Vivian Liao, heroine of Max Gladstone’s space opera romp The Empress of Forever, is a tech billionaire. Elon Musk is mentioned by name as a colleague and/or competitor. This is… an interesting choice. Not that this novel is all “Yay tech billionaires!” It’s all about confronting Viv with the consequences of her own supervillain instincts, deconstructing part of the genius entrepreneur myth. It doesn’t appear to notice there are other parts it’s failed to question.
Viv is a nice billionaire. Sort of. Yes, she got rich by designing Clearview-style surveillance software, but she gives her workers free housing (in “targeted congressional districts”) and gets relief workers (branded with “Liao Industries livery”) to hurricane victims before FEMA. Her self-dealing charity has pissed off the vaguely defined near-future government. At any moment Viv expects to be hauled off to a black site for torture. So she disappears and hatches a cunning plan to hack into and take control of all the computers in the world, which is apparently a thing she can do. For high-minded purposes, mind you. She plans to save the world. (And maybe crush her enemies just a little.)
So Viv breaks into a very important server room and uploads a virus. In a welcome non sequitur, a green glowing Empress pops out of nowhere and sticks her hand into Viv’s chest. When Viv wakes up it’s thousands of years in the future and a space monk is fighting a knife robot. What follows is portal science fiction, throwing a contemporary character into a space opera the way a portal fantasies send their protagonists to fairyland. It has a typical epic fantasy plot, the overthrow of a tyrannical monarch–a few thousand years ago, to avoid attracting alien predators called the Bleed, the Empress took over the galaxy and started pruning overly ambitious civilizations.
Structurally, Empress of Forever is an episodic story bookended by plot, like a TV series balanced between a continuing story and self-contained episodes. Viv visits different planets, deals with local problems and accumulates allies–Hong, the monk; Zanj, a crabby three-thousand-year-old warlord; Xiara, a pilot; and Gray, an intelligent mass of grey goo. Viv levels up and seeks out the Empress for a confrontation and a plot twist most readers will see coming long before Viv catches on. (I will have no compunction about spoiling this in a few paragraphs.)
Shortly after Viv wakes up she and Hong find themselves diving into a miles-long elevator shaft and wrestling a robot in free fall. During fights Zanj grows extra arms, hangs in midair, or moves faster than Viv can see. Like a Hollywood blockbuster, this book tends to resolve situations with action set pieces, and it’s the exaggerated, hyperkinetic action encouraged by unlimited CGI budgets. The result is that Viv’s adventures can feel arbitrary. This is one of those stories where you come away unable to recall what the characters did, but remembering how their relationships developed. Viv’s ultimate plan is “get everyone together and do a handwavy thing so we can reach the Empress and beat up on her,” which doesn’t feel clever. It’s more like a middling episode of Star Trek: Voyager where the crew solves the space anomaly of the week by emitting particles. But the important part of the climax is the thematic meaning and emotional core of Viv’s showdown with the Empress. The mechanics of how she gets there aren’t interesting. Luckily the novel is actually good at developing those relationships and delivering that emotional core, so they don’t necessarily have to be–although if they were, it would have been a nice bonus.
Empress of Forever keeps the narrator invisible, sticking to close third person. It feels less jumpy than books with this narrative style usually do because it has fewer points of view and stays in them longer. The novel only strays from Viv when her POV doesn’t have access to a vital chunk of story. The prose is readable–nothing special, but good enough for a lightweight adventure story, which is, after all, what this is. Stylistically it’s space opera written as epic fantasy. In SF terms, everything is full of nanites and internet; some characters mentally merge with entire fleets of spaceships, others are intelligent gray goo. Everyone’s constantly online, their minds uploaded to the space internet–the “Cloud”–which can rebuild their bodies and teleport them through space. In practice, everything is described in mythic language. People talk about the Cloud like a spiritual realm that holds their “souls.” They’re disturbed Viv doesn’t seem to have one.
The story explicitly riffs on Journey to the West (it’s most obvious when Zanj shows up; she has fur and a monkey’s tail). It literalizes, if not actual Buddhist philosophy (I don’t know enough about it to judge), at least a typical Western understanding of Buddhist philosophy. Viv finds she can escape handcuffs and see doors Hong can’t because she’s not hooked into the Cloud. The Cloud isn’t telling her (as it is Hong) that the handcuffs are locked and the door isn’t there. The Cloud is illusion, and Viv can see through it. Later Hong helps the gang escape from the Empress’s traps by recognizing they have no stable selves for the Cloud to pin down and bind: “There are pieces of me in all of you, and pieces of you in me. We are all empty of inherent form. Trace the threads of each of us, and you find not just the others, but the entire universe.” Their individual identities are shaped by the people around them, so they bleed into each other.
