The copy of the book I have has this tag line: “Two men and one woman in a desperate battle to win a galactic empire—or destroy it!”
Though, really, the woman is incidental. Really, she is the focus of a love triangle. Really, she is the cause—almost—for the social awakening of the younger of the two men, except that social awakening never happens, and he returns the galactic empire to the status quo even though that means enslavement and death for countless people. Really, this book is a space-fantasy based on the decline of the Roman Empire that re-establishes the importance of political stability over the good of individual citizens. An imperialist fantasy.
The basic plot: A favorite of the stupid and decadent emperor has carved out his own fiefdom in the farther reaches of imperial space, enslaving planets, killing those who disagree with him, and reaping riches from the bodies of the empire’s citizens. The top admiral in the area, McCormac, revolts against this despot, and Flandry, a young commander, is sent to stop the revolt. Kathryn, McCormac’s wife, is captured by the evil despot, freed by Flandry, and seduced by the same. In the end, Flandry convinces McCormac and co. to leave imperial space, reestablishing peaceful civilization (though not addressing any of the horrible things that the despot instituted—such as crucifixion as punishment). And everybody wins!
By everybody, I mean those who live at the center of the empire, who profit off of all of the worlds incorporated by the empire, who don’t have to worry about what goes on in the outer reaches because it doesn’t matter, as long as business in the center is unaffected.
Women are only useful as love objects. Women who are raped/assaulted are only used at plot points for the male heroes. In fact, the only reason the evil despot (such a cartoon, such a limited presence, he doesn’t even deserve to be named here) is killed by Flandry is because he raped Kathryn. Who cares that he sentenced hundreds or thousands of people to death? What we have here is the heroism of the personal affront over heroism for the public good.
I don’t know if it’s fair for me to criticize the book for using heroic tropes and clichés. It’s not Anderson’s fault I’m reading this book fifty years after he wrote it (though I’ve read books from that time which are infinitely more complicated and aware). It’s not the fault of THE REBEL WORLDS that I’m concerned more about the social effects of heroism and the social good as opposed to the personal, or at least recognition that personal heroism has costs when ignoring the social.
And while it may not be fair, it’s impossible not to call Anderson out. The book is riddled with misogyny and the worst of capitalist and imperialist conceits.
The writing isn’t all that great, either.