Review: Fortunes of the Imperium

Nobody will ever confuse Fortunes of the Imperium (Jody Lynne Nye; Baen) with great SF, but it’s a likeable, fluffy little confection of a book that had me thinking “Wodehouse…in…spaaace!”

Lord Thomas Kinago and his imperturbable aide Parsons ride again (this is a sequel to the earlier Views of the Imperium). Following a regrettable incident involving a skimmer race and an extremely ugly statue, the young lord’s formidable mother, acting in her capacity as as the First Space Lord, has (horrors!) saddled him with actual work, sending the duo on a diplomatic mission to the Autocracy of the Uctu.

Hostile aliens are bad enough, but Kinago is also saddled with his cousin Jil, a glittering beauty who believes she has reason to want to be far away from the Imperial capital for a while after having rebuffed an infatuated gangster. How’s a man to get anywhere with his real assignment – investigating arms smuggling to the Autocracy for the Imperium’s intelligence bureau – with a shopping-mad relative and her entourage making him so dashedly conspicuous? Worse yet, rumor has reached Kinago’s ears that two of the vivacious and undeniably attractive young ladies attending Jil have been qualified by his aunts as matrimonial prospects

Complications ensue in the form of an unexpected reapparence by the aforesaid gangster, a most curious and alimentary form of smuggling, and a dastardly plot against the lonely young Autocrat of the Uctu. Can Lord Thomas’s wits, luck, generosity, and genetically enhanced aristocratic charm carry the day? Will cousin Jil ever get enough shopping? Can the specter of matrimony be successfully evaded? And how will Lord Thomas cope when he discovers the ubiquitous and indispensable Parsons to be helplessly immured in an Uctu prison cell?

It’s all good silly fun that Nye obviously had a good time writing, only slightly marred by the fact that one of the central plot conceits doesn’t actually work. To reassemble a solid object from nanite dust you’d have to pay the energy cost of all the covalent bonds that would have been present to begin with if the object had been manufactured in bulk. For anything metal this is comparable to the cost required to melt it, and that energy has to come from somewhere at reassembly time.

Ah well. This sort of thing is why SF has the one-McGuffin-but-FTL-doesn’t-count rule. Enjoy; I did.

15 thoughts on “Review: Fortunes of the Imperium

  1. Hm. I have a friend who just loves Wodehouse. I should point him at this.

  2. >Hm. I have a friend who just loves Wodehouse. I should point him at this.

    Actually, Wodehouse-in-spaaace has been done even better at least once before. Point him at Charles Stross’s novella Trunk and Disorderly from his Wireless anthology.

  3. To reassemble a solid object from nanite dust you’d have to pay the energy cost of all the covalent bonds that would have been present to begin with if the object had been manufactured in bulk. For anything metal this is comparable to the cost required to melt it, and that energy has to come from somewhere at reassembly time.

    I think you’ve got that backwards. Building the object is the reverse of melting it, so forming those bonds would release about the same amount of heat you’d have to put in to melt it. The problem during reassembly would not be to supply the heat, but to allow it to dissipate without causing either the object, its surroundings, or the nanites to deform or explode.

  4. Off topic (sorry): I’ve been wanting to try out something by Wodehouse. Is there anything by him that you would call a “typical” or “canonical” work (or works)?

  5. To reassemble a solid object from nanite dust you’d have to pay the energy cost of all the covalent bonds that would have been present to begin with…

    I think you’ve got that backwards.

    I am not an expert, here, but I think esr is correct.

    It is true that covalent bonds are (generally?) very stable, which would imply a low (uh… potential?) energy, but turning metal/silica/carbon/etc. powder into a solid is going to take some energy – an energy barrier to climb and then go down the other side. Actually, when melting metal, this is obvious – you add energy to melt it and then you can have the energy back as it solidifies.

    On the other hand, there is vacuum welding, which requires (basically?) no energy… this works with metals…

    Barring some sort of cousin of Maxwell’s demon, isn’t there an energy requirement associated with the phenomenal reduction of entropy associated with turning mixed powder back into different substances making up stuff?

  6. Even turning single-element powder back into a larger piece without leaving holes involves a reduction of entropy. Ditto with any crystaline arangement of atoms that have to be arranged properly (ex. Na – Cl – Na – Cl… in 3 dimensions).

  7. Ooh! Ooh! I finally understand a direct relationship between entropy and energy, at least as it applies to demons…

    Assembling objects out of atoms or particles (which have mass) would presumably require a vast number of demons, but no matter… The demons would be repeatedly fighting inertia with force over distances, which equals energy. Maxwell’s demon(s) wouldn’t cut it – it would take beefy demons and they would have to be fed!

  8. Okay… sorry about the multiple posts, but… I guess I already understood that in a general way – it always takes energy to move around/organize objects with mass.

  9. Re: Wodehouse, it’s just about all good. Start with anything in the Jeeves & Bertie canon — you can’t go wrong, and “sequence order” is pretty irrelevant.

  10. > Off topic (sorry): I’ve been wanting to try out something by Wodehouse. Is there anything by him that you would call a “typical” or “canonical” work (or works)?

    Besides his random novels, Wodehouse also wrote 3 semi-series. The most well known are the Wooster-Jeeves stories, all told by Bertram Wooster himself. The other excellent series is about the eccentric Lord Emsworth of Blandings Castle, and his prize-winning pig, the Empress. And last but not least there is Psmith (the P is silent), the journalist.

    As far as I remember there is a Psmith novel where all 3 threads meet. Go for any of the 3 series, and you wont be disappointed. Wodehouse is hilarious.

  11. >Okay… sorry about the multiple posts, but… I guess I already understood that in a general way – it always takes energy to move around/organize objects with mass.

    Right. I admit I may have oversimplified my criticism a bit; bond formation is sometimes endothermic, sometimes exothermic. The point is that for reassembly of a macroscopic object there needs to be either supply or dissipation of a lot of energy. This is absent in the story, and the difficulty is never addressed by anything the characters do or any fact about the setting.

  12. Ooh! A chemistry question!

    Bond formation is always an energy releasing (exothermic) act. However, a generic chemical reaction requires the breaking of old bonds and the making of new bonds. If the energy required to break the old bonds is larger than the energy of the new bonds, then it’s an endothermic reaction. Endothermic reactions are not generally spontaneous because the energy to drive the reaction has to come from somewhere. However, a sufficiently large increase in entropy can drive a energetically unfavorable reaction forward (Gibb’s free energy dictates whether a reaction can occur spontaneously or not)

    Having said that, the reassembly would produce heat (assuming nanite bonds have negligible bond strength) and the universe makes sure of the accounting on the entropy.

    Having said that…thanks for the reviews! I’m getting my sons into SF and they don’t find Heinlein compelling yet. You’re helping me break them into the genre.

  13. >Bond formation is always an energy releasing (exothermic) act. However, a generic chemical reaction requires the breaking of old bonds and the making of new bonds.

    Yes, this is what I meant earlier – that is, because your reactants do not normally occur as ionized free radicals the reaction as a whole may be either endo or exo. I was careless and failed to express this properly.

  14. Similarly, a creature composed of largely of nanobots in place of ordinary living cells is not going to be able to grow major structures in seconds, because it faces similar constraints of energy expenditure and supply of materials as ordinary living cells.

    If it was a pile of loosely coupled nanobots capable of crawling over each other, smart dust, then could change shape pretty quickly, but would not be very strong, would tend to lose nanobots leaving a trail of slime behind it, and could not swiftly replace them.

    Nanobot technology should, in theory, be able to grow any structure we want, and probably grow them faster than normal trees and animals grow, but not ridiculously faster.

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