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Literature / Death or Glory

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Death or Glory (Смерть или слава, Smyert' ili slava) is a science fiction series by the Russian sci-fi and fantasy author Vladimir Vasilyev. The series if composed of four novels, although not all of them are directly connected, merely taking place in the same 'verse at different time periods.

In the first eponymous novel (1998), humanity finally manages to reach the stars, only to discover that the races of the great Alliance (the reptilian Svaigh, the avian Aczanny and Zoopht, the insectoid Swarm, and the crystalline Ayeshi) couldn't care less about some backward race of over-evolved apes. Despite this, humans manage to colonize several worlds, although the core worlds, including Earth, are overpopulated and polluted, while the more recently settled planets are full of adventurers and criminals, similar to The Wild West.The novel is set on one such border world called Volga. The planet's main industry is mining (mainly done by robots), and mine owners frequently have to defend their property from rivals and criminals themselves. Sure, the planet has authorities and the police, but a person's best defense is his or her own trusty blaster. Then the main character finds a strange box with a Big Red Button on it. After a few days, he decides to push it. Nothing seems to happen at first, but then a huge starship of unknown design appears over the planet. The ship attracts the attention of both the Alliance and its extragalactic enemies the Imperishables. The Alliance manages, with surprisingly difficulty, to capture Volga's population and use it to try to operate the ship, since its controls (in the form of pods with a contact interface) are geared towards humans. The humans manage to take control and escape in the ship, after destroying chunks of both armadas and vaporizing the planet. While in flight, conflicts arise between the miners and the the former planetary (corrupt) authorities for the control of the ship (which they name the Volga after their destroyed planet). After a brief period of fighting, the miners win and send a message to the Alliance. Once representatives arrive, the aliens are forced to admit that humanity has potential and offer humans full Alliance membership, provided the Volga helps them defeat the Imperishables.

The Black Relay Race (Чёрная эстафета, Chyornaya estafeta; 1999) takes place a few decades later but features none of the characters from the first novel. It involves a job to deliver strange cargo to another planet in return for a huge payout. But misfortune appears to follow anyone associated with the mysterious cargo. And it remains unclear if anyone will be left to claim the prize.

The third and fourth novels are part of a Story Arc called The War for Mobility (Война за мобильность, Voyna za mobil'nost') and take place about 200 years after the first novel. The Legacy of Giants (Наследие исполинов, Naslediye ispolinov; 2002) was inspired by David Brin's Startide Rising and features a similar premise. A human scout ship makes a chance discovery that results in it being the target by a powerful empire and sparks an interstellar war. The Shat-Tzoors, a race of former slaves of one of the Alliance races, who have been secretly building up an armada for many years, strikes out at their former oppressors and declares war on the Alliance. The scout ship's crew has to run and hide to keep their discovery from the enemy hands. They land on a nearly-uninhabited world with only a tourist base being the only human presence on the planet. The crew ends up joining a group of tourists and rangers on a jungle safari to try to survive as the massive Shat-Tzoor armada arrives to claim the knowledge.

No One but Us (Никто кроме нас, Nikto krome nas; 2005) takes place a few years later. The war with the Shat-Tzoor Empire continues, and humanity is the only Alliance race capable of putting up any serious resistance, especially in ground engagements. The only hope for the Alliance lies in the ancient secret from the previous novel, which may allow entire fleets to be transported halfway across the galaxy in the blink of an eye. The side with this power would undoubtedly win the war.

While no official English translations exist (there was an abortive attempt by a publisher years ago), there is a fan translation of the first novel available here. The fan translation of the second novel is here.

