The Middle Ages in space: now this is a theme that never fails to deliver, no matter how worn-out and hackneyed it may have become nowadays. But when this setup first appeared, with Alfred Coppel’s 1950 story «The Rebel of Valkyr» (here’s the review I wrote in Italian last year), it was still fresh: as fresh as only a brand-new good idea can be. Indeed, it made for an enthralling shift in the usual space operas and their typical futuristic, technological, and superscientific settings, as that story introduced an actual feudal empire of star kings and techno-barbarians who ignore science and scientific progress but still manage to operate spaceships somehow and meanwhile keep on warring each other with swords and bows and all that medieval stuff.
Eighteen years later this concept hadn’t been overdone yet despite the impact «Dune», that appeared barely three years earlier, would have on science fiction: and in 1968 actually Alfred Coppel came back to his earlier «Rebel» story, revised it under a pseudonym and made it into a short novel, with a (slightly) thicker and improved plot that didn’t change the basics of the original story yet.
This new novel is «The Rebel of Rhada» by Robert Cham Gilman, first in a very loose series of four books: and even in its title it preserves its connection with the original story.
Same framework with small improvements
Beneath the new coating, the plot framework of «The Rebel of Rhada» is the same as «The Rebel of Valkyr»’s: that is, it all starts with the main hero coming to the empire capitol on Earth; then a rebellious scheme by the empress regent to grab power after disposing of the rightful emperor is revealed to the reader; later on, we see the rebellion is brewing on a backwater planet and is led by a man-like robot in league with the empress; eventually, the rebellion reaches the capital on Earth but is stopped shortly afterwards by the main hero, who duels with the robot, kills it and (re)instates the legitimate ruler.
Both the 1950 story and the 1968 novel follow this same structure, although the latter accommodates small adjustments to better suit the revised plot and make it somewhat more mature, despite the melodramatic tones: for example, the traitorous empress is betrayed in turn by the robot, who plots to take the throne for itself and start a new age of robot masters and human slaves; the emperor himself (now a twelve-year old boy) isn’t killed but simply imprisoned, hence he can be freed and reinstated to the throne; and this clears the way for the harboring love story between the hero and the emperor’s older sister, that in the 1950 story could not happen as, with her brother’s demise, she had to claim the imperial throne that belonged to her family lest the empire fell, which prevented her from loving a lesser king.
The collapse of civilization
The real driver here is the setting: somehow the brutality of a fantasized Middle Ages and the wonders of a space-operatic future combine glamorously and make for a contrast that fuels a reader’s imagination.
First of all, both the story and the novel are set in a distant future: a bleak future that comes after a golden age when humanity used to be great, powerful and advanced. So advanced it built unmatched technical wonders, reached scientific milestones we cannot even dream of, and even settled countless faraway worlds: this greatness clashes with current-era mankind, that is brutal and primitive, so unlike the splendor of the past as the night is to the day.
This setup is interesting enough but still needs to be spiced up: and nothing beats some old-school human hubris to explain the fall that suddenly turned the once-great galactic civilization into a cauldron of struggling worlds from which, centuries or even millenniums later, a smaller and weaker «empire» of backward kingdoms emerged as a beacon of hope for the remains of mankind. This hubris is explicitly addressed as «sin» in the novel, which is an improvement on the «Great Destroyer» (i.e. generic technology) that stood for the reason for the collapse in the original story: and it’s an improvement because it works on several levels, and all of them befit human nature.
At its height, mankind had been able to build intelligent human-like robots called «cybs» (for «cyborg»: but technically they’re androids), which performed all of the chores: when these cybs realized they were actually superior to the average human, they rebelled and almost wiped out all mankind before being defeated. Yet, despite the pyrrhic victory, humanity never recovered from this war: thus began the so-called «Interregnal period», or the dark age between the collapse of the former advanced civilization and the rise of the current feudal empire, way smaller and weaker than it used to be.
There’s a massive dose of real history here, with the implied analogy between this fictional event and the collapse of the Roman empire due to the barbarians, who at first were employed by the empire and then, when they realized both the Romans’ weakness and their own strength, rebelled against their employer, causing the collapse of the ancient civilization and the beginning of the Middle Ages.
Knowledge and sin
And so «sin» is explained: the rebellion of the cybs is analogous to the rebellion of mankind against God; that is, the rebellion of the creature against its Creator. Moreover, it is «sin» in the first place because humanity, by creating robots with a false life, attempted to take God’s place as the Creator.
As a consequence, technology and science are forbidden and those who dabble in any kind of research or do their best to collect and study what little knowledge of the past still survives (called either «witches« or «warlocks», depending on the source: the story or the novel) are regarded with suspect and often killed by the irrational masses out of ignorance and fear: and yet one of them, the greatest warlock of all time, recently managed to assemble all the knowledge and components needed to create a cyb secretly, bound to become the main antagonist.
Even though most of the ancient knowledge is lost forever, in this bleak future old and new coexist: so on the one hand there’s no electricity, buildings are either stone castles or rubble shanties with the odd refitted skyscraper from the past used as the prison tower, wars are frequent and fought with medieval weapons and tactics; but on the other hand some relics of the ancient times still survive and are exploited by these techno-barbarians as long as they work. The starships, for example, that the priest class of the Navigators understands how to operate on a basic level but doesn’t know how they work, let alone repair them: so the hull interiors are lighted by fire and air becomes stale quickly, as the conditioners have been broken for centuries and ships carry horses and cattle as well as troops.
