Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Book Review: The Dragon Never Sleeps by Glen Cook

dragonneversleepsThough he is much better known for writing fantasy, Glen Cook has also written several science fiction books in the course of his career.  The Dragon Never Sleeps is a dark space opera originally published in 1988, and recently made available again in a new edition from Night Shade Books.

Far, far into the future, humans are the slowly declining but still unquestioned masters of Canon Space, a sprawling interstellar empire ruling over many species and linked together by a mysterious network of faster-than-light travel routes called the Web.  At its apex are the guardships, colossal war machines that are  milennia old and have crews that are equally ancient. Hostile forces from beyond Canon Space, challenges to human hegemony by Canon Space's many nonhuman subject species, or bids for power by the huge human merchant houses at the apex of civilian society are mercilessly put down by the guardships, huge, ancient war machines with unmatched destructive power and crews that are equally ancient.

Simon Tregesser, ruler of one of the great merchant houses, plots to overthrow the rule of the guardships.  After millennia of their unquestioned dominance such a thing seems impossible, but Tregesser has an advantage that those who tried to defy guardships before do not: He has successfully formed an alliance with a mysterious force from beyond Canon Space one that possesses great military might and insights into the Web that even humanity has not achieved.

The situation is made more precarious by the reappearance of the long-vanished Kez Maefele- once one of the greatest leaders of a now-conquered alien race called the Ku, now one of its last survivors, and the warrior who came closer to actually stopping the seemingly omnipotent guardships than any other being in their long history. He has long since given up his futile struggle against the rule of Canon Space and seems content to live in peace and obscurity, but the existence of a force strong enough to overcome the guardships might be able to convince him to take up his old cause again.

The reign of the guardships is despotic and pitiless, but there is no promise that Tregesser's mysterious allies will be any different, and a conflict large enough to overthrow Canon's rule will entail death and destruction on a colossal scale. As Tregesser sets his plan into motion, the guardships will find themselves fighting their first serious threat in centuries. Mysterious beings with some sort of connection to the Web have appeared in Canon Space, their nature and goals unknown. And meanwhile, both House Tregesser and the guardships search for the enigmatic Kez Maefele, whose loyalties may determine the outcome of the war and the future of humanity and every other species in Canon Space.

I liked The Dragon Never Sleeps a lot, both on its own individual merits and as an opportunity to see Glen Cook working outside the genre of his better-known books like the military fantasy series The Black Company. The plot is interesting, complex, and unpredictable, and Cook does a good job of keeping a story with a large number of separate plot threads moving along. The battle scenes are great, both for their excitement and for the way they evoke the awe-inspiring scale of their combatants.

My favorite aspect of The Dragon Never Sleeps is the setting and atmosphere. This is displayed most strongly in the guardships themselves. Despite being built and crewed solely by humans, the guardships frequently seem like the most alien things in the books. The huge crews of each ship are thousands of years old, their personalities and memories uploaded into new incarnations made from their DNA again and again over the centuries. Whole armies are kept in cryogenic hibernation and awakened when needed, and they too are reborn over and over. The ships themselves enjoy the same immortality, recreated complete with their uploaded databases and resurrected crews in the (almost unheard-of) event they are lost in battle.  The most-well regarded members of the crew join the ranks of the Deified, uploaded human intelligences that are part of the ship itself, upon their physical deaths. The central core of each ship is a nascent intelligence in its own right, often dangerously close to developing a consciousness and will of its own, and some ships have awakened to sentience and subsumed their crews entirely.

Each guardship is effectively a complete and usually isolated community unto itself, and despite remaining united in purpose the culture of each has evolved in ways that can make them alien even to each other.  The homes and families that the guardships' crews left behind have been gone for thousands of years. Despite having ready access to the faster-than-light travel of the Web that unites Canon Space, the guardships and their crews seem profoundly alone.

The rest of the setting adds to this tone. As the book begins, Canon Space has long been technologically, scientifically, and socially stagnant.  Humanity and Canon civilization as a whole are utterly dependent on a phenomenon, the Web, that they are able to use but have no real understanding of. The human race is in decline- though it's power remains unmatched and its control absolute, the human population of Canon Space is slowly dwindling. Aside from the guardships, among the most frequently seen areas of Canon Space are the DownTown's- the desperate underclass areas of Canon worlds, populated by desperate humans, aliens, and cast-off creatures called artifacts, living beings manufactured for the use of the elite and frequently left to fend for themselves when no longer desired or useful.

Much of the story has an almost palpable feeling of isolation and loneliness. Everyone seems cut off and isolated- Canon Space from the unknowns beyond its borders, DownTown from the higher echelons of society, artifacts from their uncaring creators, Kez Maefele from his now-decimated species and his abandoned hopes, humanity from the species it rules, guardships and their crews from nearly everyone. This combines with the decaying, uncanny atmosphere of Canon Space to create a powerful sense of eeriness and foreboding that adds tremendously to the book. Readers who enjoy the atmosphere of stories like Alastair Reynolds' Revelation Space series or Sean Williams' Astropolis series should find a lot to like here.

At the same time, the characters prevent the book from being overwhelmed by gloom. Many of them are fairly lightly sketched in, but Cook has a talent for creating characters that feel relatable and down-to-Earth while still fitting into a story where they are surrounded by remarkable, alien settings and events, and remain sympathetic in the midst of a morally murky struggle.  This complements the setting very well, making it feel like a more human place, and the emotional effects of both the setting and characters were strengthened as each cast the other into starker relief.

I greatly enjoyed The Dragon Never Sleeps and would recommend it for any fan of Glen Cook or far-future space opera.

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