Prequel Problems: Jack Campbell’s Pillars of Reality

By Tom Anderson

In a previous Prequel Problems article, I discussed Jack Campbell’s Lost Fleet series and its spinoffs, including a prequel. I also mentioned that he had a separate fantasy series, ‘The Pillars of Reality’, that was itself in the process of getting a prequel. Now that prequel is complete, so I feel I can tackle the series as a whole.

I should say, before I start, that much of the appeal of ‘The Pillars of Reality’ is the ontological mystery of its setting, which gradually comes out over the six books of the original series. Inevitably, I cannot discuss this series without spoiling this mystery, so if you wish to read it yourself, I would suggest stopping before I get into that! I will say is that I would recommend this series and I find it strangely compelling to read; it lends itself to the same ‘just one more episode’ binge-watching tendency as a cliffhanger-heavy Netflix series, even more so than the Lost Fleet series. I will sketch the setting as it stands at the beginning of the first book, ‘The Dragons of Dorcastle’, and alert you to the point where the major spoilers start.

That first book opens from the perspective of Alain of Ihris, a young Mage who has been assigned to protect a trade caravan, as his Guild hires him out to do. Mages are much feared (for good reason) by the common people, whom they view as nonexistent ‘shadows’ in an illusory reality who may be swept aside and slain with no more thought than one would give to opening a door. We eventually learn that the Mages attribute their powers to holding firmly the belief that each individual Mage is the only thing in the world with real existence, which allows them to perform feats such as making a wall briefly cease to exist so they can walk through: they believe the wall is merely an illusion to start with, after all. Darkly, it transpires that the way they induce this belief involves torturing and brainwashing the young ones with the talent (recruited against their will) into becoming Mages. I mentioned in my previous Campbell article that he reminds me of SLP’s Andy Cooke in a number of ways, and one such case is that both have used their experience of autism as inspiration for presenting a different worldview – Cooke in his excellent Shadowlands series, and Campbell here in how Mages interact with others (including other Mages). (Of course, autistic behaviour is not the same as the kind of view I described above, but the eventually-more-sympathetic Alain specifically is evocative of it).

Alain’s caravan is attacked, and he encounters another VIP in the process of the attack: the caravan includes a carriage occupied by a young female Master Mechanic named Mari of Caer Lyn. The Mechanics, we learn, are the other powerful Guild on this world of Dematr. While the common people of Alain’s caravan are limited to swords and bows, Mari has one of the powerful weapons of the Mechanics that no others know how to make or use: a revolver. Whereas the Mages wear distinctive robes that set them apart, the Mechanics wear leather jackets and walk with a swagger. The Mechanics see others as beneath their notice for coarser reasons than the Mages. The two groups also hate each other, both deny the others’ powers exist, and dislike the fact that the common people both refer to them as ‘the Great Guilds’ as the duumvirate of their oppressors. Every fair-sized town or city in Dematr has both a Mechanics’ Guild and a Mage Guild building.

Through happenstance and their characters, Alain and Mari do not slay each other as most would in their circumstances, but are forced to work together so they may escape the attack and eventually reach the city of Dorcastle. They then intend to never see each other again, though both intrude into one another’s thoughts. Mari is then imprisoned and only escapes thanks to Alain and his powers (which she realises do exist, contrary to what she has been taught), and the two are forced together once again.

The plot of the first book does not directly connect very much with the others, and certain things are presented differently to the setting of the later ones. At first I thought this was the typical problem of a setting evolving in the author’s mind, but at least some of it was deliberate: we are presented with the world of Dematr in a particular way, and what we find later pulls the rug out from under us. In the first book, we learn from Alain that there are Dark Mages, who have gone rogue and do not obey the Guild, and (to Mari’s surprise) it turns out there are also ‘Dark Mechanics’ in a similar circumstance. The latter group was responsible for a mysterious ‘dragon’ attacking shipping, a mechanical contrivance and not a summoned Mage creature as initially thought, which Alain and Mari foil together. This self-contained plot doesn’t do much for the series other than bringing Mari and Alain together, yet this is not a criticism. From this plot, we are encouraged to believe that the Mages and Mechanics implicitly have a kind of established legitimacy (the fact that the rogues are referred to as ‘Dark’), that they are equal and coëval counterparts, and that there is some kind of regard for public welfare (given how Mari and Alain foil the dragon plot). In fact, it turns out that this is largely due to us seeing it through the viewpoints of Alain and Mari (who swap back and forth as inner narrator), who are both good people whose essential goodness has not been broken down by the tyrannical and sociopathic organisations which raised them. We will eventually learn that the attack on the caravan was organised by Guild Mechanics seeking to kill Mari off as a potential threat to their power, and that Alain was sent there by Mages hoping he would die in the process as well.

