.

Ultimately the mixture of personal and hundreds of thousand of years time-frame work very, very well here, I would say the best in all the series and the novel succeeds grandly indeed.

Highly, highly recommended.


Harry Markov said...

And all of this is fitted in one book? I have to say that this seems like a lifetime gathered between just two covers. Sci-fi never seizes to amaze me with out of the ordinary worldbuilding that has a distinctive feeling to it.

What do we have to read before it, because I got the feeling we had to?

Liviu said...

Basically here it's an overview of the series (Saturn Returns, Cenotaxis - 100 page novella, Earth Ascendant + Grand Conjunction), but I completely agree that it has a lot of world building - and it's a reasonably fast read

Grand Conjunction is discussed in the Analysis part, but it truly does not make sense on its on - I guess the short introduction in the first par tells you what's what, but the motivations are harder to fathom.

Astropolis overall is very, very good

RobB said...

I've got the first two books waiting to be read and was waiting to get the third to read them all in succession.

Glad to see he wrapped up well (I only skipped down to the ending, didn't want to spoil anything.)

It is a shame that the Evergence series is out of print. However, in the past ACE has bundled such series together in omnibus volumes.

Liviu said...

Astropolis is worth reading including Cenotaxis btw - it's a side 100 page short novel, but it's some of the best sff Sean Williams put out and worth reading even by itself

The conundrum of series reviewing :) how much you give out from earlier volumes - tried to avoid spoilers, but of course you cannot talk meaningfully about book 3 without mentioning some stuff about earlier books

I hope Evergence gets back into print since it's one of my all time favorite series and it aged very well so far; Orphans is almost as good, while for Astropolis is too early to say, have to see what I think in a couple of years or so; for now I loved it, but sometime books/series do not age well

Liviu said...

One more comment about the three main series:

Orphans is the wackiest and most original - its main issue which was intentional and improved as the series progressed, were the characters who as "engrams" were not fully formed humans, especially emotionally - some evolve and change and achieve fullness in the book, but it makes for a "less involved" reading; otherwise the sfnal content is the best imho

Evergence has great sfnal content (but others like PFH, Asher, IMB do similar stuff) but the characters trump all, some of the most memorable in space opera - Cane is a Banksian character in presence and all (think Horza or Zakalwe) and Morgan is excellent herself too, while the rest of the cast is very, very good

Astropolis has great characters too and the sfnal content has more sense of wonder than Evergence - though less than Orphans - its one main issue is no ftl hence huge time scales and that makes it harder to emphasize overall - think of all the great recent sff with no ftl and on a galactic or at least multiple system scale (Reynolds, Egan) and how they appear as awesome but "colder"

Harry Markov said...

Ah, I knew there never could be so much in just one book and even so, it's intense, the way I feel it. Thanks for listing everything. I doubt that I will ever get the opportunity to secure everything and read it in peace with my list, but it's highly appreciated.

Everything has been bookmarked and hopefully one day. :) My only comment here will be: How do these people manage to write all of this? *grin*

Blue Tyson said...

Yes, Williams is very talented.

His fantasies (for adults at least are) are closer to 500 pages, given the long quest nature.

Lots packed into this series, packed in like some of the past masters did.

A lesson in avoiding bloat to be had here, for some.

Orphans pales somewhat when you have read Egan's Schilds Ladder, too, I think, at least it did for me.

Liviu said...

I read Schild's Ladder too - all Egan's novels as it happens and most short fiction, and I plan to do a review of Incandescence sometime in the future, or an overview of his work, something...

I rarely comment on others reviews, but I thought Incandescence was very mis-understood by some - since essentially it is the novelization of General Relativity and the process of Scientific Discovery - maybe not for everyone, agreed, but a masterpiece in its "niche"

Hard to compare Orphans with Schild's Ladder though since Egan writes (probably) the most mind-expanding sf theses days, but his characters are rarely more than a vehicle for the story, while Orphans still had distinctive ones and is much more of an adventure/space opera series than idea sf or anything else

Anonymous said...

quite interesting article. I would love to follow you on twitter.

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