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Science-fiction has come a long way since H G Wells first looked up at the night sky and thought how cool it would be to have giant Martian tripod war machines trampling all over the Home Counties. Now that the most daring innovations of even quite recent science-fiction can be found readily in your home - from videophones to genetically modified food - the genre continues to evolve and develop.
'Space opera' is just one of the newer sub-genres of science-fiction - and covers just about anything that involves a galactic empire while pretending frantically that it's not just knocking off Dune or Star Wars. Sean Williams manages to steer clear of the Herbert/Lucas influence better than most, as his Earth Ascendant focuses more on what it means to be human in a universe where you can live for tens of thousands of years and split your identity across multiple bodies.
Imre Bergamasc is First Prime, leader of Earth's Returned Continuum. Rather than an expansionist military man, however, Bergamasc is RE-building humanity's power after the old order was destroyed by something called the Slow Wave, a few tens of thousands of years previously. Bergamasc travels the galaxy to recruit new worlds into the Returned Continuum, leaving his former lover on Earth to rule as Regent in his stead.
(Note to self: if I ever gain a position of authority in any kind of fantastical empire, be it terrestrial or interstellar, I will not under any circumstances appoint a Regent, ever. It just never ends well)
Science Fiction or Science Bobbins?
What makes Bergamasc's decision to appoint a Regent on Earth even more bizarre is the fact that in this futuristic world, he could easily be in both places at once. Primes, or normal humans, have the option to upgrade to having several versions of themselves (singletons) running around. Bergamasc feels it is important to remain a Prime, both for various narrative reasons and to make sure the reader can come close to identifying with a central character not too far removed from our own experience of humanity. At the same time as building his Empire, Bergamasc is also constantly searching for clues about his previous self, which I can only assume is explained in more detail in the first book in this series. Despite being a Prime, there is a constant suggestion that there is another version of Imre Bergamasc loose in the galaxy, and this plot thread leads to the book's clear highlight - a set-piece action sequence with guns and explosions and murderous silver spheres and deadly revelations.
Apart from this sequence, however, and the inevitable climactic action, this is a novel of political intrigue and wrangling, and mostly it is extremely enjoyable. The science-fiction trappings work well and are internally consistent - people are transported through the galaxy by 'hardcasting' (beaming them through space as streams of information) but this takes thousands of years, takes loads of power and is not undertaken lightly. Each science-fiction writer has to deal with the 'speed of light' issue in their own way, and Williams uses it to his advantage with hardcasting - Imre Bergamasc is away from Earth for longer than the whole of recorded human history twice during the novel, and twice he returns to find the entire system has changed completely.
Even the novel's opening on the seemingly irrelevant planet of Dussehra continues to resonate later in the book, although at the time it appears to be a throwaway jaunt to introduce the reader to the main characters. The significance of the Veil (a symbiotic parasite) is clearly destined to be taken up more seriously in the next book in the trilogy. There is no flab to this book, everything is pertinent and relevant, which is a great achievement considering the subject matter and the ever-present temptation for the sci-fi writer to get really caught up in describing cool spaceship engines and things.
Earth Ascendant is impressive in that it remains comprehensible to the reader who has not read the previous novel (_Saturn Returns_) and gives a real human dimension to what could have been mere high-concept space battles. It is fair to say that the novel is pretty humourless, and the author could REALLY have thought more about the line 'Incest I can live with, but patricide is an ugly thing,' but overall it's a great piece of science-fiction. My only reservation would be that you should probably read Saturn Returns first...
Expect to pay about £5.99 on Amazon, or £7.99ish in bookshops.
This is an amended version of a review that first appeared on www.thebookbag.co.uk.