From the title of the novel, and indeed from its cover description, one might be mistaken for thinking that ‘The Empire of Fear’ is a horror novel. In fact, Empire is a work of science fiction, and more precisely of alternative history. For those not au fait with this little subgenre, alternative history involves the telling of a story set in a background which is different from what we know to be true. Not all such stories are necessarily set in the past (despite the genre title), but many indeed are, and are essentially tales set in historical backgrounds subtly (or, sometimes, not-so-subtly) altered by a change in the chain of events which has happened in our own (‘ordinary’?) history: for example, Robert Harris’ ‘Fatherland’ assumes a Nazi victory in World War 2, and Keith Roberts’ ‘Pavane’ assumes that Elizabeth I was assassinated and that the Spanish Armada subsequently conquered England. As for what, exactly, it is that has been changed in the course of history to lead to the circumstances we find in The Empire of Fear, we do not find out until near the end, and on this occasion I will not put that Spoiler into the review. Needless to say, with a society which includes Vampires, bona fide at least to the point that they drink blood, live essentially forever and cannot feel pain, the historical change is of considerably larger scale and of perhaps more obscurity than those examples named above, but be under no illusions: The Empire of Fear IS a work of science fiction, in which a serious attempt has been made to plausibly explain the alternative history, and indeed the biological changes which have occurred within that history. Neither the story nor the tone are that of a horror novel. The majority of the novel is based around Noell Cordery and set in the 17th Century. The first section, ‘The Fruits of Passion’, however, is based around Cordery’s f
ather, Edmund, who is a member of a secret society dedicated to destroying the dominion of the vampires over Grand Normandy (Britain), and yet is also an ex-lover of a member of the vampire aristocracy, vampire women being almost irresistibly attractive as a nature of their being. After learning of an African plague which, shockingly, has the power to kill vampires as well as humans, Edmund has a sample brought back to London, and after infecting himself he sleeps once again with his ex-lover, and becomes the first man in memory to kill a vampire (and himself in the process). In the second section, ‘The Shadow of Eternity’ we join Noell as a young man in hiding at Cardigan Abbey, studying the ways of the vampires in the many forbidden texts possessed by the monks there. Unfortunately, the place is invaded by the infamous sea-pirate Langoisse and his henchmen after their ship was wrecked, and soon Cordery finds himself forced to flee not only the Abbey but England itself. The third and fourth sections (‘The Breath of Life’ and ‘The Season of Blood’) find Cordery in Africa. At first he and his former tutor, Quintus, operate a trading post but, after finding out about a legendary place known as Adamawara from a young, inquisitive native boy called Ntikima, a group including Noell, Quintus and Langoisse and his friends (including Langoisse’s mistress Leilah, who loves Noell though her feelings are not reciprocated) decide to travel there, in the hope of discovering the secret of the vampires (or, in Langoisse’s case, in the hope of finding a huge load of treasure). Having arrived with their group extremely depleted and the health of all of them in a dire state, the group gradually discover the secret of how to make vampires, and hastily depart before they outstay their welcome amongst this ceremony-bound yet unpredictable people. Unfortunately, for some unknown reason, Noell is unable to make vampires out
of everybody … including himself. Part Five, ‘The Blood of Martyrs’, features Cordery and his allies, who now include a militant religious order known as the Order of St. John, besieged by a vampire-led army led by Vlad Tepes and Richard the Lionheart, both high-ranking vampires, on the island of Malta. Richard has lost his throne in England, and Cordery’s ally Sir Kenelm Digby has been appointed Lord Protector due to the chaos caused by Cordery when he released his secret to the world, but this does not help Cordery and Quintus in Malta. Hopelessly outnumbered, their forces are beaten on Malta, and Cordery and Quintus themselves taken into custody and eventually burned at the stake as heretics. The sixth section, ‘The World, The Flesh and The Devil’, is set much later in the same world, in 1983. Michael Southerne suffers from Cordery’s Syndrome, which means that he, unlike the vast majority of the population, cannot be converted into an emortal. He has also crippled himself in an accident, now having one essentially lame leg. After a narrow escape of a cliff from an encroaching tide from which he only just managed to escape due to his injuries, Southerne seeks shelter in an isolated shack, to be accommodated by Leilah. As a man shocked to learn he will have only a ‘short’ lifespan in a world whose oldest members were alive at the time of Christ, Southerne discovers the benefits of being the lover of a vampire lady, and resolves nonetheless to carry on living. Although I have read several of his short stories in ‘Interzone’, this is the first novel by Brian Stableford that I have read. The Empire of Fear, by the standards of any author, however, is a major and memorable work of its field, and a definite benchmark against which I would judge other alternative history novels I read in the future. Both in terms of imagination and depth of research (and hence plausibility) this
is a very impressive tale indeed. The first section of the book is essentially a device to set up the situation found in the alternative history in the reader’s mind; a large proportion of the known Vampire history is hinted at, the task of scientific analysis of the condition is introduced, Africa is mentioned as an important place (at this stage, actually as a location at which the DEATH of vampires has been achieved), and the almost irresistibly seductive nature of vampire women — which will surface time and again during Noell Cordery’s adventures — is shown, with the relationship between Edmund and Lady Carmilla portrayed well. Perhaps the largest achievement, however, is the fact that Stableford manages to carry off all of this set-up without making it seem a chore for the reader: Edmund’s love-hate relationship with vampires is convincingly drawn and brought to a suitably dramatic conclusion, and we get to see those events which will shape much of Noell’s life (we already know that he will become the central character of the novel due to the publisher’s blurb). The main body of the novel lies within parts two to five, and this is an epic in itself. Noell Cordery is what I have read is the typical Stableford protagonist, a rather awkward man stuck in the shadow of someone else, a man driven by curiosity rather than by the more typical urges of heroism, revenge or sheer masculinity — indeed, I am also led to believe that it is typical of the author that the protagonist does not get the girl at the end of the book, however of course in this case the usual situation is reversed, with the main viewpoint character actually being the object of unrequited love rather than the person actually feeling it. There has been an unfortunate tendency in modern novels set in the past to adopt modern attitudes to life which are simply out of place in the era in which the events occur. This, I think, is f
