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Agent of the Imperium

This review originally appeared on RPG.Net in April 2017, and reprinted with permission in the Jauary/February 2024 issue

Agent of the Imperium. Marc W. Miller
Original publication: 2015 (Far Future Enterprises)
Current Availability: Trade Paper, eBook (both from both Amazon and Baen Books)

This review, the twenty-ninth in the series, looks at the first novel by Traveller creator, Marc Miller. As far as I know, itís also the last extant Traveller novel that I havenít reviewed.

About the Story

Jonathan Bland is a dead man, but he lives on in a technological wafer that allows him to exist again for 30 days at a time as an Agent of the Imperium. When called upon, he continues the work of the Imperial Quarantine Agency ó which as often as not requires the scrubbing of dangerous planets.

Jonathan Bland is a dead man, but that doesnít mean heís stopped learning. In fact,  Agent of the Imperium is all about what he learns as he goes about his job over the centuries, and how he grows, evolves, and changes as a result.

The threats of  Agent of the Imperium include rogue robots, virulent diseases, and psionic infections, but at its core itís a journey into the heart of a man who lives the most unusual life imaginable.

Genre & Style

Agent of the Imperium is unabashedly a space opera. Though Bland is usually dealing with local problems, they span the length and width of the Imperium. They also span hundreds of years ó and include problems that the Imperium wonít encounter for centuries.

In addition,  Agent of the Imperium is a troubleshooter novel, much like the Retief series (1967+) that Miller has listed as an influence on Traveller. Here, you can see the connection; where Keith Laumer wrote silly tales of a diplomatic troubleshooter, Miller instead offers the serious and sometimes grim tales of a quarantine troubleshooter in the Official Traveller Universe.

Finally,  Agent of the Imperium is a first novel Ö but it doesnít really show. The writing is polished and the overall structure of the novel is innovative. The novel is also constantly interesting, and thatís largely due to a great choice of premise. By using the idea of a wafered troubleshooter as the basis of his novel, Miller is able to follow one of the core precepts of good writing. He starts each section deep into the story and then gets out early. What weíre left with is the ďgood stuffĒ.

However the heart of  Agent of the Imperium is its superb characterization. Miller adeptly shows us the tensions within Blandís heart as he scrubs worlds; he doesnít tell us of Blandís regrets and he doesnít have Bland orate about them. Instead, he shows us how Bland reacts differently over time, and how he goes to surprising extremes to correct his mistakes. Itís a rather brilliant character study (and rather stunning for a first novel).

Agent of the Imperium isnít without its flaws. Transitions to other viewpoint characters are sometimes confusing (especially when they remain in the first person). The chronology is also occasionally confusing, as itís not entirely in order. Thereís a good reason for this: Bland himself may learn things out of order as his wafers resynchronize across the Imperium. Still, if youíre as obsessive about understanding how things fit together as I am, youíll occasionally be knocked out of the story. Finally, some of the plot threads about Blandís evolution feel unfinished ó particularly a long string of chapters about a single offshoot of the Bland collective. Perhaps that just means a sequel is in order, but a bit more closure for this subplot would have been nice.

Despite these nitpicks,  Agent of the Imperium is a strong competitor for being the best Traveller novel to date. (Itís my personal favorite.)

Applicability to Traveller Gameplay

Agent of the Imperium continues the strong trend of recent FFE novels: it offers a deep depiction of the Traveller universe. In fact, itís the novel thatís done the best job to date of providing a broad view of the Official Traveller Universe.

Perhaps this shouldnít be a surprise, because itís by Marc Miller Ö but it is surprising that Marc Miller is able to incorporate so many elements of the Traveller universe in such an effortless, organic way. Vilani, psionics, newts, stasis globes, Geonee, naval officers, Threep, and amber zones. Theyíre all here, and they never feel gratuitous. Somehow, Miller is able both to fill  Agent of the Imperium with the wonders of the Third Imperium and to convince us that he had to include those many and varied elements to give us the complete story.

Some of Millerís references are off-handed, but others are quite deep. Many of the chapters begin with infodumps on topics like royalty, the Third Imperium, and Capital; they donít feel at all gratuitous because they inevitably tie in with the chapter itself. The in-depth discussions of the Core sector may be some of the most valuable insights in this book, but thereís also an amazing amount of good material on jump drives ó from details of how astrogation works to what jumpspace looks like. In fact, the physics of jump is used as a plot point multiple times in the book (showing how GMs could do the same).

Generally, the depiction of Travellerís science is a constant joy in this book. The amazing thing is that it doesnít feel at all dated, despite its foundation in inspirational science fiction of the í50s, í60s, and í70s. This is in part because Miller does a great job of redefining the gameís classic science in modern terms. However, he also introduces more modern science like the personality wafers, which make Traveller feel positively transhuman without invalidating any of the past details of the universe. It should be an inspiration for Traveller GMs to do the same ó particularly if theyíre using T5 (2013), which includes some of these same trends.

Agent of the Imperium also does a great job of depicting Travellerís history. Because his book is set so far before the Golden Age, Miller is able to easily introduce historic elements such as the Frontier Wars and the Emperors of the Flag that could be backstory for any Traveller game. Again, he does so effortlessly, without dwelling on these details, and without making the history the focus of the book; some of the adventures within  Agent of the Imperium are important historical moments, but others are smaller stories. At the same time, Miller also foreshadows some of the future problems of the Imperium ó great mysteries from the final days of the classic game. Itís an impressive (and surprising) trick.

Besides all of these great background details,  Agent of the Imperium also provides great ideas for adventures. Not only could Blandís awakenings be used as the basis for Traveller adventures, but Miller also introduces two other great sources of adventures: the First Empireís False-Knowledge and a set of questions that Bland raises in Encyclopediopolis (chapter 27). Add together Blandís missions and these other sources of ideas and a GM could have years of play.

Publication Notes

Agent of the Imperium was funded by a Kickstarter that raised $35,113 from 970 backers. It was produced as an ebook, a softcover, and a hardcover.

Conclusion

Agent of the Imperium should be your first stop for Traveller fiction (unless youíre looking specifically for New Era background). Itís not just a great font of Traveller knowledge, but itís a good book too.