Robert Silverberg has been a major figure in science fiction since the 1950s, having won the Nebula, Locus, and Hugo Awards multiple times. Recently, he published The Emperor and the Maula, a science-fictional take on the story of Scheherazade. Technically, this is a reprint, since an abridged version was printed in the 1990s. The new version of the story is nearly 15,000 words longer. The novella follows Laylah, a human woman seeking to free Earth from an interstellar empire that has made it a vassal state. As a “maula”—a word meaning, roughly, “provincial barbarian”—Laylah is forbidden to set foot on the homeworld of the conquering Ansaar on pain of death. But she goes regardless, hoping to petition the emperor for Earth’s freedom. Like Scheherazade, she forestalls her execution by telling stories.
Silverberg paints a vivid picture of a sprawling empire filled with wonders that Laylah can barely comprehend. But while the Ansaar are very different in culture and appearance from humans, some things are universal truths…like the tendency of bureaucrats to shunt problems off on someone else. Silverberg nicely balances “sensawunda” and relatability.
Another strength of the story is the complexity of the relationship it portrays between Laylah and the Ansaar. She wishes for humanity to be free, but develops a genuine friendship with an Ansaar official. Silverberg also makes some interesting sociopolitical insights. At one point, we’re told that “Aristocrats might shrug at the social codes, so long as their own positions remained secure, but the common folk, fearing a wholesale collapse of the social order that might bring chaos into their own lives, generally preferred that everyone observe the rules of behavior—even where that might be disadvantageous to themselves.” A great deal has been written in political science circles about instances in which citizens vote for policies that run counter to their own self-interest. Silverberg suggests one possible reason for this phenomenon: people may see even a crappy status quo as superior to the uncertainty that would accompany upending that situation.
This is generally an interesting and entertaining story, but I did perceive a couple of flaws. First, Laylah says that humanity had long since given up space exploration at the time the Ansaar came. She speaks of humanity turning inward with approval, and this seemed an odd viewpoint for a heroic protagonist in a science fiction story to espouse. At its core, sci-fi is about exploration, about the ever-expanding final frontier. The idea that humanity would forsake curiosity and exploration, not because of an apocalyptic war or natural disaster, but simply because they didn’t see any value in it, struck me as something to be lamented, not celebrated. I was also confused by the fact that all electrical devices on Earth immediately stopped working when the Ansaar invasion fleet deactivated the orbital solar-power satellites. Do none of these supposedly futuristic devices have batteries? Even my several-years-old laptop can chug along without external power for a couple of hours!