The Conquerors Trilogy (1994–96)
With this trilogy Timothy Zahn covers the most well-trodden ground there is in SF: it's a space opera. A rather conventional one, too, without the touches of cyberpunk and 1990s inventions that lend much of the mood and excitement to its contemporary, S. Andrew Swann's Hostile Takeover series.
The background is all too familiar. Humanity has expanded into space and spawned colonies. Several alien species were encountered, not always peacefully, but human technology always proved superior. The result is a small empire, the Commonwealth, an uneasy alliance of human factions and various alien races, held together by the Peacekeeper forces, who are strongly dominated by the Norther Coordinate Union. (An obvious parallel to the US/NATO-dominated UN.) The routine is abruptly interrupted when a group of ships of a new self-starfaring species is detected. The human task force sent to make first contact is attacked without warning and annihilated in record time. A single survivor, Pheylan Cavanagh, is taken prisoner and examined/interrogated by the aliens. Meanwhile his family tries to mount a rescue expedition, eventually led by his brother Aric, while their father Lord Stewart Cavanagh explores dark machinations within the Commonwealth, involving the Mrachani race, and Pheylan's sister Melinda gets stuck on the planet Dorcas when this world is invaded by the aliens who have by then been named Conquerors.
This first volume elicits a feeling of déjà vu. There's nothing original at all, however it is well-written and the different story lines, mostly seen from the viewpoints of the various members of the illustrious Cavanagh family, make for an engaging novel that is surprisingly hard to put down.
The sequel, which despite its premise turns out much less gripping than the first book, starts with a complete turnabout in perspective: it continues the tale of what has evolved into a full-blown interstellar war from the viewpoint of the alien Zhirrzh, called Conquerors in the Commonwealth, but using the same name for the humans. This is only one of several tragicomic similarities between the two peoples. Both lead comparable empires, including dark intrigue lurking within. Both are enormously impressed by the other side's technology and must accept the conclusion that their opponents have access to potentially war-determining means previously considered physically impossible. But most importantly, both can justly claim that they were first and without reason attacked by the others. Early on the reader learns about an extremely surprising pecularity of the Zhirrsh, the only original concept in the trilogy, which eventually leads to an understanding of the tragicalness of the war.
In a preview by the publisher, the third volume was originally projected as written from the point of view of an AI. I guess this proved too ambitious. Rather the perspective changes among the humans and Zhirrzh known from the previous books, as well as (rarely) said AI. After the slowdown of the middle book, the concluding part picks up pace until it is rushing headlong towards an excessively complex climax which must then be resolved in a hurry to avoid overflowing the publisher's limit with the already largest page count of the books in the series.
Overall, the Conquerors trilogy is solid entertainment, although it appears that Zahn's execution doesn't quite measure up to his original ambitions. And there are flaws: The description of the Zhirrzh culture turns out rather bland. Despite the obvious efforts by Zahn and the very powerful premise he constructs, the alien mindset is hardly alien. There is also a particular quality to Zahn's style which I hardly noticed at first but then found increasingly irritating: he is very sparse with descriptions. There's a noticeable amount of techno-babble about weapon systems, but we never even learn how most of the war craft look like. Alien races other than the Zhirrzh are characterized with a minimum of detail, not enough to picture them with any degree of confidence. Zahn's space combat scenes are excitingly written but totally implausible, being based on anachronistic technology. Apart from a total lack of even proposed physical foundation, the consequences of the Zhirrzhs' pecularity aren't well-considered either. Engineers will doubt that this people could ever develop an advanced industrial civilization much less space travel.
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