The first book ends with Alain having a vision of the future with Mari and himself standing on the ramparts of Dorcastle before an army, the walls flying banners with the sun of a new day. He mentions it to her, but elects not to mention the part about them both wearing matching rings... The remaining five books of the original series tell a continuing story, after the second opens with the two of them separated and trying to forget one another, yet end up meeting once again. After defeating a ‘real’ Mage-summoned dragon (that was about to attack Alain and some troops) with a bazooka invented by a friend, Mari is eventually revealed as the legendary ‘daughter of Jules’, a descendant of the titular female pirate warlord who helped found western free cities in the past. The daughter was prophesised by a Mage in Jules’ time to be the one who would unite Mages, Mechanics and common folk, and finally free the latter from the domination of the former. Mari is less than thrilled to have this responsiblity placed on her, and it means that Mages, Mechanics and others will now never stop hunting her to try to prevent the prophecy coming through. At least Alain is at her side.

We get to see more of the wonders of the Mechanics in the process: a steam locomotive (which Alain never trusts, as every time he and Mari board one they get attacked and have to jump from a bridge or similar!), metal steamships armed with cannon, and the ‘far-talker’ or radio. We also get hints that not all is well with the Guild; Mari (and eventually her friends) note that one Guild building has a display with a series of past far-talkers over time, with the oldest broken ones being small and sleek, and the latest models being large, clunky and crude. There are only four steamships, and talk of losing access to particular individual vehicles or technologies. What’s going on?

What helps these books keep momentum is that there is always a new goal to shoot for. For example, in book 2, desiring the only copy of certain information outside of the Mechanics’ Guild, Mari and Alain infiltrate the devastated ghost city of Marandur, the former Imperial capital, and discover its university has still been kept going by faithful academics even as it is surrounded by the barbarian remnants of the city. Mari encounters her mother in Caer Lyn and meets her sister, and is shocked to learn that (as she thought her mother abandoned her) her mother thought the same in return, as the Guild deliberately intercepts letters to drive a wedge between its recruits and their common families and instil an air of superiority. Alain finally thinks to mention his vision of the rings, and a panicked Mari reacts by getting them married in a sequence where Alain isn’t quite sure what’s going on! Their adventures then take them (pursued by assassins) to the island of Altis, where a hidden valley hides a strange, unearthly-looking tower shining with unknown technology.

Here’s where we get into the ontological mystery, so if you’d rather avoid having that spoiled, I’d stop here and read the books for yourself. Otherwise: NOW READ ON!

The technologically-advanced tower, it transpires, is inhabited by the Librarians, who eventually tell Mari the truth behind the world of Dematr. Dematr was named after the Demeter, the starship that brought colonists to this world from faraway ‘Urth’. It was a generation ship, crewed by generations of engineers, while most of the new colonists were brought in the form of frozen embryos (along with those of animals and so on) which could be grown to maturity here through technology. However, a few generations down the line, the engineers no longer had commitment to their mission, and instead decided to create a world in which they would be the masters, not sharing their technology with the newly-grown colonists but instead creating a social order in which they would be lorded over. The origin of the Mages’ abilities is not well understood, but emerged a little while after landing on the planet, and is speculated to be the result of mutations from the environment here. The Librarians are those who refused to go along with the new Mechanics’ plans, so instead were exiled here and warned not to interfere. They still have a long-distance far-talker that could, one day, reach Urth. More importantly in the short run, though, they have the plans Mari needed.

