See also my review of Adiamante
Did you ever have one of those 'air band' radios as a kid - the kind that, with the flick of a switch, let you listen to real pilots' in-flight conversations? They were pretty good fun for a while: until you discover that real pilots don't talk about things that are (a) interesting, or (b) comprehensible to non-pilots.
Perhaps this is the point of Empire & Ecolitan, to portray the real life of secret agents, because there are pages of in-flight exchanges in this books.
This is a collected edition of two (of four) books, The Ecolitan Operation and The Ecologic Secession. Both revolve around Major Jimjoy Wright, a Special Operative of the Imperial Galactic Empire, an ancient and venomous organisation devoted to preserving and propagating bureaucracy across the galaxy. Major Jimjoy Wright is its devoted servant. He has killed, and still regularly does kill, tens of thousands of people. Wright doesn't speak much, he doesn't usually say anything interesting when he does speak, and he spends most of his time either pretending to be someone else or doing callisthenics. James Bond he isn't.
The 'Ecolitan' of the title is a secret 'Foundation' type institute of eco-warriors on the Imperial colony world of Accord. The effervescent Major Wright is dispatched to Accord to check what's growing in the Ecolitan window boxes - but he's been set up by the Empire, who actually want rid of him for being just too good at his job.
That this is an initially intriguing and potentially intelligent idea only makes Ecolitan & Empire's failure to engage the readers' interest all the more disappointing. This could have been a genuinely resonant and penetrating satire on the idiocy of unrestricted and unconsidered economic growth (even more so today than when it was first published 12 years ago). The Empire knows little and cares less about the Kyoto Accord…oops, sorry, I mean 'ecological issues', and is dead set upon crushing the band of plucky Ecolitan revolutionaries that do. Unfortunately Major Wright is an uninteresting killing machine, and the story itself moves at such a leaden pace and with such complete lack of verve that it becomes a sub-sub-Stainless Steel Rat adventure, quite lost without Harrison's wonderful humour and Jim di Griz's daredevil charm.
I didn't even begin to care about the good intentions of the Ecolitans, about the Empire's evil plans or the horrifying megadeaths engendered by Major Wright. By the middle of this book all I cared about was getting through it and reading something else.