Tuesday, January 24, 2023

Microreview: Sweep of Stars by Maurice Broaddus

Maurice Broaddus’ Sweep of Stars starts a new series in a deftly and imaginatively created near future interplanetary society.

You are, for the purposes of this review, immersing yourself in the culture of Muungano. A future interplanetary society whose bounds and customs, rules and structure, are unfamiliar to you, but you will come to learn them. Through the characters in this society, from the young scion who has reached a milestone in her life and is ready to take her place as a full member of society, to a group of soldiers on a planet on the other side of a interstellar gate, you will come to learn, and perhaps love this diverse and well imagined Afrofuturistic society, especially as it deals with the challenge of a new conflict with the society it defeated in order to come into being in the first place.

You are reading a review of Maurice Broaddus’ Sweep of Stars.

I wrote the above in second person because right from the get go, giving a number of chapters in the second person, Broaddus immerses us into the world of Muungano in a strong and unrelenting way. It ungrounds the reader, putting us into the head and perspective of Leah, a young member of the society on the precipice of a new phase of her life. It also cleverly allows for a lot of information to be rapidly pressed into the reader as we get a flood of this new and different early 22nd century culture and society. While we soon will alternate between Leah and mostly more traditional forms of point of view¹ Leah’s chapters set the tone for the book, and what Broaddus is trying to accomplish with the book.

There has been a fair amount of Solar System space opera in recent years, and in many scales and stories told, from Ian McDonald’s Luna series, to the wild success of the Expanse, to the re-release of Laura Mixon’s Up Against It, to the more narrowly focused Mary Robinette Kowal’s The Spare Man, set on an interplanetary cruise liner. In that tradition, Sweep of Stars goes for the wide scale approach, with a number of points of view ranging across the solar system, and a story that reaches into another solar system entirely by means of an Interplanetary Gate.

Too, Broaddus’ solar system future stands apart from the others, and most of the ones I have recently read, in being an Afrofuturist focused vision of the future in space. This is not entirely virgin territory, the Bindi novels of Nnedi Okorafor come to mind, but this is a novel, the first in a series, that aims to tell the entire story of the Muungano civilization. The novel provides a fair number of point of view characters to this, and the build toward the conflicts that hit in the back half of the book do take time to develop. Broaddus uses that time, I feel, wisely. There is a lot of worldbuilding and development of the society under display here. Given the conflicts of the novel when they do arise, Broaddus’ strategy appears to be to be able to show Munngano as its strength, at its optimal, one might even say reaching-for-utopian ideals of a young culture, before putting it under stress with external conflict.

To that end, through about a half dozen point of view characters and several locations and subplots, see Muungano at a growing level and stage at its development, a young and burgeoning civilization, a diverse range of West African derived cultures and societies scattered across the solar system. From an utopian colony city, to the frontiers of the solar system, to a military unit, we get to know Muungano as it stands right now, and Muungano, instead of being a monoculture, is itself a web of differing ideas, roles, political systems and societies. This makes a high wire act for the author--he is not really just showing one future society where all that societal development is channeled into one template, he’s showing a spectrum of a future society where the different habitats and parts of Muungano have commonalities, but they are significant differences that need to be respected.

The novel is also intensely political in that many of the conflicts and lines drawn, especially when we move to the second half of the book, are intensely political and diplomatic in nature. Autocracy is a predominant mode (long live the King/Queen/Empress/Emperor), or in science fiction too commonly these days, Long live the CEO, may long they reign. While there are reasons, historic and otherwise, for this concentration of political power in SFF works, it does miss some opportunities.

However, Muungano provides the author with a diffuse political as well as a culturally diffuse society to work with, meaning that the politics and diplomacy are not autocratic, there is negotiation, meetings and some rather sharp political factions across Muungano. It is especially in politics that we see some of the other sides of this culture and it provides us more ways to get a hold of and understand the kaleidoscope of a future world that the author provides.