I will pause for a while to discuss this scenario. The idea of ‘(post-apocalyptic) science fiction disguised as fantasy’ is far from new, but I think it is particularly well executed in this series. Growing up, I enjoyed the depiction of the setting of the Shining Force role-playing games in Sonic the Comic, in which we go from an elf sparring with a human sword-wielding warrior to people breaking into an ancient vault with mysterious writing on the door. Except the twist is that the reader can read it, because it’s an English-language warning that the vault within is a military facility containing nuclear weapons... There are many other examples. Many of them can feel rather contrived to my mind, usually because the writer wants to use conventional fantasy races and magic (e.g. how the roleplaying setting Shadowrun rather handwaves them into existence for its otherwise cyberpunk setting). Even without magic, it becomes problematic when such ‘rules’ are invoked to beat a setting into the shape an author wants: there’s S. M. Stirling’s infamous ‘Dies the Fire’ series, which goes to extraordinary lengths to avoid steam engines and gunpowder, or John Ringo’s Posleen series, which creates a very contrived set of enemy alien technology to make battleships viable when missiles and aircraft aren’t.

While the Mage powers are never fully explained in ‘The Pillars of Reality’, they are subtle enough that it doesn’t really matter. Campbell does a good job of making Mages feel like a real but transient threat, including Alain, because of how limited their powers are and how exhausting using them is; with them drawing power as a limited resource from the local land and this varying from place to place, this is also used for plot reasons (e.g. one Mage drawing the power before his opponent can). Aside from this, Dematr falls firmly into Clarke’s Law territory, with the Mechanics’ wonders being purely technological. Where Campbell really succeeds, when many authors fail, is that he shifts the ‘contrived’ aspect of his setting into being the internal work of human schemes within the setting, not the external work of the author’s mind. (This reminds me a bit of how Jonathan Creek does it with mystery fiction). Why is Dematr a world that seemingly has modern gender equality and low infant mortality (not unrelated) yet still has mediaeval blacksmiths and an Empire that feels very Roman-counterpart-culture? Why is there apparently only one language and we never have to worry about translation? How can we have some technologies but not the ones that should be corollaries of them? Answer: because it was deliberately built that way, not by Campbell’s whim but by the Mechanics’ schemes. And for the points where that cannot be logically covered, we are introduced to the Mechanics’ internal politics, in which the Guild has had multiple civil wars and power struggles (covered up and written out of history afterwards) which have gradually degraded their own power and capability, as engineering skill lost out to political savvy and ruthlessness. (In the third prequel book, Fate of the Free Lands, we learn that Dematr has midwives who understand hygiene and disinfection, but the Mechanics’ use of ultrasound machines has now failed as part of their technological degradation – so a neat justification for a level of infant mortality which is high enough to be an avoidable tragedy that makes us hate the Mechanics, but low enough to allow for modern-ish gender roles).

I should say that another fascinating (but also usually very contrived) type of setting is the ‘future imperfect’ case where the works of technologically-advanced past civilisation are still around, yet the people have fallen into ignorance and no longer understand it. This, too, has been done many times (famously in A Canticle for Leibowitz), but rarely convincingly in my view. The basic problem is that the authors are thinking of past examples of ‘dark ages’ such as the Bronze Age Collapse of ca. 1250 BC or the fall of the Roman Empire in the fifth century AD. Now back then it made sense that such an event could truly regress civilisation and topple us back to an earlier state of development: literacy and numeracy was frequently the province only of an elite bureaucracy, for example, there was no mass printing of books and it was easy for knowledge to be lost. It makes sense that the Anglo-Saxons might believe that Roman roads had been built by a vanished race of giants, as surely no human could ever build something so impressive (cue the ‘aliens’ meme guy). But today, it is rather hard to see how we could forget how basic technological principles work when the world is full of copies of David Macaulay’s The Way Things Work, for instance. There are ways around that – one can imagine a future ‘paperless’ world where all physical records cease to exist and then the internet goes down, and I believe Leibowitz did it via a sort of Khmer Rouge on steroids in which any sign of intellectualism was targeted – but it always feels a bit questionable, given how big a place the world is. Could any apocalypse of that type really reach every remote island, every deep vault, every forgotten library?