All of this buildup results in drawing a parallel to the Middle Ages, which sparks a reaction in the reader’s mind and benefits from this subconscious connection, as our imagination is used to fill this era with brutality, ignorance, obscurantism and religious fanaticism, with an overreliance on war and violence.
The Vulk, and everyone else
Anyhow, this is still a science fiction novel: and, what is more, it’s a space opera.
As such, we already have starships and an empire: so, what is still missing from it to be a full-fledged space opera? But of course: the aliens! And actually there’s aliens as well in the novel, not plenty maybe but only two of them, on behalf of their almost died out race: the Vulk, whose physical description depicts them as humanoids and small of stature, with an eyeless face and an immense head.
As usual, it was humanity that almost exterminated these aliens over the past centuries, the only intelligent species mankind had found in its expansion through the galaxy: they were a peaceful race without ambition who didn’t know violence and only had the misfortune of meeting a race – ours – with too much ambition and an uncanny fear of the unknown.
People were – and most still are – genuinely scared of the Vulk and their special senses: apparently blind, they can see things in a way humans can’t fathom and through this special vision of theirs they perceive things more clearly than any human can, even behind obstacles like walls or up to a certain distance. Moreover, they can read the innermost emotions of people around them and even understand how the complicated or broken machinery of the golden age works or the purpose it was built for.
Needless to say, these abilities still scare humans and even more so the common people, the poor, the ignorant, just like any other thing they can’t understand: hence they acted violently, killing and slaughtering the harmless Vulk. And yet a few of them survived and found refuge in the courts of the star kings, who value them for their strange ways and skills: indeed, they play instruments, sing with angelic voices, recite poems and stories of countless worlds and, above all, possess a wisdom no man possesses. They can also merge their minds with a human’s and give the target a godlike perception of thoughts, intentions and precognition: there’s a risk attached though, as the mind-merge might be too much to bear for the human and cause eternal madness.
Over the novel, both Vulk – and especially Kier’s alien, Gret – are shown as wise, helpful and empathetic with the good humans they interact with, who in turn appreciate them and value their company.
While I’m at it, I’ll also have a quick glance at the dozen two-dimensional cardboard characters that show up through the novel: I won’t go through each of them though but I’ll settle for dividing them into the two main blocks that clash in the novel.
On «team good guys» that roots for the empire are enlisted the main hero Kier (his name was Kieron in the original story), the twenty-something king of the starless planet Rhada in the Outer Marches; his retinue (the warlock Cavour, the general Nevus, the navigator priest Kalin and the Vulk Gret) and Ariane, nineteen-year old sister of the twelve-year old emperor Torquas, with her own Vulk, Erit.
On «team bad guys» are gathered instead the empress regent Mariana, twenty-something wife of Torquas, whom she imprisoned after extorting his abdication; her inept lover Landro, king of Vega, and the cyb Tallan, king of the planet Sarissa, who looks like a very tall and muscular and strong man: the warlock Kelber built and educated him years ago but then his creation killed him to prevent the warlock from building more.
Everyone else in the novel is just a wallflower.
Both a travel book and a page turner
Despite being an improvement on the original story, «The Rebel of Rhada» is still the epitome of an travel book: a very light read with a straightforward plot and just a single turn of events that was expected and doesn’t make the story any more intricate. Anyhow, it is still a very enjoyable novel, a real page turner: the setting is fascinating on its own, for the reasons I’ve presented at length above, and manages to keep the reader on the edge for most of the time. Everything goes as expected up to the mandatory happy end but even so reading the story is its own reward.
A few scenes, like the main cast’s tower breakout with a leap in the dark to the floating starship, are breathtaking; others, like the long descriptions of Nyor, formerly New York, the empire capital, and the flight deck rituals blending the sacred and the profane in pseudoreligious rites that include prayers, invocations, liturgical formulas and extracts from ancient textbooks whose meaning the navigator priests don’t understand but still recite by heart are pretty evocative and add a flavor to the setting and that techno-barbarian background the novel aims to stress.
Anyhow, there are still two concepts I’d wish to draw attention to: the main hero’s utter devotion to law and fealty to the central government; and the ruminations on human hubris that caused the collapse.
Despite a few skirmishes with the imperial authorities over taxes and land rights, which should make him the champion of liberties, Kier the star king is still loyal to the empire: he believes in the empire as the «glowing dream of a united, peaceful civilization stretching from one rim of the galaxy to the other». Few others share his vision, only those fortunate enough to be in a position of power: hence, those who can expect gains from a strong political body. But even his immediate aides, like Cavour the sharp-minded warlock and Nevus the strong-armed general, are more critical of the empire and see it for what it is: a yoke limiting the freedom of the people of a thousand worlds, turned into mere instruments for the ruling elite. Kier is led to notice their opinion but fails to acknowledge their reasons and dismisses it quickly, because «they see only the cost»: which is all the common people get, though.
Of the hubris that brought to the collapse of the golden age I’ve already talked exhaustively above, so I won’t drone on about it again: but I still wish to stress how relevant this concept is in the economy of the novel, it being tied to «sin». Not only goes Coppel into a detailed description of the first cybs rebellion, their motivations and their goals but he also somehow implies that this danger – the technology revolting against mankind – can never be ruled out completely as sin is a running mate of humanity: and the out-of-control technology of our time, the way it turns us into slaves every passing day rather than setting us free as it promised at first, shows we still have little understanding of how it works, and even less control of it.
As a man of the Sixties, Coppel had a positive opinion of technology, which – the novel suggests so – he saw as a tool to improve life: but unintentionally he’s also warning against a scenario that might become real in the near future; that is, our present.
Because humans and hubris are tightly tied together.