The duology contains examples of the following tropes:

  • One-Federation Limit: The governments of the Alliance members appear to have different names: the Aczanny Pyramids, the Zoopht Triad, the Ayeshi Technocracy, and the Svaighe Gallery. There is also only one empire, that of the Shat-Tzoors (its full name is the Unve Shat-Tzoor Empire).
  • The Alliance: An ancient group of powerful races initially composed of five members, although some of them have protectorates and/or slaves. The Alliance races are the most powerful and the most advanced, and they have no desire to change the status quo. However, at the time of the first novel, they are losing their war with the Imperishables, ship-sized energy beings from outside the galaxy. At the end of the first novel, humanity is offered membership in the Alliance. Between then and The War for Mobility Story Arc, one of the races leaves under mysterious circumstances, once again, leaving only five members.
  • Artifact of Death: The sarcophagus in The Black Relay Race. Anyone who spends time near it ends up dying in a seemingly unrelated manner. Wojciech dies of asphyxiation when his ship's airlock is damaged in an emergency jump. Magnus is accidentally vaporized when an Aczanny cruiser jumps in right on top of him in a miscalculated jump. Bjarni dies in a car accident. Skadi's mind is destroyed when the Aczanny probe her for information. Ungen dies of multiple organ failure after spending months drifting through space. Urima survives the drift but goes insane and commits suicide after being rescued. Ángel is shot by Yiri. Yiri is killed by human soldiers in the heat of the moment. Finally, Pavel is shot by one of the Oaonsz after finally delivering the sarcophagus to its destination in lieu of payment.
  • Big Red Button: The protagonist of the first novel finds a black box with a big red button in one of his mines. After leaving it alone on his table for a few days, he realizes that he simply can't not push it, musing that it would be really bad if the whole colony blew up because of this. The button summons a strange ship a few days later.
  • Bird People: The Aczanny and the Zoopht are avian races, although they are very different. The Aczanny are small and capable of flight with a pyramidal social structure. The Zoopht are tall and flightless, whose wings have, over time, evolved into nimble hand-like appendages and are considered to be master engineers.
  • The Emperor: Shat Unve is the autocratic leader of the Shat-Tzoor Empire (its full name is actually the Unve Shat-Tzoor Empire). His subordinates address him as "Shatta".
  • Energy Beings: The Imperishables are sentient extragalactic beings who appear to be composed of layered force fields that size of a ship. The Alliance originally thought they were actual ships protected by powerful shields until they did some deep scans on the "ships" and discovered that there is nothing inside each layer but more layers. At the time of the first novel, they are slowly beating the Alliance.
  • Faster-Than-Light Travel: The mechanics of FTL travel are not described, but it does involve something to do with the so-called "nonlinear fields", which can also be used as weapons. A unique feature of this form of FTL travel is that an arriving ship leaves a gravity shadow of sorts, allowing anyone in the vicinity to know who is arriving, when, and where. Surprisingly, almost no one uses this information to set up ambushes. The only exceptions from this rule are Swarm ships, who are somehow able to cross the Barrier without such a shadow.
  • Higher-Tech Species: The Swarm is the most advanced of all Alliance races by far. It's much faster FTL travel method also does not leave an advance "footprint", warning anyone in the target system of the impending arrival.
  • Human Aliens: Averted in the first three novels but played straight in the fourth. Humans are stated to be the only evolved apes in the galaxy, which the Alliance races originally consider to be an evolutionary dead end, claiming that humans should have been evolving their brains, not their bodies. In the fourth novel, a primitive (roughly 20th century era) humanoid race is discovered in another galaxy.
  • Humanoid Abomination: The Shat-Tzoors are vaguely humanoid (in that they have two arms and two legs and walk upright), but they are physically very different. Their unique feature is that their bodies have natural holes in them at various places. Occasionally, the air passing though the holes makes a whistling sound, which has inspired the nickname "singing skeletons" for the race. Physically, they appear to be more fragile than humans, as a human special forces soldier is able to break their bones with surprising ease.
