Monday 21 August 2017

Solar Express, by L. E. Modesitt Jr.

I was familiar with Modesitt's name, but couldn't offhand recall reading any of his books. Calling up his bibliography on the web, I was frankly staggered by his output: 73 novels to date, published between 1985 and 2015 (that's an average of one novel every five months), grouped into ten series (both SF and fantasy) with another ten stand-alone books. Plus a lot of short fiction. On checking my shelves I was surprised to find a couple of his novels: Of Tangible Ghosts, and The Ghost of the Revelator, and equally surprised to realise on reading the cover blurbs that I did not recall anything about them.

Solar Express is the latest to appear and is one of the stand-alone novels. The story is set in a future in which humanity is gradually spreading through the Solar System, having consolidated politically into a few major groups (after various conflicts, involving nuclear weapons): Noram (Canada and the USA); the Sinese Federation (China plus adjacent region); India; and various odds and ends like the European Community and the African Union. Tensions between the Sinese and Indians are rising and the threat of war increasing, with a particular focus on the banned militarisation of space. 

Into this tinderbox comes a visitor to the inner Solar System – an object at first thought to be a comet, then a large asteroid, then is finally realised to be an artificial construct of huge size. The story follows two tracks; that of Dr. Alayna Wong-Grant, a post-doc astrophysicist based at a Moon observatory who first spots the construct, and Chris Tavoian, a Noram space pilot who is sent on a solo mission to intercept it. The two know each other and are in frequent communication, their messages forming an important part of the story. They keep finding relevant quotes to exchange – here's a couple:

"Don't we all want some meaning in the universe? Meaning that transcends mechanics?" Tavoian snorted. He doubted that the universe had meaning. Structure, but not meaning. People had to create meaning. Whether it's there or not. Which continued to be the problem with true believers of every kind.


The greatest of all faults in a politician, and in any leader, is the failure to recognize that charisma has nothing to do with ability, excellence or goodness. In fact, charisma enables far more the evils of the universe than great and worthy accomplishments. Give me pedestrian accomplishment over charisma any day.

The basic plot is obviously reminiscent of Arthur C. Clarke's classic Rendezvous with Rama, but it is handled in a very different way. Modesitt takes a lot of time in establishing the detailed background, including Alayna's mundane repair-and-maintenance tasks and Tavoian's repetitive duties in carrying out his rather frustrating step-by-step reconnaissance mission. While this is going on, they are also exchanging messages with relatives on Earth who are facing their own difficulties. This certainly provides a strong flavour of their different existences but there is an inevitable consequence - a leisurely pacing with the dramatic tension ticking along very gently for much of the book. There is little of the sense of excitement and awe that RwR generates. Nonetheless, I was never in danger of giving up on the book – the story is too intriguing for that.

The tension does gradually begin to rise as Sinese spacecraft arrive on the scene to begin their own research, while the enigmatic construct begins to show unpredicted behaviour and Chris finds that his time is running out. By this time, I was really gripped and read until the early hours to finish it.

I was increasingly impressed by this novel the more I read of it. The comparison with RwR is instructive as it shows the evolution of SF over the period: Solar Express has far more scientific and technical detail; the characters are much more fully developed; the plot is less straightforward and more sophisticated; and the book is more than twice the length. It demands more time and concentration from the reader, as the astrophysics gets rather dense, but is a rewarding read.

I am clearly going to have to pay more attention to Modesitt, starting with the books I found on my shelf!