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Dread Empire's Fall

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Subject: Walter Jon Williams, Dread Empire's Fall, The Sundering, Sula, Military science fiction
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Dread Empire's Fall

The Dread Empire's Fall is a science fiction series by Walter Jon Williams. It began in 2002 when The Praxis was published, to the approval of many. Following this, The Sundering was released the next year, and the series was brought to a conclusion in the summer of 2005 with the publication of The Conventions of War.

The novels are of the Military science fiction subgenre.

Books in the series

  • The Praxis, First published in the UK in 2002 by Earthlight. ISBN 0-7434-2897-8
  • The Sundering, First published in the UK in 2003 by Earthlight. ISBN 0-7434-2898-6



The first beings to envision the truths of the Praxis, and first to spread it throughout known space.

Very little is known of the Shaa; they chose to isolate themselves from their empire, having gradually lost interest in the civilization they had built. As a result of achieving a near-immortal state these beings had lived for countless millennia, but such long lifespans resulted in their memories eventually becoming saturated. Even the construction of massive computer networks to extend their memory storage capacity only postponed the inevitable saturation (though it should be noted that only new memories failed, being easily displaced by newer events—old memories of their civilisation in its prime endured). With their thirst for conquest dwindling, and their impressive memories failing, the Shaa began committing suicide.

One by one, the Great Masters died, and were promptly cremated along with their possessions, servants and loyal subjects whose position and power allowed them the honour of death with a Great Master.

Martinez, the stories' male protagonist, is seen wondering what really made the Shaa tick, and speculates about performing an autopsy on the last Shaa since there were no others left to prevent it. However, it seemed none of those in a higher position shared his curiosity to investigate the biology of the beings who had kept such things secret from their subject races for the 12,481 years that had elapsed since the inception of the Praxis.

An interesting point to note is the Shaa's love of prime numbers, as can be most obviously seen in their standard timekeeping system.


The first of the races to be converted to the Praxis by the Shaa in the Year 437 of the Peace of the Praxis. Naxids are fiercely pack-oriented and rank-conscious insectoid creatures. It is easy to detect who is superior to whom in a group of Naxids even without considering their uniforms.

Their six-legged physiology, in which the rear-most four legs are used for locomotion and the forward two used as either prehensile limbs or another set of legs, allows them great speed and agility but only two speeds, very fast or stop. Their appearance is unique among the beings under the Praxis in that their scaly skin can fluoresce a visual form of communication. Though the empire has accommodated for this by allowing Naxid citizens and officers to wear a Chameleon cloth that echoes the patterns flashed beneath, the language is poorly understood by the other races, as it is subject to endless different interpretations depending on context. The Naxid homeworld is Naxas.


The second race to be exposed to the Praxis by the Shaa, these beings were considered highly cultist and brought many vices into the realm of the Shaa. Though the Shaa have since eliminated the cults from mainstream awareness in favor of the doctrine of the Praxis, the vices, to the eternal disbelief of the Shaa, remain.

Recreational tubes are installed on Terran vessels to allow officers and crew to relieve sexual tension, and products such as alcohol and tobacco are still in use; while not directly opposing the ways of the Praxis, these substances are seen as misleading from the truths and have been heavily taxed by the Shaa as opposed to a complete ban. The Terran homeworld is Earth, commonly referred to as Terra.


Nocturnal creatures, they resemble teddy bears, a resemblance that has often led to many Terran children sleeping with a toy Torminel in their beds. In reality though, they are far from cute and cuddly. Nocturnal hunters, they use their large eyes to hunt their prey and their sharp fangs to tear into its flesh.

Or at least they did before the Shaa came to their world. Now, while they still enjoy a carnivorous diet, their food is served pre-killed and at blood temperatures.

Due to their furred bodies, clothing can be an issue for them, and Torminel are often seen dressed in nothing more than shorts, vest and sunglasses should they be out in daylight. Only on rare occasions, such as the funeral parade for the Great Masters, do they risk heat stroke by wearing full dress mourning uniform. Not even during the customary mourning period are they allowed to return to their normal fashions, but instead they compromise by bleaching their fur white in place of the white uniform they would be wearing.


This race of flightless birds were the first to give the Shaa a challenge in their conquest. Unlike the other races they had conquered, the Lai-own had a decent level of interplanetary colonisation in progress, and had a few warships. They main strength however was their minds. The Lai-own war is renowned for the defenders' quick thinking and sharp tactics. Their only weakness was their hollow bones which could not withstand the punishing accelerations that were usually required in space combat, and soon after the Lai-own fleet fell, so did the rest of the Lai-own system. The Lai-own homeworld is Honebar.


The natural musicians of the empire, their large ears make up for their poor eyesight as a result of their eyes being no more than a light-sensitive patch on their heads.

Both genders of the Cree start life as unintelligent quadrupeds, though after a few years, the males become bipedal and sentient. They can often be seen walking their quadrupedal females in large open spaces.

The sleeping habits of the Cree are also slightly curious in that they choose to sleep in piles. In the rare Cree warships there are no distinct quarters for each officer and crewman. Instead, the officers sleep in heaps in the single officers' stateroom, and the enlisted crew do likewise in another stateroom. The only difference from their normal sleeping habits is that warships lack females who would normally be present in the heaps had they been at home and not in the fleet.


