The Dragon Never Sleeps by Glen Cook

May 16, 2011 at 1:34 am | Posted in 4 stars, Book Reviews, Science Fiction | 5 Comments
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Glen Cook is best known for the Black Company fantasy series he began in 1984, often cited as one of the first major steps toward the low fantasy approach that has become quite popular in the last decade.  He’s actually a quite prolific author, and for many years, his 1988 standalone science fiction novel The Dragon Never Sleeps was one of his most obscure books.  Shortly after it was published, some combination of poor sales and a troubled publisher sent it straight out of print.  Under these circumstances you would expect it to be forgotten by everyone except the author, but instead the book acquired a reputation placing it among science fiction’s greatest space operas.  When fans talk up a hard-to-find book as a masterpiece, one always wonders if this is just a form of snobbery.  A few years ago I searched out a copy to see for myself.

Almost immediately after I found it, the novel was reprinted for the first time in twenty years and it’s still in print today, so for good or ill the rarity is gone.  Does the book itself live up to its reputation?  Reading it a few years ago, I indeed thought it was a masterpiece.  Maybe it’s for the best that I read it during a lapse in this blog, because I was so impressed I doubt I would have had anything intelligible to say.  It’s a complicated book and from the moment I finished it, I was looking forward to reading it a second time, but rather than dive right back in I decided to wait so I’d have a little perspective.

I ended up waiting a little longer than I intended, but I’ve finally reread it, and I think I understand it a lot better now.  I’m afraid it’s not quite as great as I initially thought…that is to say, it’s “only” an extremely good novel.  This time, I was less awed by the setting and the ideas, so I noticed that the characters were thin, the plot was tangled and confusing, and above all the story’s pacing was all over the map.  The Dragon Never Sleeps is an epic space opera story that stretches across many years, and some of them pass in just a few pages.  Some online reviews say that Cook made major cuts to what was originally a much longer manuscript, and while I haven’t seen anything from the author himself confirming this, it certainly reads like this happened.  Genre books are usually accused of being too long, but this is one book that definitely would have benefited from being longer.  There are a number of brilliant scenes, most notably the battle in “end space” midway through the novel, which I think is probably the greatest space battle scene I’ve ever read, but these only make the points where the story suddenly lapses into summary all the more frustrating.

If there are problems with aspects as important as the plot and the characters, you’d be forgiven for wondering if this is really a good novel.  To that I can only say, I read a lot of books with good characters, and…well, somewhat less, but still a fair number, with good plotting and pacing, but books with truly interesting ideas are rare.  The Dragon Never Sleeps has a lot on its mind.  Like most such novels, it’s simultaneously in conversation with the genre’s past while pointing toward the future.  The connection with the past is in the book’s use of tropes from Frank Herbert’s Dune.  Like Dune, this is a novel of squabbling feudal houses who rest uneasily beneath the Imperial yoke and endlessly plot to advance themselves.  As for the future, the novel’s “Artifacts” (human-like people grown in vats with often fanciful physiological alterations) reminded me strongly of China Miéville’s Remade, although this book was so obscure I doubt there was any direct influence.

All that said, the closest association is probably with the fiction of Iain M. Banks.  The Dragon Never Sleeps was originally published in 1988, just a year after Consider Phlebas, so again I don’t think there’s a direct connection, but the two space operas cover a lot of the same ground.  I have purposefully delayed providing any kind of plot summary until now so that you can see how closely it tracks with Banks’ work, particularly Consider Phlebas.  Thousands of years in the future, humanity has spread across a huge span of the galaxy and no longer has a clear idea of its own origins.  Order in Canon space is kept via huge spaceships with idiosyncratic names that house powerful artificial intelligences.  Although billions of beings both human and alien live peacefully in human space, there are powerful alien species who not only do not share the values that animate Canon government, but actually despise them.  Given this antipathy, war is inevitable, a war that spirals into a clash of civilizations spanning many years and countless star systems.

If you changed “Canon” to “Culture” that would be a pretty good start to a summary of Consider Phlebas.  I really enjoy the Culture novels, particularly the early ones, so it’s not surprising I really enjoyed The Dragon Never Sleeps.  I also like Dune and Miéville as well, for that matter.  The Dragon Never Sleeps doesn’t have the elegant plot of Dune, the fantastic imagination of Miéville, or the humor and cynicism of Banks, but it’s at least as well thought out as the rest of them.  What makes it especially interesting is the fact that, once you get past the surface similarities with the Culture I mentioned, the two settings are completely different.  These days the Culture tropes are so strongly identified with Banks’ own thinking that it’s startling to see them deployed for Glen Cook’s very different aims.

I cheated a bit when I said Canon ships have “idiosyncratic names”.  The Culture is rooted in the values of our modern world, so the irreverence and irony of its famous ship names, like So Much For Subtlety or What Are the Civilian Applications, fit perfectly.  In contrast, here are a few names of the Canon’s Guardships: VII Gemina, XII Fulminata, and XXVII Fretensis.  The first time I read the novel I only learned the source of these vaguely familiar-sounding names after I had finished, but I’m sure Glen Cook expected his readers to recognize them as names of Roman legions.  Sure enough, the government of Canon space is rooted not in the modern world but in the declining Roman Empire.  It’s an old system that has outlasted the conditions surrounding its now-mythological founding and expanded with a series of  invasions until it’s overstretched and under significant pressure both from outsiders eager to tap the wealth of Canon space and from the presence of aliens within Canon space itself, where conquest and immigration have brought them in greater and greater numbers until they are now are a majority.