  • Imported Alien Phlebotinum: It's stated at the beginning of The Legacy of Giants, that human technological development accelerated after joining the Alliance, although the older races still tend to keep all the good stuff for themselves, only doling out information in small bits and pieces. That is one of the reason for the existence of the scout ships who explore uncharted systems for any pieces of technology that may have been left behind by either the Precursors or one of the Alliance races. if they find a piece of an Alliance ship with an intact system, they generally hand it over to the ship's owners (since the systems are usually too advanced to reverse-engineer), typically receiving some more technical information in return.
  • Insectoid Aliens: The Swarm are human-sized insects with a Hive Mind. Surprisingly, they are also the most advanced Alliance race, whose ships are capable of rapid FTL travel without leaving pre-arrival footprints.
  • Lizard Folk: The Svaigh are a race of amphibious lizards with a clan-bases structure.
  • Lotus-Eater Machine: It's theorized by some that the Volga's pods act in this manner. While connected to the ship in the pod, a person experiences the greatest high imaginable. Some think that the ship is a parasite that slowly feeds on those who are connected to it.
  • The Milky Way Is the Only Way: Averted. The Imperishables in the first novel are stated to have come from outside the galaxy. Also, the Precursor portal in the third novel turns out to lead to a distant galaxy.
  • No Warping Zone: Powerful nonlinear generators can be activated to prevent FTL travel into or out of an entire system. Of course, nothing stops the enemy from jumping to a spot just beyond the field and then traveling under sublight. Additionally, this pretty much freezes any civilian and merchant traffic, isolating the system. During the Shat-Tzoor attack on Earth, humans activate the field generators, only leaving a narrow band along the ecliptic open to funnel the enemy armada through on a predictable vector.
  • Portal Network: In the fourth novel, the Alliance is seeking a cache of Precursors' devices capable of forming instantaneous portals through space, which would give them a decisive edge in their losing war against the Shat-Tzoor Empire. The Shat-Tzoors are also after the portals.
  • Precursors: The search for their artifacts is the main Story Arc of the third and fourth novels.
  • Rock Beats Laser: Zig-zagged. When the Alliance races first attempt to capture the humans living on Volga, they send in one of their client races but restrict them to nonlethal weapons only. They allow them to use their patented walking tanks, which the other Alliance races consider to be mostly useless for any real combat but useful when scaring some primitive race. What they don't consider is that the humans on Volga have been living in a Wild West-like society for generations. As such, every adult man is always armed and will never back down from a fight. They also underestimate the destructive potential of human weapons, which is, while far below what the Alliance races have, is still way in advance of what a race at the same level of development typically has. The initial assault is a resounding failure. The second assault is basically a Curb-Stomp Battle with something like 99% of the planet's human population captured in a single night.
  • Settling the Frontier: Life on the Volga colony is very much reminiscent of The Wild West, but with blasters.
  • Shoot the Messenger: At the end of The Black Relay Race, Pavel is shot by one of the employers in lieu of payment. Notably, the other employer is incensed at this, having intended to honor the deal and pay the man.
  • Silicon-Based Life: The Ayeshi are sentient crystalline lifeforms.
  • Space Marines: Human space marines are some of the greatest ground combatants of all. They are not the only special forces, though, especially when they are sent to another galaxy in the fourth novel to be a part of a mixed force.
  • Title Drop:
    • The first novel's title refers to the words engraved on the protagonist's blaster, given to him by his late father, in both Russian and English. It also appears to be the character's motto.
    • "No one but us" is the battle cry of the human Space Marines, which they shout before every deployment.
  • Uncoffee: While both coffee and tea still exist and are consumed regularly, a hot beverage called uklu has appeared to supplanted both in terms of popularity. Given the regularity, it likely contains stimulants similar to caffeine (maybe even caffeine itself).
  • Voluntary Shapeshifting: The Oaonsz are a race of shapeshifters and former slaves of the Aczanny. They are now a protectorate of their former masters. While they are able to assume almost any shape of same mass, they typically make themselves appear as members of whichever race they are dealing with at the moment. While they lack a proper military, they make natural spies and saboteurs. When the Shat-Tzoors attack the Alliance, the Oaonsz join them.