This review contains spoilers.
The protagonist of Max Gladstone’s Empress of Forever is Vivian Liao, a queer tech billionaire with the unstated aim of tearing it all down from the inside – “it” being global capitalism and the uneven distribution of power that’s associated with it. Her radicalism’s attracting the wrong kind of attention from the wrong kind of people, though, and so she goes underground, working on a plan to exploit third-party systems her own company built in order to create the world’s first true AI. Mid-implementation, though, something…happens, and she wakes up in a posthuman far future ruled by the titular Empress, a titanic figure revered and hated in equal measure by the citizens of a galaxy who have long since achieved functional immortality by having their souls, in effect, backed up to the cloud.
In order to return to twenty-first century Earth, she reasons, she needs to find the Empress. Her companions in this adventure are Hong, a monk of the Mirrorfaith, who study the Empress’ works with an almost fanatical devotion; Zanj, a legendary pirate queen who’s been imprisoned in the heart of a star for the last three thousand years, at the Empress’ behest; and Xiara, pilot extraordinaire, Viv’s love interest and daughter of a society destroyed by, yes, the Empress.
As a novel about the posthuman, Empress of Forever is centrally concerned with the borders of the self and the edges of the human. In a universe where you can teleport to anywhere through the cloud, your body reassembled from whatever materials are handy upon arrival; where the bodies of people like Hong are filled with circuitry; where people like Xiara can bond with the mind of a ship until they forget the way back to their organic bodies; what does “human”, as a concept, actually mean? More pertinent, though, is the replicability of the self in such a universe. The novel makes extensive use of doppelgangers and doubles: it turns out, for instance, that Viv herself is the result of one of the Empress’ experiments, which involved running thousands of simulations of herself in order to find the solution to the Bleed, a phenomenon that consumes any civilisation that grows too technologically advanced. In a very real sense, then, Viv is the Empress – a realisation that forces her to grapple with her own capacity for authoritarianism. Similar doublings in the novel likewise ask the characters to reconsider their sense of self and identity in a universe that troubles the boundaries of subjectivity.
This is not especially groundbreaking stuff thematically speaking, but it works well because of Gladstone’s finely developed characterisation: Zanj and Viv in particular are nuanced and complex people who go well beyond generic stereotypes, and Empress of Forever is one of those rare genre novels that I’d say is actually more interested in its character arcs than it is in its genre trappings or plot – which, while there is a plot it’s quite episodic and, as I remarked to the Bandersnatch at the time, distinctly reminiscent of an RPG tabletop game.
Where it does fall down is that, like much of the SFF work I’ve read that deals with the posthuman (Hannu Rajaniemi’s Quantum Thief series, Gladstone’s own novella co-written with Amal El-Mohtar This Is How You Lose the Time War, Dempow Torishima’s Sisyphean), it fails to think – communally. What I mean by that is that although there are communities in the novel (Xiara’s clan, the Mirrorfaith, etc.), they are all predatory or threatening communities that our heroes must escape in order to continue their quest narrative. Perhaps that’s part of the point: the Empress works to restrict individual communities’ technological development in order to keep the Bleed away, and in doing so creates the kind of atomisation and mutual mistrust that also pertains under late capitalism. And there’s an argument to be made that Viv, Zanj, Hong and Xiara form a kind of found family, bringing together their different strengths and experiences to achieve their goals – a new community, an alliance against the dark. But, hmm. Ultimately the story is centred on Viv’s self-actualisation, and although it feels weird to complain about a novel doing what novels do (viz., focus on the self-actualisation of a bourgeois subject), I have this sense that literature of the posthuman has the potential to be vastly more radical than it actually is? It would be nice if these stories which are about the boundaries of the self could move away a little from their capitalistic focus on individual fulfilment. The posthuman self always seems so isolated, despite the fact that it inhabits a universe where reaching and working with others should be easier than ever.
I do want to stress that I enjoyed Empress of Forever immensely. I loved the strange, baroque universe Gladstone creates; the sharp wit of his prose, at a sentence level; its interest in deep, nuanced characterisation; its refreshing lack of a male gaze. (Viv hardly ever goes a chapter without remembering an old flame, usually one we haven’t encountered before, which some might find a bit much but which I actually kind of appreciated as an acknowledgement that queer people can have busy romantic pasts too.) It is a really strong example of its genre, and it’s an absolute pleasure to read. I just don’t think it ever manages to transcend its genre and fulfil its radical potential.