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Issue #123 - November 2005

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Seriously B.D.O.

By Cheryl Morgan

Those of you who are regular readers of Emerald City will know that I am a fan of L.E. Modesittís science fiction novels. If you havenít taken up my recommendation yet, you might want to do so with The Eternity Artifact, because it is a book that is longer on science and shorter on politics than the other works I have reviewed. At its core, The Eternity Artifact is a classic Big Dumb Object novel, and what an object it is.

"Our target is a renegade world that is crossing the void by itself. It has no sun, no satellites. [Öbig snipÖ] Estimates are that the world was abandoned more than six billion years ago. Rough topographical scans and one landing have revealed that one section of the planet was heavily urbanized ó and abandoned in good order. We donít know how to preserve something for that long, but the Dannanians did. That alone is a good indication of their technology."

Given this basic premise, different SF writers will go different ways. Some will major in working out the alien technology. Others will reveal that the aliens havenít really left, and yet others will have the expeditionary force fighting amongst themselves. Modesittís angle is primarily to have competition for access to the planet.

The expeditionary force is put together by an inter-stellar society known as The Comity, which appears to be based largely on European and North American ancestry. Other societies, based on China and Japan, are also interested in the technological bonanza that may result from investigating the planet called Dannan. They would like to get there first, but they donít know how to find a rogue planet in the inter-galactic void. More worryingly there are also societies with origins in Christian and Muslim fundamentalism. These are theocracies whose governments have made it an article of faith that mankind is the only form of intelligent life in the universe. If a six billion year old civilization existed then it can only have been created by The Evil One, and its discovery is cause for great concern. That may sound crazy to us, but it isnít to them.

"Öpolitical and military history has been determined as much by what people believe to be the truth as what has been accurately verified as such. Facts and established principles have been ignored throughout history in favor of comforting and scientifically impossible beliefs. Recorded history is filled with cultures that have believed what we have determined to be scientifically improbable, if not impossible. On ancient Earth, people were burned alive for asserting basic astronomical facts.

Modesittís basic political point should be fairly clear from that. It is entirely possible for two different cultures to see the same event in completely different ways. Indeed, one culture may find the otherís beliefs to be totally irrational. That doesnít mean that the inhabitants of that crazy culture wonít hold dearly to their beliefs, and fight to maintain them.

To further illustrate the point, Modesitt tells the story from the point of view of four different characters. One of them, John Paul Goodman, is an assassin. His function is fairly similar to that of the medieval Muslim sect that first gave rise to that concept, but he works for the fundamentalist-Christian-derived Covenanter society (people that Sheri Tepper might easily have used as bad guys). Modesitt does a fine job of making us sympathize with this professional killer as he infiltrates the expedition and does his best to prevent Satanic powers being unleashed on the universe, though his general contempt for women never allows us to forget the type of society he comes from.

Next in the cast list is Liam Fitzhugh, a former commando who now has a career as an historian. Despite his time in the Comity military, he is now every inch the academic whose passion for the dark corners of the dictionary and preference for polysyllabic discourse is rivaled by few except for John Clute.

"That would appear to be the initial and obvious conclusion, and one borne out by our own experience, but I would question the validity of an assumptive determination based on unconscious application of anthropic principles."

"An explanation might help, Professor."

In direct contrast, the shuttle pilot, Lt. Jiendra Chang, is a woman of very few words indeed. She is used to having to communicate quickly and precisely by radio, and if a word isnít necessary to the understanding of a sentence she wonít use it. However, both Fitzhugh and Chang have honest, direct personalities and are not afraid to expose humbug when they find it. Neither has any patience for bureaucracy or corruption, so it is perhaps not surprising that the two develop an attachment to each other, much to the astonishment of Changís boss, Commander Morgan.

"You like him? You never use a word when a syllable will do, and he never uses a word when a paragraph will do."

Of course these two very different characters allow Modesitt to describe the same major events as seen by the expeditionís science team and by their military escort. You donít have to be part of another culture to see things very differently.

I found Fitzhugh and Chang a very likeable pair of characters. I can imagine that some readers may find Fitzhughís verbal gymnastics tiring, but he knows what heís talking about and most of the time heís right.

I also couldnít help but be annoyed by the choice of the name [of the planet], because properly it was a possessive form of the name of an ancient goddess. If they were going to name the place after ancient deities, it should have been Danu, but no one had consulted me.

Well, thatís government for you, I guess. They canít get anything right.

Modesitt, however, gets a lot right. He has thought a lot about what sort of technology a six billion year old civilization might have, and he has clearly been reading up on cutting edge theories such as programmable matter. SF fans who are dubious about what sort of mess a famous fantasy writer might make of this sort of book will be relieved to see that he can happily bandy about terms like regression analysis and Mohs Number and know what they mean. The book isnít a technofest, but it is very clearly the work of someone who respects the science he is working with rather than someone who makes use of Clarkeís Third Law to avoid having to explain anything. If you need any further recommendation, David Hartwell edited the book, and he doesnít allow his authors to get away with sloppiness.

Not that Modesitt is champion of the "scientist as hero" school of SF. As in Karen Travissís City of Pearl, the expedition scientists are often shown as selfish, blinkered and naïve. Some of them know nothing other than their own specialties, and are blithely unconcerned about risking the safety of others in search of more data or getting their names on important research papers. In addition, Modesittís fourth viewpoint character, mission artist Chendor Barna, is often shown as more effective than the scientists. His basic understanding of people, human or otherwise, is a big help when trying to unravel the mysteries of an abandoned alien city.

Given the setting, the book also spends a fair amount of time talking about space battles. Unlike Al Reynolds, who has his starships flinging energy beams at each other over unimaginable distances, Modesitt uses a model of engagement rooted more in the Pacific Theatre of WWII, with the addition of energy shields as protection against torpedoes. Iím not an expert on the science of space warfare, but the battle scenes certainly worked for me.

That is about all there is to say, except that there is a really nasty sting in the tail because, after all, politics is politics, no matter whose side you are on or what your beliefs may be. Iím firmly of the belief that Modesittís SF is under-rated, and that more of you should buy this book. And if you would like to learn more about Modesittís political views, check out the interview I have done with him for Strange Horizons. It is currently scheduled to go online on December 5th.

The Eternity Artifact - L.E. Modesitt - Tor - hardcover

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Emerald City - copyright Cheryl Morgan - cheryl@emcit.com
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Editorial assistants: Anne K.G. Murphy & Kevin Standlee