It is its own nemesis. Success is temporary, and idolization will not make the ephemeral permanent. Decay is implicit in the birth of any organism.
An empire is an organism.
Title: Star Bridge
Authors: Jack Williamson and James E. Gunn
Rating: 3/5 stars
A while back I was looking for more Gunn to read, and this was one of the books I picked up, although I hadn’t previously been aware of it. I’m glad it came to my attention, however, since it’s quite an enjoyable read. This is a spirited adventure story with plenty of fast-paced action, but also with a lot of deeper commentary about the nature of empires, freedom, and the forces that shape the affairs of humanity.
The golden-skinned Masters of Eron rule the many worlds of the human galaxy, by virtue of their monopoly on the technology of the Tubes. These star bridges are what make interstellar commerce and travel possible (unless you want to take a really long voyage by ship), and all the Tubes converge on Eron, the center of absolute power and control. Of course, not everyone is happy with the status quo, and Eron is accustomed to putting down rebellions. This, of course, only inspires more rebellions — an inherent problem for an empire whose primary management tool is force. Against this setting we follow Horn, who grew up in the Cluster, home of one of those failed rebellions. Drafted into the Eron military, Horn deserted and became a roaming adventurer, a gun for hire. Only now, he’s been hired for what seems a suicide mission: to assassinate one of Eron’s Masters!
At first impression, this is a straightforward adventure story, guilty of some of the pulp sensibilities of the age in which it was written. The hero is a Manly Man of uncommon strength and intelligence, who wondrously manages to get out of every jam he gets into, and over whom the women swoon, of course. However, the novel is not nearly that simplistic. The protagonist Horn is supremely capable and skillful, yes, but not so much so that he’s beyond the reach of self-doubt. In fact, he spends a great deal of time wrestling with himself, wondering whether his actions and decisions have been the right ones, or if he even could have chosen differently. His attitude is sometimes forthrightly optimistic, as he declares his belief in the power of a single man to shape his own destiny. At other times his outlook is much more bleak, and he is haunted by the specter of determinism:
But there wasn’t any choice. A quarry has but one function: to run. When he stops, he is finished; the game is over. Horn sat in the darkness staring at eight floating choices and reflected how inevitability had channeled his actions since he had left the Cluster. Since he had accepted the money from the voice in the darkness, there had been only one step to take, and he had taken it; one path to follow, and he had followed it. Beyond, it had seemed, there would be choice; never now.
It seems probable this book was at least partly inspired by Asmiov’s Foundation series. Common to both is a concern with empires and their decay, and with the possibility of large-scale social prediction. Maybe all these authors were just kicking around the same kinds of ideas at the same time. But passages like this one bring to mind Asimov’s psychohistory:
Atoms and men….
They are moved by certain general forces in accordance with certain general laws, and their movements can be predicted in certain broad generalizations.
Physical forces, historical forces — if a man knew the laws of of one as well as he knew the laws of the other, he could predict the reactions of a culture as accurately as the reactions of a rocket ship.
The action portions of the book have a sort of Alfred Bester quality; it’s Horn getting into one crazy unexpected situation after another, and getting out again just as wildly. At times these situations comes across as almost too frivolous or whimsical, but it never becomes too much to bear since they are balanced against the book’s more serious passages. I’ll end this with one more of those, in which Gunn and Williamson offer a grand cyclical view of history and freedom:
“The love of freedom dies as the memory of its alternative fades. Oh, it’s not a sudden thing. It takes generations, centuries. But gradually it slips away. And it’s more than that. There is a time for freedom, just as there is a time for empire. [...] When its job is done, empire disappears, and it is freedom’s turn to revive the human spirit by the challenge of the infinite horizon. And then, when men begin to grow too far apart, empire will return to unite them again.”