Expressionless faces, melodic voices and perpetually decaying flesh are the main points of note about the Daimong. They are often used as news presenters due to their natural inability to display emotion on their faces and as choirs due to the natural harmony their voices offer, though their colleagues are often eager to avoid them when necessary due to the smell of rot that spreads across rooms when one is near.


This race is little heard of in the empire, a fact mainly due to the special dispensation they received centuries ago that allowed them never to leave their homeworld. It is generally understood that this shaggy hair race tend equally shaggy haired cattle to provide some excellent exports of wool and other produce for the empire. The presumed Yormak homeworld is Esley since according to Caroline, Lady Sula, they tended cattle there.

Social structure

The Praxis and the Dread Empire

Created some 12,481 years ago by an unnamed Shaa, the Praxis is believed to be the fundamental truth of the universe, summarised by the phrase: All that is important is known. It governs all who live in the Empire, and is ultimately inescapable.

Numerous classes of technology have been outlawed by the Shaa in accordance to the Praxis:

  • machine intelligence and autonomy
  • translation of organic intelligence into a machine or electromagnetic form
  • machines capable of manipulating molecules and atoms (nanotechnology)
  • genetic manipulation.

A group of humans on the planet Dandaphis were once caught experimenting with genetic manipulation in the hope of engineering a plague to eradicate the Shaa. The entire planet was annihilated with antimatter bombs.

Such was the teaching of the Praxis, those who offend against the fundamental law shall receive punishment in greater proportion than their crime, so public virtue may be maintained by this example. Never since the death of an entire planet for the actions of a few had such tenets been challenged.

The Praxis also outlawed the search for immortality. This was a lesson learned by the Shaa themselves, as they were immortal. In one of the few episodes of open reasoning they admitted to their subject races that this was a terrible error on their part, which they would ensure would never be repeated by those they ruled.

Another clause to the Praxis ensured a distinct social structure. The Shaa were below the Praxis, the Convocation were below the Shaa, the rest of the Peer society were below the Convocation, and then there were the Commoners, in essence the poor people. In a similar divide as seen here on Earth, ten percent of the empire's population (predominantly the Peerage) held ninety percent of its wealth, and weren't afraid to display it.

As for the Empire itself, the watchword was obedience. Punishments could be doled out for even the slightest misdemeanor, and though only the worst crimes warranted execution and torture, there were apparently sufficient numbers of highly criminal acts perpetrated to deserve a number of broadcast channels devoted entirely to broadcasting flayings, hangings, dismemberments and the many other forms of torture and execution that could be doled out.

Censorship was also a strong feature of the regime. All civilian mail was sent via censorship nodes that could stop a letter being sent should its complex algorithms detect even the slightest hint of anti-imperial content, and if necessary inform the Legion of Diligence as to the location of possible traitors. Fleet mail was typically censored by an officer's superiors.

The Antimatter Service, the Civil Service, the Exploration Service, and the Investigative Service (the Legion of Diligence is thought to be merely a division of the Investigative Service) are all divisions of the Empire. They were known to have certain colors to identify them; for instance the Civil Service's color was brown, the Exploration Service, blue; and the Legion of Diligence, gold.


The only people who were permitted to petition the Shaa, the Convocation typically wore red and comprised more than one hundred of the most prominent clans from each race under the Praxis. In total, over six hundred beings could be present when the Convocation was in session. The Convocation themselves were involved in all the administrative projects of the empire, from commanding the fleet to simply managing the ring stations and their antimatter fuel.

Though they were supposedly all equal and only one step down from the Shaa, the Convocation usually spoke under one person, the Lord or Lady Senior who, after the death of the last Shaa, would be the highest-ranking official in the entire empire.


The elite of the Empire's population. Born into wealth only to make more wealth, these people make up only a small percentage of the population, yet control most of its wealth. They are typically expected to look after those below their station, and as such Peer clans are seen as patrons to others, their clients. Marriages are arranged between clans, promotions organised behind the scenes, all to the benefit of themselves in their never-ending struggle to rise above the rest of the Peerage.

While the Praxis states that Peers are all created equal, there is no evidence of that in practice. Provincial clans, such as the Martinezes, who come from so-called backwater planets with grating provincial accents, are shunned by others of their caste in more central regions of the empire, such as its capital, Zanshaa.


The actual workforce behind the empire. These people worked so the Peers could get richer, while they themselves remained poor. Few commoners were ever accepted by the peerage, even those with money. It would be rare to see a commoner in an officer's uniform in the fleet, as such positions were almost always held by Peers.

The Fleet

The backbone of the Empire's power. They could rain down antimatter bombs on populations that had displeased them and though they had never been involved in war since the conquest of the Lai-own, they stayed on guard of their principal planets, the playground of the rich.

Being in the fleet was a highly prestigious achievement, and most peers were guaranteed a place on their seventeenth year should they choose to become a fleet officer. Commoners generally had to enlist into the fleet and specialise in their chosen role.