There’s nothing innovative about putting the Roman Empire in space, and indeed Dune did pretty much the same thing (albeit with the Byzantine Empire rather than the original Roman Empire as such).  But this is allusion, not allegory, and the Roman Empire was just the start of Glen Cook’s thinking.  For starters, there’s no Emperor.  At least, we’re never told of one.  There’s talk of a civilian bureaucracy, but the power lies with the legions…in this case, the Guardships…and they don’t pretend to follow any orders but their own.  Cook hasn’t made the mistake of just transplanting a primitive government into space.  The Roman legions were loyal to the person of the Emperor, a crudely effective mechanism but problematic when it came time for succession.  The Guardships’ allegiance is not to an Emperor or even a government, but to Canon law.  Canon law is only a few steps up from the law of the jungle, true, but the Guardships enforcing it are ruthless and, owing to a technological advantage that is enforced as part of that law, nearly invincible.  Warships of any kind besides Guardships are illegal in Canon space, so they have a complete monopoly on violence.  When an entity outside Canon space provokes them, they invade, destroy, and annex the offending civilization.

Since no force internal or external can challenge the might of the Guardships, the resulting system is extremely stable.  A person can be killed, a ship can be destroyed, but no one, whether an alien from outside Canon space, a human citizen, or even a Guardship commander, can change the system.  The dragon of the book’s title is not a real dragon, or even a person.  It’s the Guardships, or to be even more accurate, it’s the procedures the Guardships and their supporting bases follow.  The system is effectively immortal, but in maintaining itself it necessarily must hold the culture it protects in stasis.  Technological progress has been halted lest anyone acquire Guardship-equivalent technology.  Cities on a hundred planets are constructed from the exact same prefabricated habitats.  Power is concentrated in a quasi-feudal commercial nobility so that the only ones with any power have too much to lose to dare crossing the Guardships.

But nothing lasts forever, and Cook shows how the system has drifted over time.  Slowly the aliens outside Canon space are catching up to the Guardships’ technology levels.  When Canon law was written, humans were the vast majority and so were the only ones with citizenship and the franchise.  Now, millennia later, aliens are the majority, with much of the rest made up of Artifacts that by law aren’t considered human either.  Even the Guardships themselves prove not to be immune to the passage of time.  Although each Guardship has an artificial intelligence at its core managing the automated systems, they are commanded by human crews.  When not needed, humans are stored in suspended animation.  When they are killed, they are recreated from vats using brain scans.  This means that even the youngest soldiers were “born” thousands of years ago at the dawn of the Canon era.  Humans who distinguish themselves are “Deified” through personality uploading and serve as a sort of Senate to advise the two Dictats (read: Consuls) who command the ship in a manner reminiscent of the Roman Republic.  These two types of immortality have kept the Guardships from changing the way the outside world has over the long years…in theory at least.  Guardships aren’t often in contact with each other, and ship cultures have diverged.  Worse, the artificial intelligences have grown eccentric.  Most Guardship crew characters in the book are from VII Gemina, a ship that initially seems to have weathered the centuries more or less without major changes, but others are…different.  One character groups the various Guardships into “Normal”, “Strange”, and “Weird and Deadly”.

The Dragon Never Sleeps has a large ensemble cast, but ultimately the narrative is focused on Kez Maefele, who (like the protagonist of Consider Phlebas) is a longstanding enemy of the Canon and therefore gives us a detached perspective.  Most of the those opposing the Guardships do so out of a hunger for wealth or power, but he’s different.  Long ago, an alien species called the Ku fought a long war against the Guardships, and during their war they used increasingly elaborate genetic engineering to improve their soldiers.  Maefele was the culmination of this program, a strategic genius who led the legendary Dire Radiant, a Ku fleet that refused to surrender with the rest of the species.  Born too late to turn the tide in the war, Maefele watched first his species’ government but then his rebel fleet ground into dust by the implacable power of the Guardships.  He escaped the final defeat and has been in hiding for uncounted years, for his engineered genes are not programmed to age.

All that time has led him to question the morality of fighting the Guardships in the first place.  He hates the inequality of Canon society, but he knows that if the Guardships were overthrown, Canon space would be at the mercy of outside powers who would be significantly worse.  But when he is recruited by the latest faction hoping to destroy the Guardships, he finds himself agreeing to help.  Like the Mule in Asimov’s Foundation series, he is an individual of such genius he can destroy an otherwise invincible organization, but as someone who was created and not born, he is also a cog in the Ku war machine even a thousand years after their defeat.  Fighting the “dragon” is his purpose in life, something he ultimately can’t turn his back on even if the war will mean the unnecessary deaths of countless innocent people.

Reading Dorothy Dunnett showed me that the proper use of a genius character is not to simply face him off against lesser antagonists (surprise: the genius wins) but to leave the reader wondering if the genius should win.  Kez Maefele has both the desire and the genius to defeat the Guardships, but doing so would mean abandoning his moral principles.  This seems like a contradiction that’s impossible to resolve, but Cook has a solution.  Narratively, the ending to The Dragon Never Sleeps is a mess, but for readers willing to endure a few bumps on the road the underlying story being told is at least the equal of Iain M. Banks’ best works, like Player of Games and Use of WeaponsThe Dragon Never Sleeps is a novel that shows just how great space opera can be, even if in some ways it falls short of its own potential.

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