CLUBHOUSE: Review: “The New Empire” by Alison McBain

OBIR: Occasional Biased and Ignorant Reviews reflecting this reader’s opinion.

The New Empire – by Alison McBain

Publisher: Woodhall Press, Norwalk, CT, USA, 2022.

Cover art: Alison McBain


In 1751, the youngest son of the Emperor of China, sold into slavery, struggles to survive in one of China’s overseas trading partners, a First Nation’s tribal confederacy on the West coast of what is now the United States of America.


I am a sucker for alternative history, be it past, present, or future alternative history. Three splendid examples spring to my mind, namely “Lest Darkness Fall” by L Sprague de Camp (1939), “High Aztech” by Ernest Hogan (1992), and especially “The Martian Inca” by Ian Watson (1977). Those three are my favourites in the subgenre of alternative history and I recommend them to you. Absolutely fascinating works.

So , when I came across “The New Empire” in a list of Best Canadian science fiction for 2023 readers, I  got rather excited. I envisioned the young lad working his way up the hierarchy of his new political environment to fight many a battle against alternative versions of European colonial powers and maybe even an undefeated and expanding Aztec Empire. What fun!

After all, there are many unexplored possibilities based on actual history yet to be exploited by fiction writers. For example, in 1511 when the Spanish were still concentrating on colonizing Cuba, a storm drove survivors of a caravel shipwreck ashore on the Yucatan coast near the Mayan city of Chetumal. One survivor, Gonzalo Guerrero, wound up serving as army commander for Chetumal’s King and helping him defeat rival cities. When the Conquistadores eventually showed up in force, the shipwrecked Spaniard, happy with being a General and the King’s son-in-law, fought on behalf of the Mayan resistance quite successfully until killed in battle while leading a flotilla of war canoes against the Spanish in 1536. I have often thought there’s book or movie potential in his life story, but so far as I know this has not yet happened. Pity.

Anyway, point is I expected a “ripping good adventure yarn” and nothing more. I should have known better when perusing the list of awards in which the novel won finalist status: Foreward Indies Awards, Feathered Quill Book Awards, Readers Favorite Book Awards, Next Generation Indie Book awards, Readers Choice Book Awards, Canadian Book Club Awards, American Fiction Awards, and so on. I should have clued in this is a “serious” novel about a “serious” theme, to wit “Slavery.”

Don’t get me wrong, I like a serious intellectual challenge, if only because I so often fail, but I was anticipating a kind of modern pulp fiction adventure. I confess I was a trifle disappointed to discover what amounted to an extended philosophical essay on the nature of slavery and how to defeat it. Had to put on a different thinking cap for this one.

Let me say at the outset this is an excellent book. Very readable yet often profound, and the reader identifies with and roots for the main character Jiangxi every step of the way toward his inevitable fate. But something about the subject is problematic, in that in this modern, divisive age, every person has a strong opinion on the subject.

Because of my education, reading, and life experience, I know quite a bit about slavery in America, Africa and the Middle East, the Roman Empire, Haiti, and smatterings of glimpses of slavery elsewhere. Enough to know that American exceptionalism tends to treat the history of slavery in the United States as the “gold standard” of slavery, that of other nations barely worth a mention.

Objectively speaking this is odd, given that US slavery was neither the largest nor the most violent form of slavery to exist in history. But to discuss the subject is to risk an exercise in “whataboutism,” not to mention rile the emotions of people in other contemporary cultures who are sensitive to all slurs reeking of ethnic or religious condescension. What’s the point of upsetting people? It’s a universal trait to defend one’s tribe, be it nation, ethnicity, belief system, or folklore. To offer my “objective and reasoned” (says me) view on slavery in general is just waving a whole bunch of red flags in front of everybody. Fact is, my solution to running with the bulls in Pamplona is not to run faster, but to avoid going to Pamplona in the first place. I’m not as dumb as I look.

