Friday, February 16, 2024

Microreview: The Thucydides Trap by Melinda Snodgrass

Bringing a close to the Imperials space opera saga with the greatest tests yet for the protagonists.

The Imperials saga, which started life at a traditional publisher before Melinda took the entire series to self publishing, is a decades-long look at the lives of its three main characters in a space opera future. Starting with The High Ground, where we first meet her characters Tracy, Mercedes and Beauregard, we follow their careers, lives, highs and lows in a quite literally feudal space empire. Years pass within the books, and between books as these characters live out their lives and face themselves, each other and the threads to the Solar League.

The Thucydides Trap brings that saga to a close.

At the beginning of the novel, some years has passed since the alien war in book four of the series, Currency of War. The war against the Necrophagos is over, thanks to Tracy’s heroism in leading the way with their first real victory. However, there is a breakaway set of systems to consider, planets are in ruin from the war, and oh yes, Tracy has found out the truth: the child and heir of Mercedes is, in fact, his own biological son from a tryst Mercedes and he had. Worse, as the child has grown up, it is becoming very clear to anyone who looks at Prince Cyprian and then at Tracy can see the resemblance. Triply so if you see just how little he looks like the Consort, his ostensibly biological father, Beauregard (aka Boho). It is only a matter of time before someone in the press puts cuckold’s horns on the Prince Consort. And given the previous four books and their entire lives, Tracy and Boho have been at each other’s throats...

This social conflict and drama is the heart of the book even as there is a master metaplot at work as well, and a strong pulling of the threads of the previous novels into a complete whole, by the methods of the last threat these characters must face in the series. Way back in the first two books, we get references to a mysterious sector of space that ships go into, and do not come out of again. It’s been used by the Solar League, secretly, as a way to get rid of people that has become rather problematic in the scheme of things. It now emerges, after the Necrophagos War, just what lurks in that sector, and how it is a threat not only to the humans, not only to the aliens they have conquered forcibly into the league, but to all life in the galaxy.

In addition to this, pulling again on the threads all the way back to the first book, we get the return of the “missing” species, we get the return of the alien Cara’ots, who disappeared a couple of books ago. It will be no surprise, given their biological science skills, that they were not so far away as all that, and have been secretly hiding and biding their time. Now that the Necrophagos are taken care of, the Cara’ots have a plan for humanity, and plans within plans.

This all sounds like a lot, and I can’t imagine even if you had the nerve, to try and jump into the series here. The time gaps between the books does mean that one theoretically could, and there is certainly enough reflection of the high points and important junctures of the series (and how they reflect on the current state of affairs) that someone could theoretically could make a go of it.

So I will speak in generalities about the saga itself, what I think Snodgrass is doing, and come to a decision as to what I think of the series as a whole from this point out. I want to start by interrogating the title of this last book, the “Thucydides Trap”. This is a phrase that has come into favor in certain political circles as of late. (and in fact the amazon page calls this a “A political space opera” - proof positive that Snodgrass knows what she is doing with this.).

So, if this novel is describing such a trap, who is Athens and who is Sparta in this universe? Clearly the Solar League is one of these two positions and the other, well, I can see it both ways. I can see the Solar League, ostensibly on top of the galaxy, as the Sparta (dominant) power fearing the restive challenges to its hegemony from the aliens under it’s foot, and other threats to it. There is another way to read this, though, and it seems to me that in truth, the Solar League itself is ‘Athens’, the rising power that is a threat, and must be managed and dealt with. I think this is the deeper and more accurate look at what is going on, with humanity as a whole. Just who the ‘Sparta’ is in this case, I will let the reader discover.

Moving down from the title into the politics of the series, Snodgrass proves the adage that science fiction is a mirror to our own world, and a way to discuss and describe our current world through the lens of fiction. The Solar League is a feudal space empire, with humans holding suzerainty over a number of conquered alien species (the Cara’ot, until their departure/disappearance was one of these). It is also highly patriarchal, with women in mostly domestic and submissive roles. Women are for making babies and taking care of the household. Only tragic circumstance (no sons) lead Mercedes father to name her the heir, and since all heirs have military training, further go down the rabbit hole of uncomfortable change and have her attend The High Ground in the first, titular book in the series, and kick off the entire saga.