One perhaps unusual SFF space opera that I kept thinking of as I was reading Sweep of Stars is the Okie (City in Flight) novels by James Blish. Those novels are set in a world where antigravity and longevity have both been discovered, and the form of interstellar society that develops is a set of formerly bound to the earth cities who pick up and go wandering the stars. The cities meet, clash, go through cycles of power and development and build a whole stage of civilization through their adventure and efforts. Where the Okie novels really intersected my brain and my thought is in the endpaper matters where Blish lays out the cycles of the Okie novel civilization in terms of Oswald Spengler.(2). Blush clearly saw the Okie civilization over time (there is a fairly wide time scale in the Okie novels) evolving along the lines laid out in this way.

Where Muungano comes in is that I was able to apply that lens to Muungano. Muungano is a young civilization, in its Spring period. It’s new, it's in conflict with an older civilization (O.E, Original Earth, who definitely want to bring Muungano back under its aegis). Muungano is developing its own unique and flowering sciences and especially art and culture. It’s a society that is growing and developing, and in terms of Isaac Asimov’s Foundation saga, is about to run into its first crisis period (3) in the books that we have. In Sweep of Stars, then, we are getting an ambitious look at something unusual in science fiction outside of writers like Blish and Asimov--we are getting a look at a flowering of a culture, a society, a civilization. We see it in the language, the art, the food, the rituals, the greetings. It’s a very tangible book in that regard.

And of course all of this grand civilizational sweep is in the context of telling the stories of these characters, of this place, of this moment in time. Broaddus starts the story with the Naming Day of Leah (our second person POV). Even as he is showing this grand epic to us, he keeps us in the human, in the tangible, in the real, in a way that, say, Asimov as above, never can manage with his own civilizational epochal story.

Sweep of Stars is a big space opera, and it needs to be, to contain everything that Broaddus’ strong and deep ambition is trying to make it become. My only real criticism of what is a stunning and inventive novel is that the timeline of the history feels too compressed for my taste. I am not sure that the events, as described, and the society as depicted, could all resolve and arise in the relatively short amount of time that Broaddus assigns to it. This is hardly a fault unique to Broaddus’ work of course, but I think that the rise of the Muungano civilization, including the precipitate events that led up to it, the milestones in the growth and development of the solar system, would and will take decades more than the rather brisk time frame shown here. I understand how and why Broaddus chose this, so as to have characters who could have personal ties to the end of the conflict between OE (Original Earth) and Muungano, but I don’t think the timeline works.

With that caveat, I found Sweep of Stars, a bold and bright space opera that confidently tells the story of a new civilization, it’s triumphs, culture, society and its people (from its point of oview characters on outwards) and then plunges that young and vibrant culture into what appears to be a series-spanning conflict that will certainly change the culture and the entire solar system in the process.

Baseline Assessment: 7/10

Bonuses: +1 for a diverse (on all axes) and inclusive, and interesting world and canvas, an amazingly imagined civilization

+1 for very strong notes of a variety of point of view characters

+1 for the bold ambition to tell this story.


Penalties: -0.5 The timeline of the events of history feel too compressed.


Nerd Coefficient: 9.5/10


Reference: Broaddus, Maurice, Sweep of Stars [Orbit, 2022]

¹It should be noted that there is also a First person plural point of view character in the book. It seems to me that the author was definitely having fun with the experience of telling his story by using a variety of point of view techniques.

²Oswald Spengler had some notions about civilizations (his best known work is The Decline of the West) on their origin, rise and fall, seeing how civilizations, to his lens, have similar cycles and characteristics in their path. Spengler's work is marred by him being somewhat adjacent to more unsavory elements of 1920's and 1930's Germany, although his civilizational ideas would influence historians like Arnold Toynbee and Will and Ariel Durant. 

3I don't know that Asimov read Spengler, but per note 2, he definitely read Toynbee.