The Conquerors Trilogy

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The Conquerors trilogy is a series of Space Opera books by Timothy Zahn about humans encountering a new alien species and, thanks to a mishandled first contact, this turning into a war. This summary 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'.[1]


Tropes used in The Conquerors Trilogy include:
  • Alien Arts Are Appreciated: Fibbit.
  • 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.
  • Badass Family: The Cavanaghs. (Zahn likes this trope).
  • Beauty Is Never Tarnished: Averted with Borte.
  • 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.
  • Deliberate Values Dissonance: See Sink the Life Boats 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.
  • 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
  • Frickin' Laser Beams: 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, and only the Copperheads manage to do it regularly given the improved reaction time granted by their cybernetic interface.
  • The Great Politics Mess-Up: The books came out just late enough to avoid this for the most part, although there are still occasional reminders of early-90s geopolitical attitudes.
  • 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: 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.
  • Obstructive Bureaucrat: Jacy VanDiver
  • 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.
  • The Reptilians: 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?"
  • The Starscream: Cvv-panav.
  • 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 to become an Elder.
  • United Earth: 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.
  • 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. There is a particular Moral Dissonance here--the Zhirrzh are horrified that humans even equip their escape pods with 'deadly weapons' (i.e. the distress beacon).
  1. 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". Cue escalation of conflict.