Conventions of War, by Walter Jon Williams
Conventions of War is a 677 page science fiction novel, third of a trilogy totalling 2,000 odd pages in total. At about half that length it would be a lot of fun, as it is it’s just a lot.
And a word of warning here, as it’s the third of a trilogy in order to discuss it I have to discuss the previous books a bit first. That means this writeup’s about twice the length I’d like too…
Walter Jon Williams is a talented science fiction writer. He was one of the early cyberpunk authors, his novel Hardwired is a classic of that genre (and indeed is closer to how most folk picture the genre than Neuromancer or Islands in the Net). He’s written a lot of other good books though, my personal favourite being Days of Atonement.
Before writing science fiction (I think, I can’t swear to the chronology), Williams wrote historical naval fiction, golden age of sail stuff. He even wrote a roleplaying game based on that material, Privateers and Gentlemen, which for the curious is based heavily on early Runequest with the lethality turned up (extraordinary as that may seem to anyone familiar with early Runequest) – characters mostly die of postoperative infections.
That’s relevant, because the trilogy Conventions of War is part of, titled Dread Empire’s fall, is in part 18th Century naval fiction in space (markedly so in the first volume, less so as the series progresses). The chief characters are talented, but held back because the traditions of the service (that phrase is used more than once) reward family connections and seniority vastly more than they do ability – indeed can even be hostile to ability.
Of the two main characters one, Martinez, is a lucky captain who through daring and tactical genius claims prizes other captains wouldn’t even dream of. Thomas Cochrane’s ghost remains with us, even thousands of years into the future it seems (as a rule of thumb, naval fiction and pretty much all fictional naval heroes are heavily based on Thomas Cochrane’s real life – if you’ve not heard of him he’s worth reading into). The other main character, a female naval officer named Sula, at one point even gains inspiration by reading up on the Napoleonic wars, just in case you missed the link. Sula is also tactically brilliant by the way, and of course beautiful (Martinez and Sula are both a bit too perfect really, brilliant, attractive, disadvantaged only by their lack of social connections, it makes them for me a bit hard to care about)
There is, oddly enough, a bit of a tradition of recasting golden age of sail fiction in space, there’s an Honor Harrington series which I’ve not read but have heard good things of that does precisely that for example. The problem I had with it in this instance is that I kept thinking, well, given Williams used to write historical naval fiction then to be honest I’d rather read that than the same stuff recast in space.
Anyway, enough background, what’s it about? The premise of the series is that an alien race, the Shaa, have created an empire which has lasted millennia and which contains a number of intelligent species within it, including us. The Shaa rule according to the Praxis, a code setting out the correct way to live one’s life, to order one’s society. The Praxis is brutal, highly conservative, unbending, but it has resulted in unprecedented stability. At the opening of the first novel, titled The Praxis, the last of the Shaa burdened by memories of a vastly long life chooses to die and with it the Shaa pass into extinction. The Shaa expect nothing to change after their death, but soon the empire is plunged into civil war as the first race conquered by the Shaa, the Naxids, decide that they should be the Shaa’s heirs and so attempt to take control from the multi-species council the Shaa left behind.
As a setup, it’s fine. It explains the cultural forces Williams needs, the ancient noble families, the traditions of service in the navy, the lack of need for rewarding innovation and indeed the outright hostility to it. What it doesn’t explain is why the empire needs much of a navy at all though, there are no external civilisations and although rebellion is possible the Praxis has such harsh punishments for it it’s hard to imagine anyone being much tempted. Britain had a powerful navy because it needed one, and a major plot point in much naval historical fiction is how at times of peace that navy is cut back heavily, captains and crew being cast into unemployment. Here, with no external threats and few internal ones, I would expect more of a police force with spaceships than an actual navy.
The first two novels chart the breakout of war, early victories by Martinez when he discards accepted naval doctrine and develops new strategies, and the Naxid’s initial victories as they take the capital planet Zanshaa. They follow too Sula, who for a while has a passionate relationship with Martinez and who helped him develop the new tactics. Sula stays behind on Zanshaa when it falls, assigned to a covert military resistance group which is soon destroyed leaving her to organise resistance on her own.
