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Hidden Empire: The Saga Of Seven Suns (Book 1)
Kevin J. Anderson
Earthlight paperback £6.99

review by Simeon Shoul

In the year 2427 AD, humanity is doing rather well. More or less politically unified by the Terran Hanseatic League under Great King Frederic, religiously at peace thanks to the vague platitudes of the Unison Church, prot�g�s of the ancient and benevolent Ildiran Empire, which has gifted them with an FTL stardrive, everything is looking rosy.
   Sure, there are malcontents and naysayers out there. Pirate Rand Sorenson, a member of the despised 'gypsy' Roamer culture, denounces the Hanseatic League as a coterie of economic vampires. The snooty Theron Green Priests with their marvellous telepathic World Forest won't formally join the League, hampering interstellar communications and commerce (oh! the gnashing of teeth!), and there are those among the Ildirans who look upon upstart humanity with a cold and jaundiced eye...
   But never mind. Vigorous young humanity laughs at such pessimists and deviants! Enthusiastic League scientists choose this moment to ignite the ancient Klikkis Torch (a peculiar technological remnant of a mysteriously extinct race), popping a neutron star core into the heart of the gas giant planet Oncier, igniting a new sun and triggering the transformation of Oncier's four Galilean moons into warm and fruitful worlds, ripe for colonisation...
   Only Margaret Colicos, the archaeologist who discovered the Klikkis Torch notices, as Oncier bursts into radiant flame, a sudden eruption of perfectly shaped globes from the gas giant's dark side... Could it be that interstellar vessels were lurking in the planet's depths? Could it be that a whole unknown civilisation was hidden beneath its turbulent cloudy atmosphere? Could it be that ignorant humans have committed an act of mass murder and unwittingly declared war on a powerful and remorseless enemy?
   Well, yes, actually, to all of that. Before too long humanity, whether Hanseatic, Roamer or Theronese, finds itself embroiled in a terrible conflict, as mighty Juggernaut Starcruisers clash with Hydrogue Warglobes and the Ildirans find themselves swept up in the strife too, innocent bystanders to humanity's grievous error.
   Here and there various characters scramble to make sense out of mayhem, salvage the wreckage, fling themselves at the enemy in a desperate bid for revenge, or just muddle along ignorantly. We get to watch (yawning) as Tasia Tamblyn throws over her Roamer heritage to join the Earth Defence Force (well, the tension is simply... absent), as Prime Designate Jora'h, Crown-Prince of the Ildirans, plays nookie with Green Priestess Nira (I didn't know you could write sex this badly), as Margaret Colicos scrambles through more Klikkis ruins, hoping to find the answer to it all (yeah, right, publish or perish...).
   This is a bad book for several reasons. First problem, it's highly derivative. Anyone familiar with the current first-rate writers of science fiction is going to notice distinct echoes of Peter Hamilton's Night's Dawn trilogy, of Dan Simmons' Hyperion sequence, and also of Alastair Reynolds' Revelation Space.
   Now there's nothing wrong in borrowing ideas or plot motifs, that's what makes a genre a genre after all. But Anderson has done it badly, clumsily, and carelessly. Example? For Roamers, read Ousters, but Simmons' Ousters were fascinating, imaginatively drawn, complex and intriguing. Anderson's Roamers are c-grade space nomads. Second problem. Anderson's science is so soft you could cut it with a marshmallow. Example? Well, Corvus Landing, we are told, "was a young, geologically quiescent planet with a generally mild climate and minimal native vegetation. Even the seas were shallow and the landforms were smooth, with nothing more extreme than hilly plains."
   Now I'll grant you the minimal native vegetation, Mr Anderson, on a young world where evolution has had little time in which to work, but geologically quiescent? Smooth landforms? Please, learn a little planetary science! Young planets are typically very violent places, and landforms become smooth only over eons, as wind and water action erodes the sharp-edged shapes that planetary coalescence, meteor bombardment and mountain formation all cause.
   Third problem. The writing. Anderson has the descriptive powers of a whelk and he conveys emotion and character like a man painting with a 'colour by numbers' kit. This palace, the one the Great King of Terra lives in... it's opulent, see? Opulent. You can tell it is because Anderson says so. He even uses the word. Opulent. That proves it, right? And this character over here, he has a vibrant personality. Vibrant, got that? You know it's vibrant because Anderson says just that. Vibrant. And over there, see, that young girl, she's spunky. And that person, they're feeling 'warmth and love', while this one is experiencing 'fierce determination'. Oh yes, and when the Hanseatic League used the Klikkis Torch to ignite Oncier, well, let me tell you, it was spectacular! Yes it was, it really was, it was spectacular, and we know this because Anderson tells us that it was. Spectacular. Damn right, I mean, how can you argue with that?
   Reading the 'about the author' blurb at the front of the book, it becomes obvious that Anderson cut his authorial teeth writing movie and TV tie-ins (X-Files and Jedi books in particular), from which he moved on to the 'dead author exploitation' market by writing Dune prequels with Frank Herbert's son, Brian. The frightening thing about all this is how immensely successful it has made him. He has, it seems, 15 million books in print in 27 languages, has hit The Times bestseller #1 slot and achieved a whole slate of big prizes or at least nominations.
   When someone with this little ability to generate original plots and world-scapes, with so poor a grasp of scientific principles, and such desperately inadequate writing skills can shine so brightly and sell so well, it begins to look as if the science fiction genre is in terminal decline. His success seems to be evidence of a vast readership who's ability to discriminate good from bad has been systematically degraded by a remorseless marketing machine.
   Well, I know that's not completely true. We have real writers, both well established and up-and-coming. The trend, however, is worrying. Anderson, taken as an individual, is just an aberration. His success is ephemeral and his books won't even be a bad memory ten years after the last one is foisted on a jaded public. But Anderson is not unique. There are plenty of other hacks and formula-merchants, helping the corporate merchandisers crank out the pap. That's the depressing thing, and the danger to the genre's hopes of inspiring new, talented writers, and attracting intelligent, discerning readers.

Related item:
tZ  Prelude To Dune: House Corrino by Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson
Hidden Empire: The Saga of Seven Suns - book one

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