undamentally a dishonest position for an author to adopt and hence I intend no criticism of the author when I state that this novel actually has a rather old-fashioned ring to it. Science fiction is a genre whose name was only invented in the 1930s, but whose heritage is much older than that. In Britain, it is descended from the Scientific Romance genre, and early examples of sf are usually distinguished from scientific romance by virtue of their adoption of square-jawed American heroes and lashings of violence rather than the rather more traditional and sedate British heroes who usually wore the guise either of sporting gentleman or inquisitive academic. The Empire of Fear actually seems to be harking back to those days past, both in terms of a wonder at the unknown on our own planet which cannot be found with any conviction by a novel with contemporary setting due to the majority of the Earth now having been explored, a gentle prodding curiosity about its subject which seemed, to me, to evoke memories of reading H.G. Wells, and, as stated before, a protagonist propelled by curiosity more than anything else — and actually a bona fide scholar to boot. Having seen Noell Cordery as a slightly immature youth through the eyes of his father in section one of the book, we then get to see the character’s development through his own eyes — as well as, occasionally, through the comparatively alien eyes of the young African Ntikima during part three — for the bulk of the novel, as he progresses from insecure young man eager to take direct action against the Vampires and constantly questioning the relevance of his more academic studies, through the stage of less-than-bold adventurer to his final position as the man who gave the gift of emortality to humanity, burned at the stake for this heresy. Cordery is, therefore, a highly believable character, those around him (especially Quintus, his enigmatic tutor and companion) shaping his per
sonality substantially whilst he inevitably becomes his father’s son during his visit to Adamawara. As well as the grasp of good characterisation, Stableford also has a good grasp of history and the way in which events may be convincingly extrapolated from a given point to produce a well-realised and fully-rounded world within which the characters may operate. I felt the take-over of the Vatican by the vampires — with the Pope now a vampire himself preaching that God created both races, the one to be immortal on Earth and the other to have the same gift bestowed upon them in Heaven — was a particularly nice touch, and the interaction of historical characters such as Richard the Lionheart and Vlad the Impaler who could not otherwise have interacted was well executed indeed. It is also nice to see that historical characters are themselves aware of the passing of historical time, with this fact being made even more relevant by the long lifespans enjoyed by many people due to Vampirism, once again displayed in nice touches such as Vlad’s mocking of Richard’s reliance on obsolete archer divisions to form the backbone of his armed forces. After a central section which includes many adventures and a very large scale battle, any author might have been forgiven for thinking that they had done their job and that the story was over. Where Stableford excels, however, is in using those powers of extrapolation once again and giving us a final section of the book set even further in the future, and in a near-contemporary setting to boot. ‘The World, the Flesh and the Devil’ would actually stand as an interesting, character driven story in its own right and could be read separately from the rest of the book; as it is, however, the events which we have already read make the extrapolation all the more worthwhile, and it is somewhat disquieting to see the struggles for which the characters we are used to fought so hard now be
ing taken so much for granted. This, of course, is a fundamental but somewhat awkward truth, and one that many authors do not like to tackle: in many sf novels we have a valiant struggle and, often, a glorious victory, but the mistake is made of assuming that the events we witnessed were the pivotal moments in whatever world or history the book is set, and it is forgotten that the world, in reality, would largely carry on regardless and the struggles be almost forgotten within a couple of generations. Look at the way in which something as recent as World War 2 is considered nowadays for the proof of this. Stableford also manages to crank the level of relevance generated by this conundrum up yet another notch, by having characters who actually lived through that history meet up with characters born much later and who care much less — the culture clash is understandably rather intense in this world, where even the term vampire has been forgotten, and ‘emortal’, someone who can live forever in principle, but who can be killed by accidents, etc., adopted in its place (alternative histories have PC too). Essentially, what we have here is a book of Ideas which also has memorable characters by the bucketload and an excellently conceived and realised alternative history to boot. Of course, the novel is not without its flaws, and I cannot help but think that some may find the novel rather TOO contemplative and, well, wordy, for their tastes — Stableford has researched his subject topics very thoroughly and, while he is not guilty in my opinion of “showing too much”, those readers who were enticed by the promise of a Vampire tale full of bloodletting might not be so interested in such matters. As I mentioned before, this is the first novel by Brian Stableford that I have read. It will not, however, be the last, and for depth of thought and for what I perceive as an innovative use of science fiction to examine wort
hwhile ideas, Stableford is, frankly, very impressive indeed. Star Wars it may not be, but this is science fiction at its best. -------------------------------------- ATTAINING THIS NOVEL: Disgracefully, ‘The Empire of Fear’ has fallen out of print — this is inevitable, of course, with an author as prolific as Stableford (75+ books to his name!) who has never achieved major bestseller status. Copies should not, however, be that difficult to obtain. A good starting place is the fan-run Brian Stableford website at http://freespace.virgin.net/diri.gini/brian.htm, who were offering copies for sale in both hardback and paperback the last time I looked. Failing that, try the ever-excellent second hand book website ABE, located at http://www.abebooks.com. I recommend the hardback first edition, published by Simon & Schuster in 1988, if possible.
They were physically perfect and free from the ravages of pain. They could live for centuries and their empires spanned the world. They drank the blood of their subjects and expected their love. Common men called them VAMPIRES and dreamed of joining their ranks.