Review: The Grand Conjunction, by Sean Williams


(Orbit Books, 978-1-84149-523-1)

(Review first published in ASIM 42)

The Grand Conjunction marks the conclusion of Sean Williams’ latest space-opera trilogy, ‘Astropolis’.  But readers could initially be excused for thinking that they’d somehow picked up the wrong book – for where in the world is the omnipresent Imre Bergamasc?  And who is the mysterious woman whose vanished sister has somehow stolen her name?

The opening section of The Grand Conjunction, titled ‘This Impossible Dream’, is probably my favourite writing within the whole of the Astropolis sequence: it’s punchy, intriguing, tightly focussed, and almost hermetically self-contained.  Which is not to suggest that Williams’ writing normally lacks for punch, intrigue, or focus.  Rather, the appeal for me is that Williams kicks off the final volume by wholeheartedly embracing the tropes and mannerisms of a quite other genre of fiction – in this instance, pulp-tinged hardboiled detective fiction – and bolting the whole gumshoe-cigarette-and-pocket-holstered-revolver assembly onto a far-future space opera story.  And gets away with it.

(But where is Imre Bergamasc?)

To my mind, the most successful stretches of the Astropolis sequence are this novella-length Grand Conjunction opening section and the separately-published novella Cenotaxis.  Again, this shouldn’t be interpreted as a slur on the rest of the canon.  But it may be worthwhile exploring why these two smaller and essentially standalone segments work better than the rest of the series.  The problem, I believe, is one of vista.  In ‘This Impossible Dream’ and in Cenotaxis the scope is tighly maintained on a planetary or smaller scale, with a necessary focus on character interaction and with ample opportunity to sketch in background detail and depth.  But throughout much of the rest of the series (and in this respect the latter sections of The Grand Conjunction are not immune), the Galactic and multi-millenial sprawl of the plotline has a distancing effect, not helped by the often singleminded fixation on The Bigger Picture, on Galactic politics, and on the clash of ideologies.  Space opera is all about the vastness of distance and timescale, and The Grand Conjunction, much like the preceding two volumes, has this in spades, portrayed with enviable precision, efficiency, and tension.  But the exoticness of a space opera setting cannot be rendered truly plausible to the reader unless attention is given to the minutiae, to the almost-irrelevant quirks or details which help to persuade you that this spaceship, this distant planet, habitat, or satellite, this alien race or monstrous artificial intelligence, is a genuine entity or object, in a circumstance which in some manner you are able to visualise and to believe in.  This is where I believe The Grand Conjunction, good though it is, fails to attain greatness.  In all the three main volumes of Astropolis, there’s scarcely one word said off-topic, and that’s the problem.

(And where is Imre Bergamasc?)

Well, not to worry.  He turns up, as I suspect you always knew he was going to – or certainly as soon as you’d twigged to the word-games Williams is working in his opening sequence here.  (I twigged, at least partially, by about the fiftieth page.  You may spot it sooner.)  And, despite the tone of complaint noted in the preceding paragraph, the book as a whole works well.  The ending is satisfying and somewhat moving, the overall machinery of the plot is very well constructed.  If there’s a continuum of space opera (and I really think there should be), then The Grand Conjunction, and by extension the whole Astropolis series, sits rather further than I would truly like from books like the Culture series of Iain M. Banks or the Revelation Space sequence of Alistair Reynolds, due largely to that ‘minutiae’ thing noted above.  But if you’re looking for something in the vein of Asimov’s Foundation trilogy (with, of course, more modern overtones), mixed in with a little high-end military SF styling, then this is what Williams has written here, with customary skill and efficiency.  And as I say, the opening novella-length section is just brilliant.

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