Kevin J. Anderson is a familiar name in several fandoms, as an author of novels in the Star Wars, Dune and X-Files universes, as well as several movie novelizations. I got hooked, though by a universe of his own making, that of The Saga of the Seven Suns.
Recently, the Saga concluded with The Ashes of Worlds (Saga of Seven Suns), a dire title if ever one was written. The Saga is a typical science fiction epic, as it spans 7 multi-hundred page novels, a few dozen worlds, and many many POV characters, human, alien, and mechanical.
As a science fiction fan, I am enthralled by the detail and complexity of the series while frustrated at the never ending series long wars that seem likely to extinguish all life in the galaxy as Ashes of Worlds draws to a close. As a feminist the story is a bit less complex, hopefully a bit more subtle.
Humans are split into only three rival societies in Anderson’s view of the future; the Terrean Hanseatic League rules through subterfuge and showmanship the majority of the human race; all of Earth and most of her colonies. The Hansa is to all intents and purposes completely egalitarian in the actual distribution of power, presents an extremely male front; the Chairman who actually rules everything and the leaders of the military and government are equally male and female and no fuss is made about it whatsoever, while the public figureheads of government are a puppet king and a puppet Archfather of a pretend faith called Unison.
One colony, on the planet Theroc, lives in a symbiotic relationship with a nongendered sentient forest organism. The humans are led more than governed by a Mother and Father who are usually married and seem co-equal, although what function they actually have on peaceful and sleepy Theroc is rather indeterminate. More importantly, the green priests – humans who have melded with the forest entity telepathically and taken on some interesting plant characteristics, specifically green skin and nourishment by photosynthesis – are as frequently male as female.
The final human society is the Roamers, a lost colony whose generation ship was disabled and who founded their society in space, as couriers and merchants, eking a living from asteroids and ice balls and nebulas. It is unclear whether their Speaker is always female, but both Speakers known to the series are.
Throughout human space the nuclear family holds. There are no gay or celibate characters, no alternative lifestyles. Fathers can be made to do unspeakable things by holding their families hostage, as the mad Chairman Wenceslas finds to his glee. The Roamers, while seemingly the least tradition bound, still consider the oldest male to be the patriarch of the family, and still make family alliances through engaging their daughters to other’s sons (though the whole thing is very friendly and the series has yet to meet a really bad guy – or gal – other than the Chairman).
The second race is the alien Ildirans, peaceful, staid, and extremely bound to tradition. The Ildiran society is ancient and has evolved itself into genetically dissimilar castes. The members of the servant caste, for example, live to serve the Mage-Imperator, while the guard kithmen live to defend him and so on. Ildiran society is happy and safe, until the humans stir an ancient foe and rekindle an unimaginable war, bringing old and shameful secrets to the surface.
Early in the series the Mage-Imperator dies and passes the burden of supporting and directing the telepathic thism connection whereby every Ildiran is connected to every other to his Prime Designate, Jora’h. Jora’h has succeeded into a changed universe, and is himself changed by a lost love affair with a green priest, whose fate he learns when he inherits all his father’s secrets. And Jora’h immediately embarks on the trampling of tradition. His daughter Yazra’h becomes his highest guard, her gender a horror to those who know to care about such things. He continues to walk about and even (gasp) travel to other planets, things a Mage-Imperator does not do.
It is a time of changes, as the hydrogues who live in the gas giant planets war with the faeros who live in suns, taking time out to fight the water wentals and the forest (you got it, air, fire, water, earth) entity. Long long ago a distant Mage-Imperator made a pact with the mechanical Klikiss robots to broker a peace with the hydrogues in exchange for helping the robots destroy their creator race, the Klikiss (nasty war-loving bug creatures who paradoxically love music), and all the chickens are coming home to roost.
It’s a long, long story, full of humans and Ildirans getting caught up in a mythic battle they really have no concept of. It’s nice to see women in positions of power and respect and influence – owning a shipping company, being a former Hansa chairman, ambassadors, confidante to the Mage-Imperator, being the lone human survivor of years with the Klikiss. On the other hand, the series fails at depicting human society evolving into anything even as diverse as it is today. It shows an ancient alien race learning something from the passionate and quick-witted humans; it contrasts the power-mad (faeros incarnate Rusa’h, mad Chairman Wenceslas, the previous Mage-Imperator, General Lanyon) with people of integrity (King Peter & Queen Estarra, shipping company owner Rlinda Kett, new Mage-Imperator Jora’h) and all the people caught in the middle, both strong and weak.
But ultimately, it reads like the utopia (despite the wars) of someone who hasn’t thought deeply about class and privilege. The traditional family structure is the only method of sexuality in far-flung humanity, and Ildira is quite content with its strict class system. Women are mostly presented without fanfare as coequal with men, with the possible caveat that the few evil characters are always male, as though such a thing could happen in such a traditional society. As such, I would say that the story and the author may have some things to say about the nature of good and evil, but little to say about certain evils like oppression.