Pham Nuwen is a character in this novel, more or less the founding father of the Qeng Ho, a spacefaring trading semi-culture. Sort of an interstellar Merchant Marine, but if the Merchant Marine was not an arm of any government but its own thing. Several chapters are Pham Nuwen’s backstory. Pham has visions of a Qeng Ho empire of sorts, though not really an empire in the sense of ruling over planets so much as a trading empire where planetary civilizations are persistent customers over the span of centuries and millenia. Anyway, Pham’s visions of empire seem to be getting grander as the book progresses. In the chapter I read last night, Pham meets with Gunnar Larson, a customer on the planet Trygve Ytre, & talks about his vision. His vision is that the Qeng Ho will purchase the best of technology and culture from all of the worlds that it trades with, and sell that to other worlds and even back to the origin world centuries later after the civilization that originated it collapses. The upshot is that human culture will persist over space and time, civilizations will last longer and be better, the collapse of civilizations will be less dramatic. And this will all be due to the Qeng Ho: as Pham says, “we will be the surviving culture of Humankind.”
Now, does this not sound like librarianship to you? Or I suppose more accurately, like archiving. Pham’s Qeng Ho are the ultimate archivists — though admittedly, archivists-for-hire. This is the librarian’s dream of empire: we are saving the accumulated knowledge of all humanity for the benefit of all humanity. We help civilization move forward and prevent it from slipping backward. We outlast civilizations; we make civilization possible.