Again, Campbell pulls this off pretty well with Dematr. The common people are ignorant of technology beyond a certain level because the Mechanics crack down hard on any attempt to innovate (we get some stories about it in later books). There is no mass production because the Mechanics want only a limited number of weapons and devices in circulation among themselves to support their power structures. The Mechanics themselves are losing knowledge because of their internal power struggles, and able to build only more and more inferior copies of what came before. Most Mechanics don’t even know their origins in detail, just vaguely being taught they come from the stars and so are superior to the commons (but not really believing or understanding that origin themselves). (There are also rather topical hints of cover-ups of sexual abuse of apprentices by masters, adding to the air of ineffectual corruption).

Furthermore, we see how the Mechanics are also losing control of the world. Their plan to maintain a state of stasis is breaking down as their ruthlessness unbalances matters, with the result that, for example, the Kingdom of Tiae fell into anarchy a generation ago. Alain foresees that ‘the storm’, as he calls it, will overwhelm all the nations before too long: the Bakre Confederation, the Western Alliance, even the Empire itself. (A map on Campbell’s website, which should really be in the books, says it is formally the Maran Empire, but this term isn’t used in the books). Mari therefore (much against her will) ends up leading a revolution of sympathisers under the banner of the New Day, as Alain foresaw. Chased by assassins and pirates everywhere in the civilised lands, she realises the one place where the Guilds cannot follow her – Tiae itself.

In the last books in the original series, Mari and Alain (joined by their friends) build up their forces in Tiae and are joined by the western countries. They eventually force the Mages, Mechanics and Empire into gritted-teeth alliance against them after victories, and fight one climactic battle at Dorcastle, as seen in Alain’s vision in the first book. I won’t go into the full details, but suffice to say that Mari’s alliance manages to free the western half of the world, and the Mages and Mechanics are forced out and only into the Empire, which remains hostile.

As I said, these books are very compelling and I recommend them – I can’t go into all the interesting moments right now, but Campbell tends to use his setting in clever ways to mix up expectations (for example, Alain having to pose as a Mechanic to fool others, despite Mages’ mindset making them unable to grasp technology, or Mari taking advantage of the Imperials spreading rumours she is a feared ‘vampiric’ empress, Mara the Undying, reborn). At the end, they finally use the ‘far-talker’ to contact Earth via superluminal ‘spooky action at a distance’ means, and there is a heartwarming scene where it turns out Earth and all the other colonies were still ritualistically hoping that one day ‘Demeter’’s silence would end.

Similarly to his pattern with his Lost Fleet books, Campbell followed up this series with a trilogy called ‘Daughter of Dragons’, which is (set twenty or so years later) about Mari and Alain’s daughter Kira. The first of these books has a plot that, though somewhat predictable from the setting, is interesting: a ship from Earth finally arrives, Kira meets an Earth boy named Jason, and they have to work together to prevent Jason’s evil mother from stealing the secret of Mage powers, which could shift the balance of power back on Earth. Kira, as the child of a Mage and a Mechanic, finds herself able (at great psychological cost) to switch back and forth between a technological mindset and one which lets her use Mage powers.

Unfortunately, the other two books in the trilogy are less interesting. They’re basically just ‘more adventures’ type books involving Jason and Kira on the run, having to fight the Empire, etc. without following up on the Earth plot or really doing much to justify themselves. A longer one-off book, or a trilogy that continued the Earth plot, would have been a lot better in my view. These two lack the sense of momentum that the original books have, in which you don’t get tired of Mari and Alain’s adrenaline-fuelled escapes because they always have more of a goal in mind. About the only interesting thing in these two is that Jason grew up in a privileged futuristic environment on Earth (though without loving parents) and has played endless roleplaying strategy games, so he ends up trying to apply that knowledge, not always successfully, to the actual mediaeval warfare of Dematr.

