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Book Review: Humanity’s Fire by Michael Cobley

By / May 9, 2015 / no comments

Blurbs by the late, great Iain Banks come few and far between.  In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a Banks blurb on another science fiction work. Being a Banks acolyte, it was no question that these books by Cobley would find themselves on “Mount TBR”.  The problem was managing the expectations that such blurbs (as a publisher marketing tactic) are invariably designed to build and the disappointment that can often follow.

“Proper galaxy-spanning space opera,” says the blurb.  And it is, no question about that.  It’s a space opera adventure of the old-school variety, without any pretense to gravitas and seriousness that other examples of the ‘New Space Opera’ tend to infuse their works with.  No, this trilogy harks back to the imaginative flurry of E. E. ‘Doc’ Smith, but with far smoother writing.

The Plot in Brief. . .

Humanity, whilst suffering an invasion from a hegemonising swarm, is able to send out three generation ships (out of a planned 15) in the hope to curtail the species’ extinction, that new seeds might sprout and flourish elsewhere.  The 3 ships (controlled by artificial intelligences) make use of a recently developed ‘hyperspace’ technology, plot random courses to the stars and are barely able to depart on time.

Shift 150 years to the planet Darien and its single moon in the midst of a nebula, where colonists from one of the seed ships thrive with a native, intelligent, peace-loving species who have a fine tuned awareness to the rhythms of life.  The colonists (made up of Scottish, Nordic and Russian ancestry) have arrived at a state of equilibrium after many difficulties such as an initial war with their seed ship’s corrupted AI and sustained political instabilities.

This extended isolation is soon brought to an end, as news of humanity’s survival is revealed through messages from an imminently arriving Earthsphere ship with their humanoid Sendrukan allies, as well as the knowledge that Darien is in the midst of a contested zone.  The Sendrukan Hegemony have a particular interest in the planet which they believe will help them cement and expand the iron and brutal control they regularly exhibit over their domain and vassal species.

The Seeds of Earth is a strong opening to the trilogy where multiple plot threads are introduced through the perspective of characters from different groups: Uvovo, Darien-Human, Sendrukan, Earthsphere-Human, Legion of Avatars (those wishing biological/AI convergence) and a further ‘lost’ seed ship perspective.  The stage is set by presenting the current Human and Uvovo situation on Darien and introducing the political machinations of Earthsphere’s Sendrukan allies, which takes a heavy hand by novel’s end.  What’s particularly good about the novel is the smooth and effortless transition from each point-of-view chapter to the next.  These smooth transitions aid in keeping track of the multiple threads.  Although the novel is not packed with action, the plot nevertheless moves well whilst setting the stage, and the last quarter of the novel is satisfyingly action-oriented with an ending that leaves the reader with a desire to pick up the next instalment without utilising a cliff-hanger.

The Orphaned Worlds ramps up the plot and the twists.  Darien has become a contested prize, though not all sides are aware of its true importance beyond the political. The guerrilla resistance is fully underway as is the brutal control that the oppressors employ through their usual deceit of peace-keeping and proactive defense proclamations.  The secret of Darien’s potential is further explored, as is the concept of the tiered levels of hyperspace which contain the desiccated remains of past universes.  While the plot contains a fair bit more action than the previous instalment, it loses a little of the smooth transitioning from pov-to-pov as additional plot threads are introduced.  Unexpected developments for certain characters are certainly a bonus as they lead to explorations of settings far from Darien to truly imbue the developing story with a “galaxy-spanning” feel.

The Ascendant Stars is a solid closing to the arc albeit with problems.  While this last instalment contains the highest proportion of action as various threads come to a head, some of the effect is diminished due to certain sequences that take place ‘off-screen’ and also the complications of tying up the multitude of plot threads that inexorably become more convoluted, requiring greater attention from the reader.  While I’m not against ‘off-screen’ happenings in a complicated plot, it can occasionally feel a little disconcerting and it does so here.  And although I wasn’t happy with one particular plot development, Cobley does conclude his trilogy in a fairly balanced manner, neither ending on too high a note, nor leaving the reader with a bleak outlook, though it feels like the resolution of one stage of the story rather than a firmly conclusive end.