Which segues into the book’s other theme, undermining the Randian myth of the genius entrepreneur. The Empress is Viv, a few thousand years after taking control of Earth; Viv is a simulation of her earlier self given flesh. Viv branches away from the Empress when, forced to choose between a friend’s safety and victory over her enemies, Viv chose her friend. She learns to connect and cooperate with people instead of controlling them from the top down, nudging them with intrusive software or just ordering them around. Instead of treating people as minions or tools she puts their needs on par with her own. The solution to the Bleed is one Viv could come up with but the Empress couldn’t: to recognize it’s not an enemy, just a Cloud-based life form fighting the Empress’s control the only way it knows how.
But the book’s treatment of the genius tech entrepreneur myth is where we run up against its limitations. Yes, it realizes the lone genius is a myth. But why does it take the idea that Viv is any kind of genius at all at face value?
Vivian Liao is a recognizable type. Our culture sees certain entrepreneurs and certain companies as geniuses, innovators. They’re CEOs with the personae of gurus, people who get profiled in magazines. They’re young and enthusiastic about technology to the point of self-parody. They run tech or tech-adjacent companies like Uber, Facebook, Theranos, and WeWork. They have apps. That’s the kind of billionaire Viv is: the celebrity innovator. Her braid is her trademark, like Steve Jobs’s black turtleneck. She turns up on magazine covers.
Most of these people aren’t that bright.
They have programming skills, and they’re clever in specific ways that help them make wads of cash. Often this just means they have the charisma to talk investors into backing nonsense. Even the successful tech companies rarely do anything new or useful. Uber is just unregulated taxis you call through an app instead of a phone number, Facebook is a restrictive replacement for personal websites that sells your information to advertisers. Tech companies build smart juicers that do nothing customers couldn’t do with their bare hands and design algorithms camouflaging prejudice as math.
Ask a tech genius to solve a real problem and they’ll try to put it on a blockchain and feed it Soylent. Soylent is the archetypical example of modern innovation, actually, because it incompetently “solves” nonexistent problems in two ways at once: hardly anyone finds food so inconvenient they’re willing to trade it for joyless glop, and anybody with an actual need to go on a liquid diet already had better options. I’m skeptical that the golden children of Silicon Valley would handle getting tossed into a space opera as well as Arthur Dent, much less the schoolteachers, stewardesses and office temps on Doctor Who.
Empress of Forever takes place in a world where entrepreneurs really are scintillatingly brilliant. Viv is exactly the sharp, adaptable prodigy the typical gushing profile would imagine her to be. This seems… well, unlikely. It doesn’t help that Viv’s vocabulary is full of ridiculous jargon: “She’d almost said minimum viable escape plan instead of a way out of this, but somehow she doubted the Mirrorfaith, whatever that was, knew much about development methodology.” She actually thinks of her decision making process as an “OODA loop.” But Viv’s knowledge of tech-industry philosophy and management-babble is precisely what Empress of Forever identifies as her superpower!
“[Viv] didn’t know this place,” says Empress of Forever, “but she knew how to manage a team.” Viv doesn’t understand the world she finds herself in and can’t access the all-important Cloud, but she’s a natural leader. At one point the gang’s spaceship is crashing. Viv doesn’t know how anything works but she knows (better than the 3000 year old woman!) what everybody needs to be doing, and coordinates it. Viv’s character arc is about learning to lead without dictatorial control. That’s a lesson a lot of real executives could use: the corporate world has pushed workplace surveillance to levels that would creep out Frederick Winslow Turner. But the issue is how Viv leads; that leadership is her natural talent is never in question.
One of the foundational myths of American business culture is that anyone with management training can manage any organization at all, even with no experience in its field, moving from marketing to health care to higher education. Empress of Forever takes this idea at face value. Viv founded Liao Industries; of course she can zap thousands of years into the future and immediately captain a starship. How hard could it be?
There’s precedent for this in fantastic fiction. One common character is the naïve but earnest person whose power is a talent for collecting friends and inspiring them to be their best selves. Think Farscape, or The Wizard of Oz. The hero may not be strong or brave or know the world very well but, like the Dude’s carpet, they really pull the group together. That’s what Empress of Forever is doing. So am I just looking for something to object to? Why did this story rub me the wrong way?
Well, it’s one thing when the natural leader is a wisecracking astronaut, or a kid. I’m more uneasy when it’s a wealthy entrepreneur. Our culture tells us these are our natural leaders even though they’re just clearly not, and that any leader can lead anything even though they just clearly can’t. And as I write this, thousands of Americans are dying from COVID–19 because a few million Americans thought a reality TV host could manage the executive branch of the federal government, and that President thinks his real estate developer son-in-law can manage a pandemic response. So on this subject I’m in the mood to be cranky.
Empress of Forever is a fun book. But it’s a book that sets out to teach us a lesson about billionaire entrepreneurs and ends up worshiping them anyway.
The few comments on the excerpt I linked complain about the “tonal shift” and speculate on whether it’s deliberate. I’ve said this before, but SF fans are the most unimaginative and unadventurous readers in the world. ↩
Also, the Soylent guy thinks it’s more efficient to buy new clothes and give them away when dirty than to do laundry. ↩