Review: Cenotaxis, by Sean Williams


(Monkeybrain Books, 978-1-932265-26-2)

(Review first published in ASIM 42)

Sean Williams’ semi-standalone novella, Cenotaxis, could well be labelled ‘Astropolis one-point-five’.  It effectively occupies the interlude between Astropolis book 1, Saturn Returns and book 2 in the series, Earth Ascendant.

Set almost a million years in the future, Cenotaxis revolves around the conflict between two men.  Imre Bergamasc, the sequence’s main protagonist, is on a mission to save humanity, and the Galaxy, from a mysterious foe.  His opponent, Jasper, is also on a mission, to save Earth and its heritage.  It’s an interesting match-up.  Bergamasc seems to believe that he needs to conquer the Galaxy to protect it; Jasper just believes himself to be the embodiment of the new God.  With their core motivations fundamentally opposed – to Bergamasc, Jasper is an implacable obstacle – a standoff between the two is inevitable, even though both acknowledge that in many ways their ultimate goals are allied.

While Saturn Returns falls into the category of Galaxy-spanning space opera, Cenotaxis is a significantly smaller, more contained story, focussed tightly on Bergamasc’s and Jasper’s battle for Earth.  Theirs is an asymmetric warfare: Bergamasc has at his disposal a vastly more sophisticated and extensive arsenal, while Jasper’s forces must resort to guerrilla tactics to have any impact.  Earth’s defenders are, however, surprisingly effective against the overwhelming odds: Jasper has some knowledge of future events, and is able on several occasions to use this foreknowledge to escape the traps which Bergamasc has patiently laid.  But Jasper is not fully omniscient … the novella opens with him a prisoner, finally snared by Bergamasc in some as-yet-unremembered fashion.  The mystery of this capture is gradually revealed as the story moves to its enigmatic conclusion.

Scrupulously told in first person through Jasper’s eyes, events are relayed out of chronological sequence.  There is, however, a reason for this temporal jumbling, as Cenotaxis itself makes plain.  The story is primarily a character study of Jasper, who’s portrayed as a credible, interesting individual, with or without what seems to be a God delusion.  Other characters, principally Bergamasc and his followers, and including also Jasper’s right-hander Alice-Angeles, are painted in sufficient detail to attain a functional and plausible three-dimensionality; but, really, this is Jasper’s show.

The writing conveys action and introspection with comparable clarity, and the plot strikes a good balance between action and tension, although some of the latter seems dissipated or muted because of Jasper’s repeatedly-conveyed assurance that he is not concerned with his ultimate fate.

Overall, this is an intriguing little piece (a space operetta, perhaps?), written with economy by a highly proficient SF writer.  It’s an excellent example of Williams’ ability to construct detailed, gritty, and engrossing far-future scenarios.


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