What makes the overall story particularly pleasing is that there are a number of antagonists simultaneously at play (sometimes the less obvious ones turn out to be far more vicious and a greater threat to the thrust of the plot).  An example of a minor but nonetheless pleasurable feature: there comes about a realisation of two separate antagonistic forces at play in the same location, with the same group, and for their own separate purposes, but without seemingly being aware of each other – this is understood much after the fact.  Just as I felt I had grasped the extent of the different antagonists and the roles they were attributed, either a further dimension was added to heighten said roles, a twist was revealed or a new player’s impact to the story was shown to supersede previous ones on the grander scheme.

Another interesting point is the story’s very pessimistic attitude towards AI and the almost spiritual celebration of the interconnectedness of organic life.  There is a trend in perceiving transhumanism and its ethos of amalgamating the biological with the technological to be advantageous, so to be presented with a story where this convergence is considered not only undesirable but perhaps even anathema is quite unusual.

Michael Cobley writes professionally.  His prose is crisp and clear to understand, not waxing poetic nor unduly loquacious, and his writing can even be evocative at certain moments; it isn’t ‘merely’ workmanlike by any means.  He neither exhibits the stylistic elan of ‘El-Bonko’ nor does he revel in the techno-descriptive glee that someone like Asher or Hamilton can affect, straddling instead a no-man’s land between these opposing redoubts.  The story’s lack of expletives is also refreshing – excepting some minor usage in some Nordic language or Russian, it feels very clean-cut and I rather enjoyed that.

This trilogy is very plot-centric, and while the featured individuals do undergo some development, the story is not at all impelled by the motivations of characters.  Pacing is usually consistent though there were just a few instances where I felt the need to force myself through certain passages – most notably, the initial chapters of the journey through the immense tiers of hyperspace in the second instalment, especially because of the proliferation of names (of strange places and species – the brief index was of little help) and just the sheer number of oddities that the reader is presented with.  The mystery of hyperspace does pick up and start to take on life as the story progresses.  Cobley also throws in an enjoyable twist or two that are difficult to catch.

It’s also difficult not to draw some comparisons between this trilogy and Star Wars, superficial though they might be.  To wit, the indigenous Uvovo to Ewoks (luckily, the Uvovo are far more intelligent and cultured than their caricatured, motion-picture counterparts), Darien’s moon to Yavin and the battles fought within the planet-moon system, the various droids and even the conclusion of the second instalment, which evokes a certain nostalgia reminiscent of the downer ending of “The Empire Strikes Back”.

My particular likes: (1) the concept of a multiple-tiered hyperspace made up of ‘dead universes’ and its bizarre wonders (fair warning: Cobley incorporates the travelling trope – whilst difficult to maintain attention initially, the sub-plot develops well enough to substantially entice one’s interest); (2) the indigenous Uvovo of the planet Darien and their deep, complex affinity to life, their customs and their use of nature itself as a source of power; and (3) AI presented as an insidious, anti-life threat.

My particular dislikes: (1) the proliferation of plot threads that become choppy and spasmodic when attempting to wrap up in the final instalment, losing much of the easy & smooth transitions exhibited in the first book; and (2) the sheer number of proper nouns to keep track of.  Caveat lector: the convoluted nature of the plots that this trilogy tends toward does not lend itself well to extended breaks between instalments, especially between the second and third books.

Humanity’s Fire is a solid, if unexceptional, addition to the space opera subset of science fiction, and I would recommend it particularly for those readers who are naturally inclined to seek out such space adventures and as a *potentially decent starting point* (I say that with some trepidation) for readers of epic fantasy fiction who would like to dip their toes in the genre, but most importantly, for those readers who are adept at juggling through multiple povs and don’t shy away from the possible confusion brought about by a seemingly disjointed denouement; the resolution does occur more-or-less satisfactorily, just not very smoothly.  Otherwise, Cobley proves himself to be an adept writer with a vivid imagination and able to spin a good yarn.  The trilogy is a satisfying romp that offers that cinematic sensawunda through it’s array of planets, species, mysteries and scope.

Keep in mind, though, that if you dive in expecting the caliber of Iain Banks, a natural predisposition based on the publisher’s blurb, then best be prepared for disappointment.  However, if you’re interested in ye good olde ‘epic space opera adventure’ in the truest sense of the phrase, then Humanity’s Fire delivers the goods.

Review written by Boreas, Staff member of BestScienceFictionBooks.com.

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