Discipline was always strict and draconian: a superior officer could kill a subordinate on a whim for any reason, or even for no reason. Though such executions were permitted, they were rare as they would often lead to civil lawsuits from the victim's clan.

To cope with the lack of any actual combat, the fleet was highly sport-oriented. If you didn't follow at least one sport, you were classed a "toil" by colleagues and shunned. Another method of dealing with the boredom of peacetime was in the participation of manoeuvres, highly scripted combat in which crews were trained and judged in their ability to follow orders. It was these tactics that led to the devastating losses of the two large engagements of the civil war, and only tactics developed by Martinez, which allowed freer movement, proved successful in destroying large numbers of enemies at a relatively small cost of friendlies.


Typically of the peerage, these people start off in the fleet at a training academy: the Cheng Ho Academy for the privileged cadets, the Nelson Academy and others for the less fortunate. Regardless of which institution they attended, their academy training is followed by a three-year stint in the imperial fleet in order to learn officer skills and to prepare for the Lieutenants' examination. Each year, a cky few cadets of appropriate seniority and qualifications could be promoted to a lieutenancy by officers of Lieutenant Captain rank or higher.

Fleet officers (lieutenants and higher ranks) are traditionally referred to as Lord or Lady (the usual title of Peers) regardless of whether they actually were Peers or not. Many officers choose to openly refer to cadets as scum and other abusive epithets.

Once in the fleet, officers typically use family ties to ascend through the ranks of the fleet, as opportunies for promotion in peacetime are rare, other than a vacancy opening above due to the death, retirement or promotion of a superior officer. Even then, allies of higher-ranking officers were more likely to fill such posts than were those who had earned enmity or mere indifference from their superiors.


These people, usually commoners, made up the majority of a ship's crew. There are multiple divisions of crewmen, such as electricians, data managers, weaponers and riggers, to name just a few. They rise through the ranks from trainee to second class to first class and eventually, upon the successful completion of an exam, to Master.

Science and technology


Weapons and Ships

When the Shaa conquered the planet Terra (Earth) they did it by bombarding the planet from space, with their fleet of warships. The classes of these ships in order of size are: Light Frigates (Corona); Light Cruisers; Heavy Cruisers (Illustrious); Bombardment (Bombardment of Delhi); Judge (Judge Urhug); and Praxis class Battleships (Glory of the Praxis), which are the largest vessels. When the Naxids first started their rebellion they bought several very large merchant ships. These ships were not only larger than Praxis-Class ships, they also held far more missiles. In the final battle at Naxas, nine of these massive ships were deployed to fight loyalist forces. It would be the first and last time they would ever be deployed. Most of these ships run on antimatter engines. It is revealed that the Fleet once considered using giant 'Ship-Killing' lasers as their main weapon. However, due to the limitations caused by the speed of light (in that any ship could simply roll out of the beam's way), they were never fitted on to actual warships, although there are certain situations in which the ship-killing lasers could prove useful, such as Corona's escape from Magaria and the Battle of Harzapid. The most powerful of the ship's weapons therefore, are antimatter missiles, which can be ordered to move and dodge in order to hit a ship or other mobile target. Whether you are a light frigate or a heavy cruiser, an antimatter missile will destroy you in one hit. All ships fit for combat have a way of countering that. First, ships can launch their own screen of antimatter missiles to intercept enemy missiles. Second is the laser system that can be either computer operated or used manually by a ship's crew. Finally, there is the antiproton beam. They are only available on heavy cruisers, and it would be better to use antimatter missiles. However, at the Battle of Harzapid all of the loyalist forces were forced to use antiproton beams. Not only were their own ships berthed to the ring (which antimatter missiles would destroy) but the Naxid rebel ships were also berthed to the ring.

Homeworld Technology

All major planets in the Shaa domain have rings surrounding them. Minor planets only have space stations attached to space elevator cables. These rings not only provide a place to dock warships, their accelerators produce antimatter that is the main source of power for a planet. They also provide living space for millions of people. The ring is the most important thing on a planet. While a planet will not run out of food with the loss of a ring (due to the Shaa's insistence that every planet be self-sustaining), without the ring a planet will quickly run out of power and many delicacies and luxuries. Gareth Martinez, while he was on Michi Chen's staff aboard the Illustrious, was forced to destroy the ring on the planet Bai-Do. Without the ring the planet could not have food shipped to it from space (the elevators on the ring being the only way the get large quantities of goods from spacecraft to the planet). Despite the Praxis decree that every planet should be self-sufficient, the dust kicked up by the falling ring reduced the planet's capacity to grow crops, and millions would inevitably die in the long winter to follow.

Antimatter is the most vital thing in the Shaa empire. Not only is it a weapon, it is also the primary fuel source for all planets in the Shaa domain. This is proven after the ring was destroyed by Loyalist forces on Zanshaa. Without the ring, it took a long time for Naxid troops to get from the Naxid fleet above Zanshaa to the planet below, using planet shuttles. Also, rolling blackouts became very frequent without the ring to power the planet.

See also

External links

  • Review by Jo Walton: " favourite favourite kind of thing. There are aliens, and spaceships, and planets with funny names..."
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