The other day I received The Dragon Never Sleeps in the mail. This wasn't exactly a surprise, since I had placed the order for it and everything, but I was quite excited regardless. I had a reasonably high opinion of the author, Glen Cook, and I had heard interesting things about the book. I am happy to report that I wasn't misled. The Dragon Never Sleeps starts off as a standard space opera about humanity's dominance over the heavens of the far future, but eventually you find yourself in an intriguing story about entropy, ossification, decadence, and the death of empires.
The dragon referenced in the title is no bloated flying lizard, but a warship. To be more precise it is a system of thirty-two great warships that defend humanity's Canon Imperium and its subjugated species from the myriad alien powers existing Outside the empire's frontiers. These enormous warships, called GuardShips, have been the greatest military force the known galaxy had ever seen for four thousand years. The system which keeps these ships in orbit is very nearly self-sustaining: each ship crewed by the cloned descendants of their original complement, commanded by battalions of esteemed captains of yesteryear who were “promoted” into the technological immortality of the ship's data banks. Each ship is serviced and repaired at a handful of enormous battlestations which are likewise crewed by clones of their original population, with non-essential personnel, infantry, and reserves kept in cryogenic suspension.
However, this system is falling apart. The Outsiders are growing more technologically proficient with every century and factions within the Empire likewise chafe at the draconian imperial system and seek to weaken it for their own gain. The GuardShips themselves are so isolated from both the empire at large and from each other that they have become distant, inhuman, brutal, and frankly “weird,” operating largely beyond the control or scope of the empire and becoming law unto themselves. Their military superiority remains, but it is a static technological plateau, unchanging for four thousand years, and the enemies beyond the border get closer and closer to achieving parity. The once-dominant humans no longer produce sufficient individuals of ambition and ability to run the state so subject aliens have begun to make up more and more of the imperial machine. Those of you seeing historical parallels will have your suspicions confirmed when I start listing some of the names of these GuardShips: I Primagenia, VII Gemina, IV Trajana, XII Fulminata, which are, of course the names of Roman legions. The story takes place in the late afternoon of this empire's life, when decisions must be made as to whether the empire will accept dramatic change to survive or if it will allow itself to be suffocated by the ossification of tradition and precedent.
Glen Cook is most famous for his fantasy novels, especially the Black Company series, which really showed the maturation of Cook's voice as a writer with an edgy style and rich, colorful dialogue. However, what Cook's books are really about is world-building, and exploring that world through glimpses as the reader follows the novel's plot. Cook's Garrett Files series is an excellent example, in which the Nero Wolfe-homage protagonists solve street-level crimes while the century long war between the nations of Karenta and Venageta over the silver mines of the Cantard desert rages in the background, with the specter of serious social and economic turmoil erupting should the war ever actually end and demobilization occur hanging over the setting. In The Dragon Never Sleeps, Cook explores the the crisis point of the declining empire through science fiction rather than his customary fantasy settings. The stagnation of the human empire is made abundantly clear (the imperial security force is named STASIS for crying out loud) but even subjugated aliens have mixed feelings about the imperial structure coming apart because the empire offered a bubble of order in a universe that had never known it before. Cook attempts to convey this complex structure through several initially unconnected parties who start at all levels of society, from the bridge of a GuardShip and an infantry squad in its cryo-hold to aliens and cast-off genetically engineered castoffs in the dystopian slums of a planet controlled by human House-corporations.
That is not to say the book is without problems. The ambitious scope of the book made me feel like Cook rushed through some segments to get to the next and the motives of some characters remained fairly opaque, and other times the book felt like it was engaging in some pointless detour about pointless characters. The 'detours' were not really pointless and had significance for the ending, but Cook doesn't do much to assure you of that at the time you are questioning the relevance of this or that particular subplot. The ending itself was enigmatic, leaving you to honestly wonder if the Empire (and its GuardShips) were able to survive in any form or if the structure had broken down and hundreds of tiny successor states were attempting to stem the tide against an influx of sinister, bloody-handed methane-breathers from the barbarian wastes of Outside. Nevertheless, on balance I'd say that I enjoyed the novel and would recommend it for pulpy light reading.