Thus, Snodgrass provides commentary both subtle, and sometimes rather pointed, on the position of women in society, in relations between social classes based on money and power, as well as using the human-alien divide in order to cast a lens on race relations in our own world. Tracy, in particular, is her vehicle for showing that last, as he has, throughout the entire cycle, right through to this book, slowly become, to use the contemporary 2024 term, “woke” about aliens and their status and treatment in society. Given the dire nature of the threat facing the league in this last book, and the “we must all hang together or we will hang separately” theme of the novel, the Solar League really does need all of its members to pull together, or else.

As far as women in society, and the evolution of thinking in that, we look to Mercedes, of course, former Infanta and now the Empress herself. Her sisters, too, show signs of breaking away, however painfully and fitfully, from the roles they are assigned. Beatrice, for example, is a hard nosed career officer, now that that path has been blazoned by Merecedes. (Beatrice is, to my recollection, the only character who is even suggested not to be cis heterosexual, and it is a blink and you miss it moment at that). Carisa, though, by comparison, the youngest of the daughters of the former Emperor, is much more of a traditional mother and also traditionally put in the feudal role of her marriage being a political tool.

So as you can seeSnodgrass, for all that she is discussing the politics of these themes, has, throughout the series, been careful and very deliberate in showing that such social change is difficult, painful, and does not come without costs. The very patriarchal male FFH, the aristocracy of this feudal future space opera empire, definitely has a lot of soul searching to do to come to terms with any of this program, even when leavened by characters who do hew to roles. It will come to a surprise what character ultimately advocates for even greater social change that has been seen in the previous four books, and why they do so. I was somewhat disappointed that such changes and the groundwork for them is never really seen, only discussed as a possibility, and some of them came to pass after a jump ahead in time.

One of the things I’ve appreciated in this series about the Solar League is that Snodgrass has transferred the problems of racial relations to strictly human and alien relations, and has allowed the humans to get over themselves in terms of race within humanity. Tracy is fair complected man, pale skin and pale hair. A traditional looking hero in a mold that will be familiar to a fair swath of science fiction readers. Almost painfully a traditional looking hero and I suspect that was Snodgrass’ point. Mercedes and the royal family, though, are described as having skin that is “cafe au lait” in color. The entire space empire itself uses Spanish as its native tongue, and untranslated Spanish words are used throughout the series. It’s many hundreds of years, maybe more than a thousand, since humanity went to the stars, and the color of one’s skin, as long as you are human, means nothing in the Solar League.

If you are thinking as I am, clearly the model for all of this is Star Trek, but not quite The Next Generation, and more along the lines of the era of Enterprise and TOS. This should make absolute sense given Snodgrass’ writing for Star Trek (particularly The Measure of a Man for TNG). The Solar League is not the progressive Federation, but one can see, especially by the end of the series here in The Thucydides Trap, just how one might get from here to there. It is almost as if to say that the series is saying that humanity can get its act together, but it will be long, difficult, with backsliding, but we can do it. That is a very Star Trek outlook, and a good way to look at the series as a whole. The nature of the final adversary in the series, in this final volume, too, does feel like it walked out of a TOS episode. One could easily imagine Kirk, Spock and McCoy confronted with that threat and what they might do to solve it.

And like those episodes of Star Trek, for all of the politics, drama, soap opera (which is even lampshaded at one point) and social commentary and discussion, there is a lot of action and adventure in the series to be had as well. This novel feels more freighted on the political side of things but the author is trying to tie an entire series together, so I can more forgive her for it. And given the evolution in rank and career progression, these are not the young cadets of the first book, or the young officers of the second, et cetera. But still, there is action and adventure to be had, with a side order of “I’m too old for this” to show that Snodgrass wants us to be aware that her characters have indeed aged, and changed.

In all, the Imperials Saga is indeed a political space opera series, with a healthy dose of character development and change, action, and adventure, and a space opera future and world that is intensely interesting and engaging. The novel does end on a HEA, which makes me wonder--have I missed the romance beats of this series, or not read the coding for them in reading everything else? One day, I will get back to re-reading this series, and perhaps I will see what else I have missed in delving into the life stories of these characters.


The Math


- Fascinating future space opera world
- Engaging set of protagonists
- Crunchy politics and social commentary and discussion 
- Ignore the somewhat disconcerting self published covers and just go and read the series.

Reference: Snodgrass, Melinda,  The Thucydides Trap, [Prince of Cats Literary Productions, 2023]

POSTED BY: Paul Weimer. Ubiquitous in Shadow, but I’m just this guy, you know? @princejvstin.