Ahh middle ground, that oft traversed yet little expounded area of contemporary literature criticism yet, funnily enough, where the majority of fiction lies. Much easier to give a thumbs up or thumbs down than precisely describe or recognize what makes a book average material, I hope my review of Walter Jon Williams’ 1990 space opera The Praxis, first in the Dread Empire’s Fall trilogy, holds to a different standard.
The few known alien species of the universe, humanity among them, have been united under an overlord race calling themselves the Shaa. Living for thousands of years and possessing unheard of technology, the Shaa enforce a draconian rule of law known as the Praxis that keeps all species living in relative harmony. But something has come over the Shaa. For several years they have been slowly killing themselves in announced, ritual ceremonies. Now, only one remains, the Shaa of Shaas, and it too has scheduled its own death, which in turn will leave all races without a leader. The Praxis is the first chapter telling of the resulting power vacuum.
The Praxis focuses on two characters. Martinez is first mate on one of the military fleet’s most prominent battleships. His captain electing to die with the great Shaa, Martinez has hopes of taking the vacant captaincy, but is denied, and instead relegated to first mate on a lesser ship. His new captain an avid soccer fan who spends more time managing his team than captaining his ship, Martinez finds himself extremely busy, that is, until the day of the Great Games, when all the species come together to compete. Caro Sula is a pinnace pilot. Her parents executed in infamy, she tries to retain a low profile in the service. But luck will not have it. In the right place at the right time to rescue a pilot who took a bad turn while racing in a planet’s orbital, she becomes a hero for the day, and is thereafter assigned to a new captain, one with greater prominence in the fleet. Little does she know the role she will play in the chaos of the Great Games.
If The Praxis were an insect, it would be a butterfly—not for how beautiful its colors are or the delicacy of its wings, rather for how erratically it flies. Martinez and Sula are the character focus of the novel (Williams even questionably devotes a quarter of the novel to Sula’s backstory), but side stories and changes in perspective are taken whenever needed to keep the reader up to date on the larger state of affairs, i.e. erratically. The physics of long-distance space travel are held to semi-realistically (there is no FTL but there are wormholes), meaning long periods of time need to be dealt with even as action and key events likewise need a place. The transition between these two does not always have the proper delimiters, meaning further erraticism. And the characters are difficult to imagine. Martinez worse than Sula (likely given we have some of her backstory), at no time could I draw a bead on either. Martinez is presented as something of a socially awkward nerd who thinks he is a lady’s man, yet he still gets the girls. And Sula too has her inconsistencies, further adding to the erraticism. In short, when it flows, it flows, and The Praxis can be engaging. When it gets caught up in its own shoelaces, however, things start to wobble.
In terms of sheer imagination (that sensawunda space opera readers clamour for), The Praxis delivers—not in bulk, rather in parcels. Williams excels at writing space battles, and in fact has his own unique take on missiles and lasers crossing millions of miles of space. No pun intended, these light up the novel, particularly its extended climax. But space battles are only a portion. The remainder is very straight-forward daytime tv, space drama, almost with a retro vibe when looked at alongside the more cutting edge space opera of Iain Banks. Readers looking for such innovative material will find The Praxis more in line with 50s or 60s sf.
In the end, The Praxis is average material. It possesses many concepts that come to mind when one says ‘space opera’, and delivers them often in an expected, if not occasionally exciting manner. Williams does not deliver sharp, definitive prose, nor does he lazily spill words across the page, a medium between the two achieved. The characters fail to reach a third dimension, but do move the story along. And the overall effect is space opera, which was the target desired. For that Williams cannot be faulted even if the material lacks exceptional execution on all fronts. If you like space opera, go for it.