In Conquest Born

by C.S. Friedman

Cover image

Series: In Conquest Born #1
Publisher: DAW
Copyright: May 1987
Printing: November 2001
ISBN: 0-7564-0043-0
Format: Mass market
Pages: 530

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Anzha is born of Azean parents, members of an offshoot race of humanity who embraced genetic engineering to adapt to an extremely dangerous planet and now the leaders of a human empire. She herself, however, is not Azean. She's a genetic throwback of some sort, a surprise to genetic planning, whose parents insisted on having her anyway. She's also the sole surviving witness to a horrific assassination, and the strongest telepath ever encountered.

Zatar is the brilliant scion of Braxaná nobility, the rulers of the Braxin empire. Theirs is a culture of warfare, arrogance, complete control of appearance and presentation, and virulent sexism and racial purity. They have maintained a constant war against the Azeans for hundreds of years. Zatar's rise is meteoric and somewhat unconventional, willing to dare risky actions against the Azeans and to reach beyond social class to find people useful to him.

In Conquest Born is a very strange book. It primarily follows Anzha and Zatar, moving between their separate but interlocking stories, but at other times it wanders through many aspects of the Braxin empire and several Azean viewpoints. On one level, it's a space opera, full of politics and grand warfare, but unlike most space opera it lacks a fascination with the mechanics of space warfare and has very few actual battle scenes. It has some very traditional elements that feel like throwbacks to E.E. "Doc" Smith, such as telepathy and eugenics (more on the latter in a moment). But it's also something of a coming of age story, occasionally a futuristic thriller, and a very strange story of political intrigue in a very nasty and alien society constructed on complete control of women by men. And I haven't mentioned the odd romance angle prefigured by the cover and the back cover text.

The best parts of the book are probably the story of Anzha's search to find her place in the world. While she has some of the normal markers of the ubercompetent space opera protagonist — the greatest telepath anyone has seen, proud and utterly determined, able to make contacts that no one has ever been able to before, and a tactical genius and expert at many weapons — she's also aggressive to the point of being unlikeable on occasion. Her hatred keeps her from quite fitting into the typical hero's path and makes her a lot more interesting.

I'm not quite sure what to make of the Braxin parts of this book (which is quite a lot of it). Braxin civilization is objectively horrific. It's a bizarre combination of absolute hierarchy and chaotic alliances between quasi-feudal lords, built on top of the most complete misogyny that I've seen this side of Gor novels. Most authors who build in this level of misogyny are going for a BDSM subtext, but Friedman seems uninterested in what bits of that turn up. Instead, we get Zatar as a protagonist: a man raised in and embracing the culture and its preservation, while working around it and deeply concerned about some of its weaknesses. I felt like I was supposed to admire him as a creation of his cultural background who nonetheless tries to stretch and transcend it where possible. He's not quite as misogynistic as everyone else, and seems to occasionally be subverting that while making use of most of the structure.

If I thought Friedman saw some merits in Braxin society, that would lead to one sort of reading, but the horrors of it for women are quite clearly portrayed through multiple female viewpoint characters. It's shown as rotten from the inside and unlikely to survive in the long term. If it were the society of the villains of the book, that would lead to another traditional reading, but it's impossible to read Zatar and several other Braxins as clear villains despite their wholehearted support of their society and their direct opposition to the other protagonist. If the male dominance were there as an erotic fetish, that would again be a recognizable type of story, but while there is eroticism, the strongest instances in this book cannot exist without equality. The Braxins fall between all these stools and end up as an authorial construct that's just unsettlingly odd. I think Friedman is, in part, playing with the idea of an honorable person within a completely despicable cultural context and intentionally subverting the normal expectation that such people will transcend and reject their culture. Within that subversion, the unsettling feeling may be intentional. But the book doesn't telegraph any clear reading (at least to me).

I think a lot of readers aren't going to be able to get past the Braxins. Apart from the sexism and racism, they're very hard on suspension of disbelief: it's hard to imagine how a society this vicious and unstable could have survived for as long as is shown in this book, even with all the justifications Friedman provides. And the mixed presentation of Braxin society creates serious problems for the antagonistic reading that they objectively deserve. I found it very difficult to dislike them completely, and I'm still not sure how disturbed I should be by that. It's a very odd reading experience.

Another odd part of this book, and one that makes it feel like a throwback to a much earlier era of space opera, is its obsession with eugenics. Everyone in this book, and much of the plot, is deeply concerned with eugenics, race, genetic inheritance, and ancestry. Not only does Friedman have a civilization built on racial purity and, on the other side, the stock SF telepath organization whose primary goal is breeding more telepaths, but the genetics of one of the protagonists is also a significant part of the story. Many of the characteristics of both characters and civilizations are strongly attributed to inherited tendencies and genetic predetermination seems thick on the ground. This too causes a lot of problems with suspension of disbelief, and sometimes makes every major institution in the book look like villains. But that oddly fits and even supports the reader's sympathy for the usually alienated protagonists.

Then there's the plot, which at times is completely submerged beneath what looked like side plots and secondary characters. It does re-emerge and build towards a climax, weaving some of that together, but the ending is as weirdly unexpected as much of the rest of the book. I think the most I can say without spoilers is that I think a lot of readers will feel that, while the ending does provide a climax, quite a lot seems to be missing.

All of that being said, In Conquest Born is extremely readable and oddly attractive. There are moments of great writing; Friedman is justifiably proud of chapter eleven, for example. (She calls it out in the preface of the version I read as the point when she realized she could sell the book.) But, typical of my mixed reaction to the whole book, that chapter also has very little to do with the rest of the book.

The Braxins were balanced between protagonists and antagonists, which made them occasionally fascinating to read about. Friedman puts a lot of people into very weird (and horrible) situations and backgrounds and rarely gives them a way to change them in any substantial way, and then tells stories of personal heroism or ethical choice entirely within the context of those situations. On one hand, this is "realistic" for the situation of the character and raises interesting questions about ethical or honorable behavior within a completely unethical setting; on the other hand, that setting is a (rather artificial) creation of the author, and it's hard to forget that.

I was certain that I'd read this book before and picked it up as a re-reading, since I knew a sequel was out and I vaguely remembered enjoying it. About 200 pages in, I was certain that I'd misremembered and I'd never read this book before; I didn't remember any of it at all. And then I read a situation that I know I read before in this book, confirming that I had read it before and somehow forgot nearly all of it. Given how memorably weird the book feels while reading it, I'm not sure what to make of that. I think the fragmentation and odd conclusion of the plot makes it hard to recall the story, which is the hook on which I normally hang memory of a book.

I have no idea whether to recommend this book or not. I'm not sure who would enjoy it and who would hate it. I'm not even sure how much I like it. It's composed largely of traditional space opera components, and yet somehow it's one of the strangest books I've read. I suppose the best summary is that I've now read it twice and just bought the sequel, because I just have to see where the hell Friedman takes this universe next. But it wouldn't surprise me in the slightest to hear that someone else threw this book against a wall.

One final note on edition: the version I read is the 15th anniversary edition, which includes an interesting prefix by the author. However, the text of this edition was clearly prepared by scanning a printed copy of the original book and was then inadequately proofread. I noticed at least five clear OCR letter substitution errors (o for p, n for h, that sort of thing), and I'm usually oblivious to such problems so there are probably many more. If this drives you nuts while reading a book, you may want to seek out a different edition.

Followed by The Wilding.

Rating: 6 out of 10

Reviewed: 2011-04-20

Last modified and spun 2014-12-21