Novel review: The Dragon Never Sleeps

ViperDriver writes,
There is no shortage of science fiction that explores the Interstellar
Empire. There are, in fact, whole series of collections whose short
stories are nought but that. One of the most popular words in sci-fi
politics, ’empire’ is approached in popularity only by various forms of
‘federation.’ There are even explicit explorations of the Roman Empire
extended interstellar, both explicitly and via political theory.

Title: The Dragon Never Sleeps

Author: Glen Cook (written Glenn Cook on some sources)
ISBN-10: 1597800996
ISBN-13: 978-1597800990
First Published: 1988 (89?); The above ISBN is reprint 2008

Available from


The Dragon Never Sleeps is another book about Empire,
set in science fiction. It, however, takes a slightly unusual approach. The
component of empire that is important (and, in fact, the only one that
exists, really) is that of the Pax Imperia. Picture an empire where all
that remains is the military, running on autopilot; a military whose job
it is to enforce the simple dictum of there will be no war (or you’ll
regret it).

The Plot

Humanity set up and comprises the Canon, an interstellar government
in most administrative and bureaucratic sense. The Canon, however,
has a strange relationship with its military. Rather than being an arm of
the Canon itself, the Pax is maintained by the Guardships.

Thousands of years old, almost a civilization unto themselves, the
Guardships are the classic force majeure. The ‘Dragon’ of
the title, enormous war machines of technology higher than almost
anyone else out there, they travel the Web, roving where and when they
will and keeping the peace. The penalty for war: Guardship
intervention, ranging from simple interdiction to the sterilization of
those worlds involved in the conflict. The connection to the Roman
Empire’s Pax Romana is explicit – the Guardships themselves are
named for Roman legions.

Crewed by both replicated humans (clones created to replace aged or
killed crew) or by ‘Deified’ personnel – people uploaded into the
Guardships’ computer systems – the Guardships differ from each other
in makeup and temperament. Some are aggressive, some are patient;
some are crewed mostly by the living, some entirely by the Deified. As
Guardships age, their near-omniscient Core systems can develop egos,
or senses of self; this is almost always a sign that the Guardship is
beginning to move towards the insanity of awareness.

Artifacts (construct life forms) and aliens are distinctly second-class
citizens in Humanity’s Canon space – but Humanity is senescing, with
populations dropping and exploration waning. The more vigorous and
growing non-human population is starting to take on more and more
of the day-to-day tasks of running everything, and it’s debatable
whether the crews of the Guardships are even still human.
Into this world we are dropped, following the plotting and
machinations of several individuals and groups. A human commercial
House (essentially licensed governors of various planetary properties)
plots to expand its influence; the ruling members of that house display
varying levels of sanity and ambition. We are introduced to several
stranded aliens and artifacts, trying to make their way in the
DownTown slums of a human world. And as we join the universe, the
Guardship VII Gemina sets out on the trail of a member of an ancient
enemy, travelling on commercial House spacecraft through the Canon.
That chase will take us through and into the various plotlines of the
book, into deceit, war, and legend.

High Point

The Guardships themselves. Initially seeming to be cliched deus
ex machina
superpowers, their complexity and character is
revealed gradually without detracting from the sense of power and
implacability they wear. Also: the final message.

Low Point

The story’s reach slightly exceeds its grasp. True space opera, it of
necessity involves vast swathes of space-time, and refers to a dizzying
number of places and people. The book, however, is short enough that
these references become overwhelming and confusing, requiring effort
to sort through that disrupts the flow of the book.

The Scores:

Originality: 4/6. The notion of interstellar empires is old; that of
powerful interstellar ‘peace’ enforcement also (see The Day The
Earth Stood Still
, for example, or even Heinlein’s Space
and his Patrol’s monopoly on nuclear deterrents).
However, unlike most, this force isn’t a monolith but has complexities
of its own without actively driving the story.

Imagery: 4/6. The universe is more suggested than filled in, which is a
problem; I found myself unable to visualize or explain important places
and things mentioned in it. However, the power and clarity of the
Guardships themselves, one of the most important parts of the book,
is notable.

Story: 3/6. There is a lot of plot happening, and at the end of it all you
may end up asking yourself just how much of it we needed. Also, there
is so much going on in the subtleties of the last hundred pages or so
that it may take several passes to grok it all. I deduct points because it
becomes work.

Characterization: 5/6. Those characters that are important are well
developed; their motivations and likely responses become familiar and
quite accepted.

Emotional Response: 4/6. As far as I can tell, most of the emotions I
was supposed to have involved awe and a sense of the monolithic. Few
characters in this story are here to form an emotional hook, so they
don’t. I came out of the book feeling that I’d read something large and
important to sci-fi’s direction, though, even if I couldn’t explain
precisely how or why.

Editing: 4/6. There needed to be more room for story to breathe, or
less story. Scenes flow fine, however, and almost all confusion in the
book is related to plotting, not narrative of events.

Overall score: 4/6. This is a good book, and it also
predates and thus may have informed a deal of modern space opera.

In total, The Dragon Never Sleeps receives 28/42.

(for a slightly more detailed discussion of the book, see my review

Similar and Recommended

If you like Iain Banks’ Culture novels, Neal Asher’s
Polity books, or Alastair Reynolds’ work such as
Revelation Space then I strongly recommend this book. If
it doesn’t feel as lavishly detailed as those universes, remind yourself
that this is a single standalone book rather than a series or collection.
It’s not as tightly and linearly plotted as the Neal Asher books generally
each are; it’s not as intricate as the Revelation Space universe or as
dynamic as the Culture. One reason for the latter two, of course, is that
it is intentionally telling a tale of an artificially static world. As you’re
reading it, remind yourself that it predates some of those books by
decades. You’ll put it down feeling like you’ve read an entertaining
precursor to those modern space operas; one with depths that some of
the modern intricate sagas fail to plumb.