More recently, Campbell has produced another trilogy, this one being a prequel (and we finally get to the actual topic of this article). The prequel trilogy, entitled ‘Empress of the Endless Sea’, explores the life of Jules, the pirate queen whom Mari is descended from. Where this prequel succeeds from the start, where Campbell’s ‘Genesis Fleet’ failed, is that it is answering a question we might well have asked. Whereas nobody really wondered who Black Jack Geary’s previously-unmentioned ancestor was or what he did, readers might well have wondered who Jules was. She is mentioned in passing several times in the original books, but never in detail: she was formerly an Imperial officer herself, but broke with the Empire and helped map and settle the west (with the city of Julesport being named for her), and a Mage prophecy foretold that a daughter of her line would free the world. That’s about all we get, which is just the right about to tell us that she’s important, yet leave us wondering just how and why. This prequel therefore justifies its existence before starting, which is always a better place to be in.

However, there is also a very big, very obvious, elephant-in-the-room Prequel Problem that comes with trying to write a prequel in this kind of setting. Dematr is interesting, fundamentally, because of its ontological mystery – the fact that we learn it’s not the fantasy world it appears to be, but a lost colony in a science fiction universe kept in ignorance. It is natural to presume whether it is viable to write a prequel that can never address this mystery or call attention to it. Impressively, Campbell actually succeeds (in my view), in part because he replaces it with a smaller-scale ontological mystery. In Jules’ time, the Empire is the only nation on Dematr. There are hints (and Campbell is sensible enough to leave them only as vague Mechanic mentions that Jules overhears but doesn’t understand) that the Mechanics set up the Empire deliberately – explaining why it feels like a Roman LARP – and that they intended it to be the only nation.

As such, in Jules’ time commons are taught that the western part of the Sea of Bakre is impassable and dangerous, and not to go there. A handful of people have established settlements just outside of the Empire’s control (such as someone named Dor, who has created a town nicknamed Dor’s Castle – geddit) but few dare venture further. Jules is instrumental in disproving this and therefore founding the freer western nations, even though the Mages and Mechanics eventually move there too. Jules also discovers the lost town of Pacta Servanda (which appeared in the original books with hints of lost weapons technology that haven’t been fully followed up on yet) and we learn that in her time, the Mechanics still have access to a handful of aircraft that can fly there. However, it’s mentioned that getting authorisation for a flight is growing harder and harder. This is a good nod to the Mechanics’ technological degradation at an earlier stage, though I’d have liked to see more of them; most of their technology seems the same as in Mari’s time. We do get a little more in the final book of the trilogy, Fate of the Free Lands, such as the aforementioned mention of ultrasound going away and Mechanics being told to conserve use of outboard motors on boats that can no longer be replaced. We do get to see hints of the Mechanics’ internal disputes, with somewhat more reasonable and intelligent Mechanics appearing, only to be ‘disappeared’ or flee into exile as other factions seize power.

From a prequel-writing point of view, the first Jules book (Pirate of the Prophecy) does a similar thing to Robert Jordan’s New Spring, which I’ve previously reviewed: it goes almost immediately into the One Thing we know about Jules. As an Imperial legionary, she goes into a bar and encounters the Mage who gives the prophecy right there on the spot, kicking off her adventures as she has to flee those who immediately want to kill her. I, personally, think this was a bit of a mistake. We could have seen Jules’ backstory and a bit of her life as a legionary before this incident, so we don’t have to hear about it purely in flashbacks and inner monologue later (show, don’t tell). This is similar to my surprise that Campbell starts Black Jack Geary’s story in the Lost Fleet books with him being revived from cryogenic suspension, so we only hear about the preceding battle at second hand. Furthermore, writing a prequel gives one a lot of opportunity to play with the reader’s expectations, if the reader knows a certain scene is coming up. I mentioned in my previous article on Brian Herbert’s and Kevin J. Anderson’s Prelude to Dune series that they pull this off very well (for all that their Dune writing receives much, usually justified, criticism). The One Thing we know about the Old Duke of Atreides from the original Dune is that he died in a bullfight. Herbert and Anderson therefore open their first book (or at least have an early chapter) with the Old Duke in a bullfight...which he wins, and hoists the bull’s severed head aloft with his son Leto in triumph. Similarly, I think it’d have had a lot more impact if this book opened with Jules encountering a Mage...and nothing happens, keeping the reader guessing, and then we get a few chapters of backstory before the actual prophecy happens. This approach feels a bit paint-by-numbers by comparison.

