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The Emperor and the Maula by Robert Silverberg

Published by Subterranean on September 30, 2017

Robert Silverberg’s introduction to The Emperor and the Maula explains the book’s origin. It began as a 30,000-word unfinished third of a projected novel (a space opera starring Scheherazade) that would be joined by contributions of equal length from two other writers to be named later. The book was never finished, so Silverberg cut his contribution down to 15,000 words and sold it to an anthology as a stand-alone story. This version is the 30,000-word story with the shorter story’s ending engrafted.

Silverberg gave the Scheherazade role to Laylah Walis, who crosses from Territorial Space into Imperial Space, an offense punishable by death. Laylah, an Earthborn woman, is immediately detained when she disembarks from the passenger ship that carried her to Harrar, the seat of the Imperial Government and homeworld of the Ansaaran. The bureaucrats who detain her are surprised that an alien from a backward planet like Earth has learned to speak their language. As a maula (a barbarian, unclean and uncivilized, a member of an inferior race), Laylah has desecrated the sacred world of Harrar by setting foot on it.

The bureaucrats, true to their civilized nature, engage in jurisdictional squabbles that delay Laylah’s execution. While they debate who should kill her and how it should be done, the story of the maula makes its way to the Emperor. He is fascinated to hear that this seemingly intelligent creature has willingly traveled to her certain death. He wants to know why, so he delays the execution and orders that the maula be brought to him. And so Laylah explains herself, night after night, leaving the Emperor with a cliffhanger at daybreak.

In the grand tradition of science fiction, Laylah praises humans, albeit slyly, quoting poetry and telling tales of fellowship, so that the Emperor will come to understand that humans, while primitive, are worthy inhabitants of the empire he rules. But Laylah also praises aliens. I think Silverberg was making the point that diversity is enriching, whether that consists of interacting with diverse alien races or with diverse human races. It’s hard to argue with that.

Silverberg laced this short novel with noteworthy observations about Ansaaran behavior. For instance, Ansaaran aristocrats feel that they are above the rules that govern society (because rules are meant to regulate the masses), while the lower castes feel that social order will be destroyed if rules are not rigidly enforced, not realizing that inflexible law and order benefits the higher castes to the detriment of the lower castes. Sounds a lot like America, doesn’t it?

Those are the things that make The Emperor and the Maula worth reading. Pretty much anything by Silverberg is worth reading, but The Emperor and the Maula is engaging and clever and, if it isn’t as complex as the Tales of the Arabian Knights, it is a worthy tribute.


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