What Alison has done, in my view, is craft a worldview involving a First Nations unity heavily influenced by both Chinese and European cultures, in which slavery has become the cornerstone of the economy. This, in order to capture the “essence” of slavery in all its forms, so that the reader comes to understand just how pervasive and insidious the mindset justifying it actually is, and how difficult it is for anyone, slave or master, to comprehend change let alone advocate it. We, as readers, “live” the experience primarily from the viewpoint of Jiangxi. We feel his outrage, his hatred, his despair, and come to understand why he dare not give vent, even a hint, of his true feelings.

Slavery may involve millions, and like a war, the best way to explain it is not an overview of how generals make decisions, but glimpses of how individual grunts experience it. To a slave, their condition is the most personal thing imaginable, the only reality which counts. Their focus is on their moment-by-moment status in the eyes of all those empowered to punish them. They don’t have time to care about others. Not when push comes to shove.

Or, as the Romans put it, “slaves have but one right, the right to die whenever they wish.” So, for example, the incident of the chained slave in a slave cart taking him and others to die in the Colosseum elicited admiration when he stuck his head through the spokes of one of the huge wheels, resulting in an instant broken neck and death. “Aha, there’s a man who knew how to be master of his fate,” they said. A very Roman trait. They gave him a decent burial.

In other words the book reveals multiple aspects of the slavery phenomenon at a purely personal level. This is a brilliant technique; in that it allows the reader to form their own opinions without jumping into the troll-like debate mode of modern controversy as if their fate as ruler of the world depends on it. In fact, rulers of the world are rather rare. We don’t need armchair emperors. We need thoughtful people who think about things and form their own opinions based on careful consideration. This book greatly aids that low key but intelligent and needful process.

To begin with, Jiangxi is shipped across the Pacific at the age of six. The formerly pampered son of the emperor, his knowledge of crafts or administrative duties is negligible at best. Right away you assume his past will have little imprint on his life in America, apart from a lingering resentment against his older brother and an intense desire for revenge, which soon fades under the weight of new, more pressing problems.

Now, throughout history, there was slave traffic across oceans other than the North Atlantic, including the South Atlantic, Mediterranean, Indian Ocean, and Pacific.  The latter, in this particular work, is much nastier than that of the Atlantic, if only because of the far greater distance and time under horrific conditions.

To be fair, have you ever noticed in movies how the sailors swarm up the rigging with great alacrity? Historical accuracy. They’re trying to get away from the stench. You think I’m joking? Check out Matthew Hughes’ vivid description of life aboard a Spanish galleon in his historical novel “What the Wind Brings.” You’ll learn a lot about things you never knew. Including much about slavery in South America. Nevertheless, the lot of a slave trapped below deck in a confined space is much worse than the lot of even the most miserable paying passenger. Survival is a miracle.

Jiangxi is purchased by Onas, an elderly religious leader of the Amah Mutsan, one of the more powerful tribes in the Confederacy, and also a Haudenosaunee False Face religious leader of the Seneca Tribe. He has enormous prestige, but lives a frugal, unpretentious life despite being a landowner and the owner of numerous slaves. He purchases Jiangxi, on the strength of a vision, to train him as his personal scribe. Normally a cushy job, right? Jiangxi has lucked out?

Not exactly. Remember the jarring scene in the movie “Soylent Green” (1973) when the Charleton Heston character refers to the kept woman of a murdered oligarch as “furniture,” implying she comes with the apartment? I was shocked when I first saw it back in the day. A woman taken for granted as a mere commodity. How can that be? Yes, I was rather naïve for much of my life. Still am, underneath my jaded cynicism, in that I still hope for a better future. Don’t know why. Must be some kind of fool.

Truth is people have been treated like furniture or tools since forever. Onas is a decent guy, much beloved by his peers and friends, but even he takes slavery and the system that goes with it for granted, especially because, properly maintained, the practice is immensely profitable and allows him to pay for all sorts of shenanigans useful to the greater good of the Confederacy. Why, it would be treasonous to abolish slavery. And one cannot be sloppy. The slightest transgression must be punished severely lest slaves begin to think instead of obey. Common sense you see. Ordinary, day to day logic.

