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The Empress of Outer Space

a novel by A. Bertram Chandler

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The Fungus of Oz

  • Mar 2, 2011
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Chandler's bibliography is dominated by stories concerning his best-loved character John Grimes.  But Grimes is not his only recurring character.  Another, about whom he penned three novels, is the Ex-Empress Irene Trafford nee Smith.

Irene is featured in the novel covered here and in two sequels - Space Mercenaries and Nebula Alert - and makes a cameo appearance in the Grimes novel, The Dark Dimensions.  (Grimes, in fact, makes his own cameo appearance in Nebula Alert.)

The background for these stories is Chandler's familiar Rim Worlds universe, complete with the familiar Rim Worlds Confederacy, the time-twisting Mannschenn Drive (FTL), Carlotti instantaneous communications gear, the piratical Duchy of Waldegren, psionic communications, but with a twist.  Rather than being dominated by the Federation, this iteration of the RW universe is run by an Earth-based empire, helmed by a non-hereditary Empress.

That Empress, chosen by a selection committee, trained for years to assume the mantle of monarchy, is Irene.

She's tall, more than physically fit, terribly smart, psychologically domineering, ruthless and, naturally, quite beautiful.

At the opening of The Empress of Outer Space, Irene is personally overseeing the trial and execution of mutineers, a Survey Service captain and crew who discovered a new world inhabited by technologically inferior beings and set up shop as lords and masters.  The former captain, one Mortimer Jones, had established himself on the planet as a deity, using his ship's high technology (and weapons) as proof of his god-like status.

Accompanying the Empress on this adventure is one Commander Trafford, a former shipmate of Jones' who's serving as an intelligence officer, hopefully providing insight into Jones' thinking.

As the military executions of Jones' crew are carried out, Jones, with the help of the Empress' official stand-in, manages to escape aboard the Empress' personal (armed) yacht.  And the chase is on.

Irene, it seems, takes such an action as a personal affront and is not content to allow others to extract vengeance upon Jones.  Quickly gathering a crew of experts - including Trafford - she sets off after the mutineer.

At this point It would seem that The Empress of Outer Space is a fairly straight-forward action-adventure tale, featuring some interesting characters, but the novel quickly develops otherwise, once the Empress' ship lands on a previously unexplored planet that may be harboring Jones.  Upon landing, the Empress and crew are quickly overcome by the hallucinogenic effects of a local fungus, and it is here that the real adventure begins.

Trafford, the Empress and their shipmates are transported to a world that is equal parts The Wizard of Oz, Burrough's Barsoom, Fleming's Bond tales, Wren's foreign legion tales and Dumas' Muskateers, all delightfully mixed together in an enjoyably bizarre fight between the forces of good and evil.

We visit the Emerald City and Fort Zinderneuf, take a ride aboard an airship, are attacked by the Red Jeddak, ride along on a Thoat-based cavalry charge, escape using some of Bond's clever devices, as the characters - all the while realizing that something is not quite right - are forced to take the hallucinations seriously.

We know the Empress wins out in the end (otherwise, no sequels), but this tale is all about Chandler's delighted and delightful playing around in the fictional worlds of some of his favorite authors.

And as always, Chandler (who loved to play with alternate realities and the world-as-myth concept) leaves us wondering: were the Empress' and Trafford's experiences straight hallucinations, or were the hallucinations merely a device that transported them to those other author's universes? 
The Fungus of Oz

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