First Contact in science fiction storytelling is normally an eminently serious undertaking, with the meeting of alien and human usually presaging some great generation-defining moment that may be good or bad but is never less than gravely portentous.
In Kylie Chan’s Scales of Empire, a sci-fi novel and the first of a new series from the author who gave the world an introduction into Chinese mythology with an Australian flavour, the Xuan Wu series, it unfolds in an altogether unorthodox fashion.
Meet the Dragons, who have been coming to Earth on and off for centuries – hence all the mythology associated with them down through the ages – the head of a sprawling, prosperous and self-indulgent empire, who turn out to be pansexual, polygendered, stand-up comics with sidekick AIs, and an obsession with love and sex.
Radiating all kinds of peace, love and understanding – no mention of mung beans but they must be in there somewhere – the Dragon who makes hallowed First Contact, Shiumo, is a princess of the realm, a member of a race that can fold time and space instantly, making travel across the vast swathes of the galaxy instantaneous.
This is, of course, a good thing for Earth since it is on the cusp of sending out multiple generation ships to populate planets many millennia of light years distant, its own lands swamped by rising seas, its people much reduced in number and its atmosphere beset by fatally-declining levels of oxygen.
“Sure. You choose how we do this. This is a First Contact situation after all, and your comfort is paramount. Her voice filled with amusement. I’ll be in deep shit back home if I mess this one up. The Last First Contact I did, I accidentally asked their head of state to have my babies before I even set foot on the planet.
A few of the crew sniggered.
‘She sounds so cute,’ one of them said. (P. 39)
But as the First Contact plays out almost too perfectly, and the humans who meet Shiumo – the Japanese element comes into play via the first humans the Dragon meets who are the almost-dead survivors of a Japanese generation ship that doesn’t make it to it its destination – bisexual soldier Jian Walker and her commanding officer Richard Alto become besotted with her, part of a syndrome known as being “Dragonstruck”, the much-troped questions about whether these aliens are too good to be true come into play.
Only, in many ways they don’t, one of the weaknesses of a novel that promises much, and delivers less than you might be expecting.
The premise itself isn’t hugely original since there are countless books out there about humanity being rescued in their hour of great need by aliens who turns out to be good/bad/callously indifferent but Chan has a great deal of fun with it, as Shiumo wisecracks her way through meetings with the high and mighty of Earth, falls in love with Richard and almost Jian, develops a deep, abiding love for French Fries (potatoes, commonplace for us, are exotic food items for the Dragons and other alien species that come in their wake) and sleeps her way around the planet, all in the name of diplomacy (being polymorphous, she can appear to her many, many lovers in whatever form they desire most).
She’s funny, she’s endearing and propels the initial part of the book with a playfulness that moves the plot along but doesn’t turn First Contact into something too onerous and exhausting.
The Earth gets all kinds of fun stuff – an end to war, terminal diseases cured, the ability to travel to the stars (this comes with a hefty price tag); you know the usual fantasy bells and whistles that aliens, like Melanesian Cargo Cults before them, bring with them in profuse abundance – and the aliens another race for their bright and sparkling empire that, like any agglomeration held together across multiple star systems, has a few dirty secrets waiting in the wings (quite literally as it turns out).
There are bad guys, of course, a race of aliens known as the Cats who look like our favourite felines and behave much like dog-lovers imagine them to, all selfish concern and viciousness that sees them kill human colonists in the pursuits of children and chips (a weird combination that is both funny and disturbingly trivial all at once) – you have to assume that Chan is a dog person because cats do not emerge with a glowing reputation from the book – but they are easily nullified, for all the damage they do, and the real question is always whether the Dragons are as good as they seem.
Where Scales of Empire, which has so much going for it in intent fumbles and drops the ball is offering an inert narrative that never really goes anywhere, and that inadvertently makes light of some fairly serious developments when it does.
The Earth sceptics turn out to be right all along about the Dragons but when this explosive comes to the fore, as you know it’s going to all along – points to Chan for making the Dragons not so much evil as just extremely self-absorbed and prone to underestimate the effects of their largesse – it lands with a thud as do many of the other twists and turns, such as they are, which, like the premise itself, augur much but don’t deliver anywhere near as much as you’re expecting.
Narrative momentum never really arrives, and instead we’re treated to some amusingly over-the-top wish fulfilment as humanity is handed the keys to the kingdom, finds there are some hefty conditions attached and then neatly vaults over them and turns things to their advantage.
“I hesitated. Had the mind control started already? I’d set myself a task after the general had ordered me to get close to Shiumo again: I wouldn’t tell her the mission goal, or that I’d been ordered to go with her. As long as I could keep that secret and pretend I was going with her of my own free will, she didn’t have full control over me.” (P. 263)
Therein lies the problem with Scales of Empire.
It’s a bundle of fun to read, all cute, fun, quipping characters who make merry with the rusted-on tropes with the genre and don’t take things quite as seriously as many sci-fi epics do; alas all that banter and silliness sucks all the gravity out of any serious plot twists that do crop up, leaving the storytelling momentum when it does arrive, high and dry with nowhere really to go.
Some serious issues are raised – genocide, child trafficking, militarism, colonisation by stealth and by force (and is the former worse than the latter) – only to have them wither on the galactic winds, sucked of any import at all by garrulously fun characters that find relatively easy solutions to pretty much anything.
As a quick, diverting escapist read, it’s a treat and you can’t fault Chan’s capacity for imaginative worldbuilding, culture-exploring, and wit and whimsy; it’s bright, delightful and enjoyable on a number of different levels and provided just the right amount of far-from-the-madding-crowd enjoyment on my commute.
But it never really gets going, despite its characters zipping around the galaxy like its a commuter rail network in a big city, leaving you feeling warm and fuzzy from the plethora of happy wish-fulfilment moments but wishing that more had been done to put muscles on a story that came ready to fly and ended up waltzing merrily, and without much clear direction, along the ground instead.