As far as I’m concerned, this is where the Valerian et Laureline series really starts to get into its stride, and it’s not surprising that it’s the first story to break free of Earth, its history and the now-dispatched Xombul.
The story takes place on Syrte, the centre of the eponymous Empire. This gives Christin and Mezieres a first real chance to use their imaginations, freed of the restrictions of humanity’s customs and geographies. The story is introduced by a fantastically atmospheric swirl of dark, star-filled space, a galactic curve using less than half a page amid acres of white space, as if being looked into via some kind of portal. It’s a grand and glorious tease, and the creators give themselves three full pages to depict the glories and curiosities of Syrte, the races that trade, the goods they trade, the market, the palace, the landscapes, the alienness that invests in the familiar. For the first time we feel we are really a long way from home.
This kind of dazzle, this flair, will be an intrinsic part of the series hereafter, but we still need our heroes, so enter a very familiarly-shaped Galaxity ship, exiting from a spatiotemporal jump on the penultimate leg, Val and Laureline halting to record a mission log that sets up their visit: to observe Syrte, to not get involved, to determine if it is a potential threat to Earth’s own Empire.
Unfortunately, good intentions don’t count for much. Syrte is led by a Prince, an example of decadence, and no doubt inbreeding, in his pleasure-loving, easily-led state (easily-led by Laureline, of course). But it is increasingly dominated by a kind of priest-caste, the steel-masked Enlightened, the villains of the story, suppressing and repressing science and space routes, increasingly dominating the world and the Empire.
And they identify Laureline as a threat, an enemy, an emissary from the Earth which they hate and are sworn to destroy, because she has bought a strange and wonderful object in the marketplace that she understands and can name, where it and its purpose are wholly unknown to Syrtians: it is a watch. It tells Time, and Syrtians tell time innately, internally infallibly. What need have they of Watches and Clocks?
But the Enlighteneds know what a watch is and what it’s for and by that token they know our intrepid pair are not from round here and have them seized. However, seizing and keeping are two different things, and the resourceful agents are soon on the run, into the hinterlands and the forests and swamps.
With the aid of Marcyam Hunters, Val and Lauerline return to the capital. Their first attempt to penetrate the Palace, disguised in gorgeous robes as Ambassadors, is rebuffed but it draws them to the attention of Elmir, the clothes merchant, who agrees to get them smuggled in. There’s a high degree of paranoia surrounding the palace that has grown over the near hundred years since the Enlighteneds first appeared.
This is where our pair get separated, Laureline winding up enchanting the Prince, Val captured and drugged to tell all about their spaceship. However, our favourite redhead is growing into her role as a successful and independent Agent who does the thinking whilst Val does the heavy-lifting, and she gets the Prince to release her partner, unharmed, over the heads and the will of the Enlightened.
And their reunion is marked by the first overt arms-round-each-other kiss, establishing quite clearly just to what extent Val and Laureline are a pair.
Outside the Palace again, the Agents need to find a bolthole safe from the Enlighteneds. Elmir has given them an address to find, Black Street, which takes them into the seedy darkness of the city, the underclass, the poor who are overlooked in every city and Empire. Where Elmir reveals he is more than a mere clothes-seller, but rather the Grandmaster of the Guild of Merchants. The Enlighteneds are not merely substituting religion for science, ignorance for knowledge, isolation for commonality, but they are buggering up trade, and that’s serious.
With Val and Laureline’s ship, and its spatiotemporal capabilities, at their head, the Merchant’s Guild intends to foment rebellion and overthrow the Enlightened. A fleet of ships from dozens of planets of the Empire, each specialists in some discipline or another, just as a city contains quarters where the masters of one industry or another cluster. They will make a direct attack on the lonely, isolated dusty asteroid of Slohm, in the Constellation of the Eagle. This is the Enlighteneds’ base, in an enormous shipwrecked spaceship. The Enlighteneds are aliens, from out-system. Who are they, and where are they from? The answer is meant to be the twist and, who knows, in 1970 it might have come as a genuinely unexpected revelation, but we are older now, we have read more, and we can foresee where Christin and Mezieres are heading.
By now, most of the comic elements of the story have been brushed into the background. The fleet, its silent approach across empty space, it’s solemn seriousness takes the story into the realms of the epic. There are still human moments: Elmir identifies Val and Laureline’s craft as having spatiotemporal capabilities, and more or less extrapolates their base to be Earth, but fear not, their interest is expanding markets, not Empire.
There’s a magnificent single page for a deadly act as Val pilots the ship through a complex series of Jumps through microseconds of time and a small space, appearing practically simultaneously at every point and destroying all the Enlighteneds craft.
And finally there is the invasion of their Headquarters where the Enlighteneds have acknowledged they have been beaten. What’s more, by one of their own The Enlighteneds are Earthmen, survivors of a first expedition that was believed lost in space, destroyed, but instead crashed, its crew poisoned by radiation yet made immortal by an extract made from a liquid found on Slohm with a mythical background.
So they became immortal, and hated immortally, took Syrte in hand for the purposes of an attack on the Earth that made them this way. In vain, Valerian argues that they could return, in honour, that Earth could repair its damaged children. But hatred is too powerful. The Enlighteneds cannot give up what has sustained them for so long, their only purpose for surviving. They have lost, and the fate for losers is death.
And with their death, rebellion rises on Syrte. The Royal Family aren’t going to last this one out, we realise. A very mercantile and middle-class Empire is being born, that one way or another will find its own way to Earth but in Elmir’s hands it will be to trade not to fight.
As the title makes plain, part of this story went into Luc Besson’s 2017 film (I’d still love to see another, even with Dane Dehaan as Val), the market place and the idea. It deserves that status. Though a much less mixed treatment might have been a better bet, ‘The Empire of a Thousand Planets’ having quite enough of a story in itself for a decent little flick. Although it might have had to face accusations of being too much like Star Wars if it had.
And we know why, don’t we, boys and girls?