Jaingxi is lucky in one respect. Onas, at least, doesn’t have sex with his slaves the way people used to habitually do in Roman times, the American Confederacy, or darn near any system functioning with slaves and/or servants. Walter Raleigh was accustomed to rape female servants at garden parties. Just for fun. His peers considered this mildly amusing. Illegal? Not really. Only if the employer of the servant objected, and why should they? Just enhanced the “value” of the servant, not least in the eyes of the other servants. The pecking order works for chickens. Not so well with humans. Far too many slaves/servants identify with the prestige of their masters. It is ever thus.

Life is nuanced. There are perils in taking slaves for granted as mere possessions. The Roman philosopher Seneca, tutor to Nero until Nero ordered him to kill himself, warned his peers:

“I don’t want to involve myself in an endless topic of debate by discussing the treatment of slaves, towards whom we Romans are exceptionally arrogant, harsh and insulting… the most arrogant of conventions has decreed that the master of the house be surrounded at his dinner by a crowd of slaves… all this time the poor slaves are forbidden to move their lips to speak… The slightest murmur is checked with a stick; not even accidental sounds like a cough, or a sneeze, or a hiccup are let off a beating… The result is that slaves who cannot talk before his face talk about him behind his back… It is just this high-handed treatment which is responsible for the frequently heard saying, ‘You’ve as many enemies as you’ve slaves.’”

(The above is quoted from Seneca’s “Letters from a Stoic” published by Penguin classics and translated by Robin Campbell. Marvellous book. Definitely add it to your bucket list.)

You may be thinking this state of affairs gave slaves potential power. After all, many a Roman emperor relied on informers tattling on Senators and other wealthy, powerful folk saying subversive things in the privacy of their own home. Chances are many a household slave knew enough about their master to get him executed and win their freedom.

Not so fast. The testimony of a slave as witness was legally valid in court only if rendered under the duress of extreme torture. Every member of the Roman elite, and every slave, was well aware of this. Clever of the Romans to come up with the law. In theory, you didn’t have to worry about being betrayed by your slaves. Your freeborn friends and peers, on the other hand… let’s just say upper class life was highly competitive. Leave it there.

Still, what about a slave driven beyond his limit? What about a slave determined to kill his master, knowing full well he would be punished horribly but at least he got in his revenge in advance of his own destruction? How could any slave owner prevent that from happening?

Again, the Romans were clever. Masters of the legal profession, after all. They’re the ones who invented the concept “Innocent till proven guilty.” But they also invented the concept of collective guilt. If a slave killed his/her master, bearing in mind some expensive villas in downtown Rome had literally hundreds of household slaves, ALL the household slaves were put to death. No exceptions. Every slave owner, no matter how cruel and sadistic, could take for granted their slaves were constantly monitoring each other to make sure no one was plotting that final act which would be fatal for all.

Now, what I’m describing, utilizing my knowledge of Roman history, is a specific form of mind control which was quite common among all forms of slavery albeit manifest in varying detail but overall accomplishing the same goal, to prevent slaves from daring to disobey, let alone fight back. Slavery goes beyond being forced to behave like a slave, even more important is the task of thinking like a slave, of living according to the motivation of a slave.

Yes, Roman comedies by Plautus and Terence, imitating earlier comedies by Greek playwrights, featured scheming slaves manipulating their masters to hilarious effect. If you’ve seen the movie “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” you’ll have some idea of the humour involved. These comedies were an inversion of the true nature of slavery, which is why the Roman audience found them so funny. Sure, some slave owners were lazy. Some even treated a few slaves like pals. But this was not the norm.

In reality slavery is anchored to a form of totalitarianism so soul-destroying it goes beyond even the worst nightmares of George Orwell. In it’s most efficient and well-maintained form, slavery is a box from which there is no escape, no room for manoeuvre, no room for independent choice or impulse, and, of course, no thinking outside the box. Obey. Obey. Obey. Or die. That’s it. Not much to look forward to.

And yet, and yet, people do think. They can’t help it. Have you ever occasionally worried what others think of you? Imagine that being your principle obsession every second you’re awake. Imagine your life depending on it.

