SCI FICTION, December, 14 2005

Thursday, 29 December 2005 04:14 E. Sedia
"The Emperor" by Lucius Shepard

"The Emperor" is another wonderful tale from Lucius Shepard, spellbinding and complex.

McGlowrie, the protagonist, works at the Emperor—a giant mine which covers a good chunk of Alaska. From the very beginning, the readers are immersed in the atmosphere of this bleak future landscape, suffocated by the poisonous gases, too toxic to survive. I like northern landscapes, and Mr. Shepard's rendition of their degradation is heartbreaking. This industrial nightmare crawls with various machines, and McGlowrie is one of the very few humans who works the mine. When eco-terrorists strike the Emperor, McGlowrie and two others find themselves trying to survive in the toxic hell, and to avoid being taken apart by the hunter-killers—the machines which are chillingly unable to differentiate between broken machinery and human flesh.

Their plight is added to by Demetrius, an autistic man who is mysteriously able to survive in the mine. The attempts to survive the Emperor, while figuring out Demetrius's story, comprise most of the plot. But, like with every Shepard story, this is just a small portion of what's going on.

The themes of this piece are many, and the protagonist is anything but simple. From the beginning, I was stricken by the relationship between McGlowrie and the machines inhabiting the mine: he thinks of them with anthropomorphic affection. Mr. Shepard is an astute observer, and perfectly captures the instinctive cringing brought on by a desolate, industrial landscape—even in someone as jaded as McGlowrie. Anthropomorphizing the machines is the only escape in such a situation, a protective reaction of the mind thrust into a nightmare.

The separation between the mechanical and organic is very slight in this story—not only the machines are perceived as alive, but McGlowrie comes across as somewhat mechanical. He is cold, calculating, and sometimes downright chilling, especially when compared to the idealism of Bromley, a new employee at the Emperor. This contrast is especially meaningful because of the difference in personal histories of the two men—McGlowrie clawed his way out of the inner-city gangland, while Bromley came from an affluent family and is filled self-righteous naïveté. McGlowrie cannot afford idealism; he is too busy surviving. The relationship between them brings to mind many wealthy westerners who tell the people in poor countries to pretty please stop chopping down rainforest because cute monkeys live there; they never consider their own role in the poverty and desperation that drives much of the destruction of nature. As a result, McGlowrie is more sympathetic, although he is rarely likeable.

The fact that I sympathized with McGlowrie is a testament to Mr. Shepard's writing skills. McGlowrie stands for many things I do not like: destruction of nature, cold pragmatism, and willingness to sacrifice the lives of those he cares about to save his own. Still, I could not help but understand him and care about his fate.