As Conventions of War opens, the loyalist fleet is taking the fight to the Naxid rebels destroying their supply chains and bases, while Sula engages in a private war against the Naxid occupation forces, a war which soon involves assassinations, retaliatory hostage executions by the Naxids and counter-retaliatory bombings of prominent Naxid judges and of collaborators.
The difficulty is that in this volume by and large Martinez’s story isn’t that engaging. Haunted by an act of war against a Naxid world that led to the death of billions of people, his mission is largely one of threatening undefended worlds and destroying merchant shipping and naval construction facilities. Williams spices this up with a murder plot on Martinez’s ship, but given I already had a plot to follow regarding Sula’s insurgency and the larger Martinez plot about the naval war, the whole whodunnit angle simply added nothing for me. It was fat, that could have been trimmed off without affecting the overall thrust of the book at all.
Sula’s story is more interesting, dealing as it does in issues of moral compromise. She embraces the Naxid hostage massacres, seeing them as a useful recruiting tool. Although at one point she warns a Naxid school party to run when she’s planted a bomb, she doesn’t delay its detonation to make sure the children aren’t killed. She cuts a deal with local gangsters the better to achieve her ends, and incites the general populace to take violent action against the Naxids even knowing that most of those she inspires will be captured, tortured and killed.
Here, Sula has issued an underground newsletter telling civilians how to set up resistance groups of their own:
A group of students at the Grandview Preparatory School staged an unsuccessful ambush of a Naxid Fleet officer returning home on a train. Details were scarce in the official reports, but possibly they intended to beat the officer senseless and steal his firearm. A couple of the attackers were killed outright and the rest captured. Under interrogation, they confessed to being members of an “anarchist cell,” and apparently they named others, both fellow students and teachers, because there were a series of arrests.
The Grandview school was purged. The alleged anarchists were tortured to death on the punishment channel, and the students’ families shot.
Martinez’s own engagements tend to be less dramatic, most resulting in no action at all but the constant tension of not knowing when the forces he’s with may encounter the main Naxid fleet:
The squadron entered “hot,” radars and ranging lasers hammering in search of a foe. The Naxids knew Chenforce was coming, and they just might have prepared some kind of surprise.
No surprise was in the offing, though since the Naxids had turned off their own radars, it took some hours for this to become apparent. Termaine Wormhole 1 was a considerable distance from Termaine’s primary, outside the heliopause, and it would take days for Chenforce to near the planet. If there were any surprises, they would be further into the system.
Conventions of War does have less tense moments. There is some nice humour with Martinez’s utter ignorance of everything outside the navy. He’s assigned an office at one point decorated with Renaissance-style putti. To him, someone has painted pudgy and naked flying infants on the wall – it utterly mystifies him. Equally, I enjoyed his utter lack of palate, which coupled with his having access to a very fine kitchen staff and cellar results in several scenes where guests complement the food and drink while he wonders what they’re talking about.
The book could have used more of that humour, more of that humanity. Sula I found less interesting than Williams himself evidently did, she was simply a bit too efficient, too competent. Martinez had more potential for me, but was wasted on the murder plot which I just didn’t care about. And worst of all, his tactical genius fatally undermines the naval combats – the Naxids are bound by tradition to conventional tactics which make the fights tremendously one sided affairs. Williams addresses this by making the real tension about Martinez fighting his superiors so he can use those tactics, but while I found that credible internal naval politics just isn’t as exciting as more challenging space battles would have been.
In the end though, the key point for me is that Conventions was just far too long. The setting of Dread Empire’s Fall is a good one, yes the aliens all act exactly like humans but even so it’s well thought out and has plenty of potential. The trouble is, there’s so much potential Williams tries to fit it all in, but there’s two or three separate novels worth here each of which would have been stronger separated from the other material. Williams leaves room for sequels, if they’re around the 2-300 pages mark I might well read them, if they continue to hit the 600+ point though I suspect I’ll pass.