Christopher Ruocchio’s 2017 Empire of Silence is classic in every sense of Golden Age science fiction. Aliens, the Campbellian hero’s journey, galaxy spanning empires, court politics, sword duels, space ships, etc.—they all drive the story. And yet there is a sensitivity to culture, colonialism, and language that one rarely if ever finds in such material. The child of George Lucas and Ursula Le Guin, the novel makes for an interesting if not simplistic milieu.
Star Wars: A New Hope meets The Word for World is Forest, Empire of Silence is the story of Hadrian Marlowe. A nobleman exiled from home as a young man, Marlowe is forced to confront the exigencies of the wider universe with very, very little in his pockets. Relying on his wits and talents, Marlowe parlays his command of languages, sense of honor, and sword skills into new and exciting positions on a planet torn between fending off attacks by the alien Cielcin from the outside while inside battling the aggressive nature of the empire’s stifling religious order, the Chattny. Battles fought with the tongue as much as sword, Marlowe’s journey through the layers of this far-future Greek-ish empire is certainly one to tell his children.
Empire of Silence possesses scenes and elements straight from the pulp tradition. Tentacled aliens attack heroic men as they defend women. Emperors give edicts and gladiators duel. Space flight exists as do laser spears. The rote and ritual of court and kingship pervades a people spread across a multitude of exotic planets. But at the same time, there is a steady, persistent focus on Hadrian’s relationship to alien encounters as well as encounters with people whose socio-political outlook, as jaded and discriminating as it is, are likewise alien to him. Hadrian a polyglot, Ruocchcio uses language as an intermediary for transcending this Otherness in ways that subvert the standard ‘alien=evil’ pulp tradition. That the religious order likewise seeks genocide—to slowly wipe all non-human, sentient life from the universe—confirms the novel’s position (at least as of this, the first volume in the Sun Eater series) to be an interesting fence rider between conservative and progressive sf.
In the end, this combination makes Empire of Silence a tantalizing yet long read. Readers looking for action-based space opera will likely be put off by Ruocchio’s focus on character and culture, but will be turned on by his portrayal of a galactic spanning empire, aliens, gladiator fights, family drama, and the tension surrounding Hadrian’s attempts to remain anonymous yet be successful in the universe. It is a hero narrative (extremely Campbellian, in fact), but non-standard in the sense Hadrian’s impetus to action is not automatically might-makes-right or super-heroic. Using his intelligence more than his brawn, he is an atypical centerpiece to what is more than the average space opera novel.