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Literature / The Conquerors Trilogy

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The Conquerors trilogy is a Space Opera novel trilogy by Timothy Zahn about humans encountering a new alien species and, thanks to a botched first contact and some misunderstandings, ending up at war. This may sound rather clichéd, but the usual Zahn skill for twists, Tomato Surprises and more makes it a compelling story.

The three books in the series are:

  • Conquerors' Pride
  • Conquerors' Heritage
  • Conquerors' Legacy

The titles stem from the fact that the humans, not knowing the name of the hostile aliens, dub them 'the Conquerors'—and the aliens, whose real name is the Zhirrzh, dub humans 'the Conquerors'. After initial skirmishes they're aided in that dubbing by a third species that's had prior contacts with humans and Zhirrzh; that species chips in to tell both sides the others are known as "The Conquerors Without Reason," backed up by the belief—held by both sides, and for once held accurately—that the other shot first. Cue escalation of conflict.

The first novel takes place from the Point of View of an Ace Pilot, Pheylan Cavanaugh, who has been taken prisoner by the Zhirrzh, and the efforts of fellow pilot Adam Quinn to rescue him. The second goes for a twist and is narrated by Cavanaugh's Zhirrzh jailer, Thrr-gilag, providing the first indication that this is not going to be a typical alien-war story. The Zhirrzh have a fully-realized society and some interesting tricks up their sleeve: when they die, if their fsss gland is properly preserved, they essentially become ghosts; these "Elders" form the backbone of Zhirrzh communications infrastructure. The third book switches between Pheylan's and Thrr-gilag's points of view, as well as that of an Artificial Intelligence, as they try to get to the bottom of the situation and see if they can bring the war to a peaceful conclusion...

Tropes present in this series:

  • A.I. Is a Crapshoot: Averted, but the existence of this trope tends to make people prejudiced against AI computers that come across as overly smug or boastful; CavTronics' AIs such as Max are deliberately designed to come across as humble to the point of being reticent and dorky to avoid this.
  • Alien Arts Are Appreciated: Fibbit's Du'ulian weavings are famous enough to attract the attention of other races, getting her involved in the plot as a helpless victim that Lord Cavanaugh ultimately helps out of her situation.
  • Alien Geometries: Zhirrzh ships are made up of groups of white ceramic hexagons connected apparently at random. Lampshaded in the introduction when Pheylan's inner monologue calls them "alien as hell".
  • Augmented Reality: The Copperhead pilots have cyborg implants which allow themselves to directly interface with the computers of their fighters. On lower levels such as 'A' this takes the form of Augmented Reality, while on the higher 'X' setting they actually feel the ship as though it was their own body.
  • Bilingual Bonus: The Mrachani titles Paallikko, Lahettilas and Valloittaja are Finnish for Chief, Ambassador and Conqueror, respectively.
  • Cybernetics Eat Your Soul: The Copperheads' 'X' mode is addictive and can cause psychological damage when abused.
  • Cyberpunk: Not a general feature of the setting, but the issues surrounding the Copperheads draw on cyberpunk themes.
  • Deliberate Values Dissonance: See Sink the Lifeboats below.
  • Does This Remind You of Anything?: Averted with the social issues dividing Zhirrzh society over Eldership, which (unlike most examples of alien social issues) are clearly not a metaphor for any social issue affecting human society. In the past the Zhirrzh fought wars over the right of everyone to become an Elder, not just the nobility, and then over the right for fsss organs to be protected and maintained by the state lest they be destroyed, along with their helpless Elders, in intra-clan conflict. Unfortunately, in the present day, the latter policy means that there is no choice not to become an Elder if one doesn't want to, which becomes the latest dividing social issue when Thrr-gilag's mother takes a stand.
  • Editorial Synaesthesia:
    • The Zhirrzh have three sets of pupils which allow them to perceive wavelengths far beyond the human norm, able to Open the Iris of the pupils individually to focus on one set or another.
    • Also, in 'X' mode the Copperheads perceive different stimuli on their ships as tastes and colours. Including battle damage, presumably because this is less distracting than representing it more logically as pain.
  • Empire with a Dark Secret: The Humans are widely feared for having a superweapon capable of irradiating entire fleets. It turned out to be based on a well-spun accident involving a solar flare.
  • Energy Weapon: The Zhirrzh use them as their main weapons, whereas humans and other races mostly use missiles and kinetic-based weaponry. The Zhirrzh lasers are instantaneous like Real Life ones, but produce a visible beam. While they can be dodged, that relies purely on luck and reaction lag of the gunners (i.e. move out of the line of fire faster than they can pull the trigger), and only the Copperheads manage to do it regularly given the improved reaction time granted by their cybernetic interface.
  • Escape Pod: Human spacecraft have self-forming 'honeycomb' individual lifepods that can be folded into existence from parts of the hull surrounding them. They are ejected from the ship when it's about to be destroyed, either by enemy action or activating the Self-Destruct Mechanism to prevent hostiles from getting any useful information from the abandoned ship's computers.
  • Fantastic Racism: None of the races seen particularly enjoy one another's company, and each has their own slurs to refer to other races.
  • Guy in Back: Each of the Copperhead fighters has a gunner seated behind the pilot, in the manner of most Real Life two-seat fighter aircraft. Adrian "Maestro" Quinn, though, effectively flies without one, as Aric Cavanagh doesn't have the required interface to link with the ship's systems.
  • Humans Through Alien Eyes:
    • Humans and Zhirrzh are barely comprehensible through each others' eyes, made worse by the fact that they are at war; they call each other "conquerors" and claim that the war is necessary to defend against the other's aggression.
    • Lord Cavanagh is given a sample of this in a discussion with the Ycromian diplomat, in the first book.
  • Lady Land: In the Yycromae society females tend to be the ones in positions of power—the males are often seen as soldiers but apparently can't control their emotions as well, making them less suitable for command positions.
  • No Name Given: The Zhirrzh's leader, the Overclan Prime, comes from a lineage who voluntarily gave up their names in order to serve as a neutral ruler over all Zhirrzh equally. Given Zhirrzh politics is mostly clan-based this is unsurprising. At the end, Thrr-gilag also renounces his clan in order to serve as a similarly neutral ambassador to the humans.
  • Not-So-Harmless Villain: The Mrachani are a race of unthreatening small furry beings who are so adept at cultural imperialism that they can take over other planets and start wars purely by manipulating other races' emotions.
  • One World Order: Averted, with numerous independent countries, but Earth is dominated by the "Northern Coordinate Union" (NorCoord) which appears to be a merger of NATO and The European Union.
  • Perspective Flip: The main gimmick of the series. The first book is told from the perspective of humans, mainly Pheylan Cavanagh who is captured by the Zhirrzh and questioned by scientists including Thrr-gilag. The second book follows it chronologically and is told from the Zhirrzh's perspective, mainly Thrr-gilag's. Zahn had planned to have the third told entirely by an A.I., but this proved unworkable so it just goes back and forth between human, Zhirrzh and A.I. viewpoints.
  • Planet of Hats: Both played straight and deconstructed. Humans really are more diverse than most of the alien races, something which particularly irritates the Mrachanis, who call human diversity 'anarchy'. This is because it has made it much harder for them to manipulate the entire human race compared to their manipulation of other species.
  • Poor Communication Kills: Enforced. Communication kills too. The Zhirrzh are vulnerable to radio waves and thus interpret any attempts to communicate as an attack.
  • Red Herring: In the third book, humans discuss laser-resistant armor and discover a (impractical but working) way to finally penetrate Zhirrzh ship hulls. However, the war ends before either technology can be put into use. However, the fact a third party is not aware of the latter method is used as proof they aren't working with the humans.
  • Lizard Folk: The Yycromae largely fit the trope, though unusually they have hair, being described as looking like "bipedal furry crocodiles".
  • Self-Destruct Mechanism: Human spacecraft are equipped for self-destruct to prevent sensitive information in the ship's computers from falling into enemy hands. The one example we see of the device being used for this purpose in the first encounter with the Zhirrzh is subverted however, as the task force admiral kept a personal log of important data contrary to Peacekeeper regulations, which the Zhirrzh found when sifting through the wreckage of the Jutland.
  • Sink The Life Boats: The Zhirrzh deliberately target and destroy the life pods of the human vessels they defeat. This is actually justified, since radio waves are dangerous to the Zhirrzh, causing them to mistake the automatic distress beacons for weapons.
  • Space Opera: But one that incorporates broader Speculative Fiction elements. Essentially you can argue that the whole story stems from the question "What if ghosts were real?"
  • Superweapon Surprise: In the last real war humanity fought the enemy had them cornered and on the verge of defeat. Then they brought out the CIRCE superweapon, kept hidden and unused until that point due to its horrible effects on its targets, and broiled the entire enemy fleet from the inside out. The rest of the races promptly crapped themselves and let humanity rule over the known universe ever since. It later turns out that CIRCE never existed. The enemy fleet just got caught in an unexpected solar flare, and the human government spun the story of the superweapon to exploit the coincidence.
  • Unishment: At the end, Thrr-gilag is expelled from his clan...which seems like a punishment until it's revealed that this means he and his relations are no longer subject to the usual rules, and Thrr-gilag can marry his fiancée and his mother can choose not become an Elder.
  • United Space of America: Averted, although North America is part of NorCoord, the structure of the government seems more based on the British Parliament, complete with a House of Lords.
  • The Unpronounceable: The Zhirrzh's names, such as main protagonist Thrr-gilag, as well as the race names Yycromae and Mrachani.
  • Wave-Motion Gun: NorCoord's superweapon CIRCE, which has only been used once to deadly effect because it's Too Awesome to Use and is held in reserve in the same manner nuclear weapons are in the present day. Actually, CIRCE does not exist. During the war, an enemy fleet happened to be wiped out by the radiation from an unexpected solar flare and NorCoord took credit for it in order to intimidate the enemy into surrendering.
  • Weaksauce Weakness: The Zhirrzh and their Elders are hurt by radio waves, and they dub radio transmitters 'Elderdeath weapons'. This is the origin of their belief that other races are hostile, because what were intended to be communication transmissions were seen as attacks.