Other than this, however, these books manage prequel tropes quite well. We tick some boxes, such as seeing the Imperial capital as Marandur (before its destruction and move to Palandur as described in the original books). Campbell also sensibly leaves it as a few hints that some people wonder just how recorded history can be so short (as also used in the earlier original books), with the official Imperial histories saying that the Emperor Maran united the Empire from a vaguely-described period of anarchy before it. Interestingly, Mara the Undying is already a legend in the ‘distant’ past in Jules’ time, and like her descendant Mari she gets accused of being her at one point. We also get to see a conniving criminal named Syndar, ejected by Jules, found the Syndari pirate isles which will later hound her descendant Mari. About the only thing I'd have liked to see is some explanation of where Tiae comes from, which seems too old in the original books to be founded after the western powers.

We also get a different spin on a prequel trope at one point. One thing that will occur to the reader on reading the original books is that Mari is held up as the legendary prophesised daughter while Alain is content to be presented essentially as her sidekick, yet their actual achievements (as Mari notes) are comparable. In the third prequel book, Jules fights a Mage who gives up a second prophecy, of a son of Ihris, a Mage… (and it cuts off as she dies). Jules heard of the founding of the new town of Ihris only a few pages before. As she was alone rather than in a crowded bar, she decides to keep this one (which is, after all, fragmentary) to herself – she even wonders if the prophecy was about an enemy of her descendant! To the reader who’s read the original books, this is a neat prequel dead-end that doesn’t affect the continuity, but changes our perception of the originals – if that Mage had finished her prophecy, would it have essentially have put Mari and Alain on equal footing? That sort of thing hits the sweet spot between a prequel adding something to the original, without contradicting or undermining it.

One of the most interesting gimmicks of the prequels is how Jules and Mari implicitly view one another. In the original books, we were used to Mari being resentful of having the prophecy dumped on her, and looking up to Jules as a legendary hero who founded the free west; the idea of the prophecy impacting on Jules herself doesn’t occur to her. By contrast, Jules is even more resentful of the prophecy and at first hates her unknown descendant; she sees all her choices are now made for her, and as an ambitious orphan who wanted to make it as an Imperial officer, she hates the idea of losing free will. In her eyes, she will never get credit for anything she does herself, being only known as the progenitor of the woman who will one day overthrow the Great Guilds. It takes her friends to persuade her that her own achievements in exploring and founding the free west are great in their own right, and that her descendant will feel just as trapped. Indeed, in Mari’s time people think of those achievements first and the prophecy second when they talk of Jules. Ultimately, Jules and Mari are more similar than they might like to think; both suffer from impostor syndrome and never think they have truly achieved anything for themselves without others to tell them they have.

Jules is placed in a particularly grim scenario: she knows she needs to have children to fulfil the prophecy (before Mages can kill her or the Emperor capture her to father children with her against her will), and now feels she has lost freedom to make her own choice. In the end, she has children via a rather morally questionable choice (whose questionable-ness is addressed in the books, to be clear) and resolves she has to never even see them before they are taken away, so she can never be connected with their eventual foster families – though this almost destroys her. She lives on only because the people of the west need her to unite them. The prequels end with Jules and others (with clandestine Mechanic aid) managing to fend off an Imperial attack on “Dor’s Castle” with its new wall. This conclusion is quite rushed in the last few pages, but on the other hand, giving it a big battle scene would feel redundant with the large battle at Dorcastle at the end of the original books.

As far as prequels go, then, the ‘Empress of the Endless Sea’ trilogy represents a substantial improvement over ‘The Genesis Fleet’ for Campbell’s writing. They’re not groundshakingly unpredictable for the reader, but they also feel like they are giving a genuinely new perspective on the original books and answering questions we may have wondered about. It will be curious to see where Campbell goes with this scenario next – notably, the classic ‘fantasy world expansion pack western continent’ (as I think Brandon Sanderson dubbed the trope) has been hinted at a few times…


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Tom Anderson is the author of many SLP books including the Look To The West series (Diverge and Conquer, Uncharted Territory, Equal and Opposite Reactions, Cometh the Hour, To Dream Again), The Twilight's Last Gleaming, Not An English Word, The Curse of Maggie, The Unreformed Kingdom, The Surly Bonds of Earth and Well met by Starlight.