So, throughout the book Alison stresses the need for Jiangxi to always appear strictly obedient, no matter what the circumstances, so as to avoid punishment and/or setbacks to whatever perks his faithful service have “earned,” albeit given at the whim of his owner and no way guaranteed to last or be repeated. Even a valued, useful slave is expendable.

Also, have you ever given expression to frustration and anger over the unfairness of this or that which has been bugging you? Maybe not to the extent of road rage, but a definite thunderstorm clearing of the air? A sense of relief afterwards? A weight off your shoulders? Imagine having to always repress every and all emotions for fear of triggering punishment or worse, revealing a weakness which can be used to exploit and manipulate you further?

By focusing on one individual, Jiangxi, Alison explores the hell of a slave’s mental landscape at great depth, utilizing first the betrayed innocence of a shattered childhood, then the raging hormones of an adolescent, and finally the wiser lusts and ambitions of a young man, all of this familiar to some extant with most readers and therefore worthy of empathy, but warped and twisted and imprisoned and hounded by the utter necessity to function like an emotionless automaton programmed only to obey. Unless you’re something of a robot yourself, you can’t help but root for the guy, hoping he escapes somehow, somewhere, any way he can.

There is a plot arc involving looming threats to the Confederacy and minor triumphs for Jiangxi earning his way to positions of greater trust in the scheme of things, but that’s mostly background putting changing concerns in context.

What’s actually being examined is Jiangxi’s perpetual quest for freedom of some sort, be it emotional relations with other slaves, attempts to free individual slaves, scheming to free all slaves by any means possible, eventually scheming to convince society at large to abolish slavery. All of this a kind of encapsulation of what happened to the institution of slavery over the past couple of centuries.

And yet, not delivered as an objective lecture or info dump. The true plot arc has to do with the turmoil in Jiangxi’s mind. At times he feels like a crusader for good, a hero in the making, and at times he frets he’s motivated by purely selfish desires and thus no better than any slave owner. Sometimes conviction of purpose is uppermost in his motivation, and other times he wallows in a sea of doubt feeling he has betrayed himself and everyone else. The fact that he frequently makes mistakes, inadvertently harms others, often ruins his expectations and just as often gets punished because he let his guard down, drives him relentlessly forward no matter what the cost. He’s racing ahead of the consequences of his decisions. It’s the only way he knows how to escape.

In a sense, every argument for and against slavery is constantly debated emotionally and intellectually in his mind every waking second of every day. He, and the concept of freedom, is in peril on every page. This keeps the reader reading.


Alison proposes a variety of partial solutions to the problem of slavery, measures to help it evolve out of existence. Some are based on her understanding of history, some speculation on her part. Because slavery still exists in multiple forms, and “classical” slavery threatens to be reintroduced, this makes the book and its proposed solutions terribly relevant and, more than worth reading, necessary to read.

The book is open-ended, in that progress has been made but powerful forces remain opposed. In a sense, history-in-the-making is always open-ended. There is never any “final result,” only perpetual change and evolution for better or worse. Still, I come away from this book having contemplated the nature of slavery, what it actually consists of, how I would attempt to cope with it, and more importantly, even more convinced that it is something to be resisted and avoided at all costs.

Say what you will about slavery, I’m against it. Isn’t everybody? Not necessarily. It can creep into society easily if early warning signs are ignored by those who don’t bother to think about it and believe it is gone forever. It isn’t just a matter of being told what to do. Genuine slavery is all powerful, intensively subversive, and knows how to programs slaves to be their own worst enemy. It’s cruel and evil beyond all the standard cliches.

Alison McBain does a masterful (no pun intended) job in revealing how genuinely monstrous slavery was, is, and can, perhaps will, be. The book is a wake-up call loud and strident by virtue of her excellent characterization of Jiangxi and his constant, desperate perusal of the problem at hand. You will accept and believe what he perceives, and through him, the greater problem threatening us all. Remarkable technique. Remarkable book.

Find it at:  < The New Empire >

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