Robert Reed. The Long Retreat. (F&SF Jan/Feb 2010).

I’m all for editorial introductions to stories giving context about the author, but occasionally just too much is given away. The introduction states Reed having pondered ‘What if there was a world so large that you never needed to stop running away from your problems?’, which isn’t a massive spoiler, but does detract from the story getting across that principle in its own good time.

Reed postulates such a world, with an Emperor leading an increasingly bedraggled group of soldiers, bodyguards and retinue with him as they flee the enemy. However, retreat is not a word to be used.

There is further intrigue, as Reed considers what the implications would be in such a scenario where the vast population are only vaguely aware of the Emperor, and certainly have no idea what he looks like. Even this Emperor’s loyal Lieutenant begans to have doubts, as the increasingly frail leader looks decreasingly like the powerful godlike person an Emperor should be.

With the guns of the enemy bearing down on them, a number of small fishing boats are requisitioned and a few of the group head out to see, to seek the sanctuary of distant islands. And during that journey, the loyal Lieutenant is asked by the Emperor to despatch the traitor within – a task made difficult by the Emperor not saying who the traitor is.

In the end it is the loyal Lieutenant who survives, and in the Emperor’s robe, the role of leader is taken forward by someone new, with health and vigour, with whom the population are willing to accept as their one true leader, and to follow him into battle. (Makes you glad we don’t live in a society where we can change our leaders but still continue blindly supporting ill-founded battles ad infinitum!)

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