RogerBW's Blog

The Praxis, Walter Jon Williams 04 December 2016

2003 space opera, first book of Dread Empire's Fall. The Shaa subjugated the galaxy, binding all the races they met – including humanity – under their universal philosophy, the Praxis. But ten thousand years later, the last Shaa has chosen to die.

I think fans of space action will hate this book: it starts off very slowly, and the explodey spaceships don't come in until around two-thirds of the way through. It's much more about the people and the world.

Gareth Martinez is a noble from a provincial world. He's dependent on patronage to get ahead in his Fleet career, like everyone else, but his patron has chosen to kill himself after the last Shaa ends its life.

Caroline Sula is a naval cadet from a family whose heads were executed, similarly lacking in patrons; but with Martinez' remote help she manages to pull off a daring space rescue, which generates a small amount of useful publicity for them both. One downside is that Sula clearly has a Dark Secret in her back-story; while the reader's meant to wonder what it is, it's so thoroughly telegraphed that by the time it was formally revealed I had got bored with waiting for it.

The world is one in which oppressive and explicitly static rule has been the standard for so long that everyone has grown up knowing that that's the way things must be. It's sometimes a little archaic (some of Sula's childhood flashbacks seem remarkably twentieth-century, with cars, restaurants, divorces, etc.), but like the bans on thinking machines, nanotech, and other non-space-operatic technology, these may well be deliberate archaisms.

The physics doesn't really work. Williams appears to get confused between acceleration and velocity, and has ships increasing their speed within a single star system by accelerating, doing a "slingshot" round a planet, then continuing to build their speed by accelerating back across the system again – which really doesn't work when you're doing an appreciable percentage of lightspeed, as you flash past the planet too fast for it to have a noticeable effect on your course. On the other hand, the interstellar wormholes make rather more sense, with interesting tweaks to the standard jump-gate setup; and the actual battles are influenced rather more by doctrinal rigidity in a fleet that hasn't fought a war in over three millennia than by what's physically possible. The battles are still a weak spot, but their effect on the characters is still more important than the actual explodey spaceships.

The book cuts off pretty abruptly, with no major points resolved. I plan to read more. Followed by The Sundering.

Recommended by vatine.

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  1. Posted by david at 10:50pm on 18 December 2016

    The space physics were indeed a bit odd (and if I recall, seemed to largely ignore reaction mass as opposed to fuel) but I did find the Praxis dominated society interesting.

    As I was reading it, I came to the conclusion that the series was in part inspired by the story of Marius (Martinez) and Sulla (Sula) during the Roman Republic. There are numerous individual nods to this, such as Martinez' provincial background, wealth, and accent, and the Sula's appearance and parts of her back story. Did you get a similar impression?

  2. Posted by RogerBW at 11:01pm on 18 December 2016

    I'm not particularly familiar with that period; there are certainly some strong echoes now that I think about it, but it didn't leap out at me while I was reading.

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