As of this writing, in September 2017, Grand Master Robert Silverberg has come out with no fewer than 78 sci-fi novels, almost 450 short stories and novellas, around 70 books of nonfiction, and around 185 novels of, um, “adult fiction,” in addition to having edited over 130 anthologies. He has garnered for himself four Hugo Awards and six Nebula Awards in the process. The man’s prolific work pace is understandably legendary. Thus, it might strike some that his fans’ clamoring for more, yet more, is wholly unreasonable. After all, the man is currently 82; doesn’t he deserve a break, and a restful retirement? (The author, to his loyal readers’ chagrin, has not released a full-length novel since 2003’s Roma Eterna, while 2013’s Tales of Majipoor was a loose-knit collection of short stories.) And yet, some might counterargue, didn’t Grand Master Jack Williamson release his final book, The Stonehenge Gate, when he was all of 97? Well, as if in answer to the pleas of Silverberg’s many loyal readers, Subterranean Press has just come out with the author’s first extended piece of work in many years, the novella-length space opera The Emperor and the Maula. And the good news is that short and slight as this new release is, it yet turns out to be very much worth the wait, and finds the beloved writer in typically fine form, indeed.
As Silverberg tells us in the book’s introduction, this piece was written to serve as the initial third of a three-part novel; the second 2/3 were to be written by two other authors. After Silverberg had written his third, the project fell through when Byron Preiss, the project’s editor and originator, was killed in an auto accident. Flash forward 10 years, to 2005, when Silverberg was asked to contribute a story to an anthology called The New Space Opera. Hating to waste a good piece of work, the author chopped his unpublished 30,000-word novella down to 15,000, and thus it did finally see the light of day, in that severely truncated form and with a new ending tacked on to provide closure. And new, 12 years further on, the world is finally being given the author’s full 30,000-word original, but with that added ending in place to round things out.
The Emperor and the Maula is, basically, an updating of the Scheherazade story from One Thousand and One Arabian Nights. The book takes place in the year 3001 (the three-part novel was to be called 3001: Millennial Stars), 18 years after the Ansaar Empire has conquered and annexed the planet Earth. The Ansaar have already conquered 3/5 of the galaxy during the course of their 90,000-year history, and have made it a capital crime for any of the residents of the defeated “maula” (or “barbarian”) worlds to set foot on their holy central planet of Haraar, where resides the Ansaar emperor, Ryah VII. But as Silverberg’s book opens, a 34-year-old Earthwoman, Laylah Walis, is seen stepping off a starship at the Haraar spaceport, seemingly almost begging for execution. Laylah is promptly arrested and sentenced to death, but word of her daring stunt ultimately reaches the emperor’s ears, and he demands that she be brought before him, so that he might learn the reasons for her audacious act; the first such crime in over 640 years. And so, before her scheduled execution at dawn, Laylah begins to tell her story, but, as had Scheherazade done thousands of years before, she continually ends her tale on a cliffhanger note, causing Ryah to extend the time of her demise one more day … and another … and another, until all of Laylah’s fascinating story is told in full.
And what a story it is! Laylah tells of her experiences when the Ansaar first conquered her world, when she was only 16; how she had been coerced by the Ansaar to do research for them, while actually becoming friendly with the Procurator-Adjutant in the process; of her experiences during Earth’s revolt against the conquering race; and of how she had spent 17 years exploring the conquered worlds of the Empire as a sort of Ansaaran liaison. It is a fascinating tale for the reader … and for the emperor, too, apparently, judging by his inability to allow the execution of this maula woman to go forward.
Silverberg seems to be enjoying himself hugely as he paints his tale in The Emperor and the Maula, throwing in dabs of color and sharp detail while keeping things light with pleasing glints of humor; indeed, Ryah VII himself is compelled to remark on Laylah’s “circumstantial details that you paint so well.” Thus, we are given tear-shaped hover cars; the Ansaaran weapon known as the Vax, a fist-sized, orbiting device that helps the Empire conquer the Earth; the concept of “face names and soul names;” a description of the astounding castle of Earth resistance leader Simon Kreish; and some truly evocative conjurings of some of the planets that Laylah has visited (“Sepulmideine, the World of Chained Moons, where the sky burns with fragrant fires — to Mikkal-throm, where the Emperor Gorn XIX lies buried in a stasis tomb that will not open for fifty thousand Imperial years — to Gambelimeli-dinul, the pleasure-world of the Eastern territories…”). The author lets his imagination run freely here, even to the inclusion of outrageous Ansaaran names (Loompan Chilidor, Domtel Tribuso, Graligal Dren, Twimat Dulik, Jjai Haunt and on and on) and planet names (Geeziyangiyang, Gimmil Gib-Huish, Giallo Giallo, etc). Not to mention some pretty funny albeit indecipherable Ansaaran curses (“Gedoy his gevasht!” “Vipraint the executioner! Kiplaa him!” “Gedoy the duties of the court!”). The bureaucratic buck passing of Chapters 1 and 2 is also highly amusing.
Silverberg’s/Laylah’s story is fast moving and unputdownable, and slim as it is (the novella just barely exceeds 150 large-print pages), the reader might easily feel compelled to take it in in one or two breathless sittings. We feel Ryah’s frustration when Laylah stops her story each day at dawn; like him, we want this charming spinner of tales to continue on and on. Laylah really is a remarkably fine narrator, telling her story in a simple yet forceful style, throwing in quotes from Defoe and Richard II along the way as if to let us know that this so-called “barbarian” is hardly uneducated. No wonder the emperor slowly but surely manages to fall under her spell…
To tell the truth, I did have a few very minor problems with Silverberg’s latest release, my main one being that The Emperor and the Maula is rather on the slender side (and whether you will want to shell out a hardcover price for such a slender affair is entirely up to you). The author tells us in his intro that back in 1995, he had many ideas as to how the two authors who would pick up his tale after him might possibly proceed, and it would have been wonderful if he could have thus enlarged on those ideas today himself. (You see … we fans really can’t get enough of a good thing!) The only other quibble that I had with this otherwise very fine novella is when the author tells us that there is a locality on Earth known as the Plain of Oracles (where “swarms of virtual realities cluster and hive”) and a site on the planet of Grand Binella known as the Oracle Plain. Isn’t that too much of a similarity for such a slim book?
But other than these two minor beefs, I was left a fairly happy customer here. “Expert professional work is what I specialize in,” the author writes in his intro, and that is most assuredly the case here. Silverberg also tells us in his intro that he hopes that this novella’s long-delayed appearance, with its more recent tacked-on ending, will lead to a “satisfactory resolution” for his readers, and he needn’t have been concerned. Slender as it is, The Emperor and the Maula really is a wonderful piece of work. Welcome back, champ … we missed you! And if this greedy Silverberg fan might quote from another great literary figure, “Please, sir, may I have some more?”