Wednesday, July 28, 2021

Microreview [book]: Empress of Eternity by L.E. Modesitt Jr

An ambitious deep time story of three far future Earth civilizations revolving around an enigmatic and seemingly imperishable wonder of the world.

The Canal.

We here in our present don’t know, can’t even imagine it, but in our future, the thousands of miles long continent-spanning canal edifice makes the Suez and Panama canals seem small and underwhelming. The canal has existed for countless millennia, and seems impervious to damage to just about everything subjected to it short of a nuclear blast. There are two control stations (or are they actually for that?  it’s hard for these societies to tell). One is closed, and the other is empty rooms.

The mystery of the canal ties into the fate of three civilizations and the people who inhabit them, all themselves separated widely by countless millenia. But the fate of the bridge, and the fate the civilizations, and perhaps more, is the matter of LE Modesitt Jr’s Empress of Eternity.

Deep time is something that Modesitt has come back to in his science fiction time and again, but in a way very different than, say, Gregory Benford or Greg Egan. L.E. Modesitt’s The Eternity Artifact is the model here for what he does in Empress of Eternity, a slow and stately, sometimes a bit too slow for its own good. It’s a novel for slow and patient reading rather than flying through the book at breakneck pace to see what’s going on.

The format of the book leans into this. Taking place at several widely spaced points even further in the future than the construction of the bridge, which is a mystery to these descendant civilizations of humankind, Modesitt takes his time in the novel to set up the main characters in each time period, the cultures, societies and ultimately the conflicts that resonate across all three of them.

In the earliest narrative, the Unity of Caelaarn, we are introduced to Lord Maertyn and his wife. This is a society with an aristocratic bent to the sociology, Maertyn is a minor lord, but it gives him enough power and clout to be a minor minister in a government department, and gives him enough clout for him and his wife Maarlyna to investigate the Canal. Maertyn’s story goes to the SF political thrillers that Modesitt used to write much more frequently, as his recall to the capital throws him into intrigue and danger. Aside from the unusual biological oriented tech, though, and those are often quite understated, this is the narrative that is most like our modern day in its trappings. 

The next narrative, chronologically takes place in the culture of the Ruche. The Ruche technocracy has a more engineering and physics based material science than Caelaarn, which makes some of what they do a little more understandable than the “biologic is best” science approach of the Unity. On the other hand, Modesitt loving to show his cleverness for such reversals, it is made clear that the Rusch or their founding population suffered from a genetic bottleneck, and the elfin features among the members of the Rusch means there is not a lot of variation. This is carried into the seeking of the unity of thought as well as form in this civilization. The civilization is under threat from something that readers today can appreciate--global warming. Desertification of the planet is a real and challenging problem, and putting the society under strain.

The Vanir Hegemony and the Aesyr Rebels make up the third and most distant of the civilizations where we get a point of view (we get a name check of a couple of others but they are not relevant to the narrative of the book) . Here, Helkyria runs a research project at the Canal dealing with the prospect of a new Snowball (Iceberg) Earth and hopes that something, anything in the canal might be able to slow or arrest the march of the Ice. Enter the Aesyr Rebels, who have a fatalistic and catastrophic answer to this global problem.  This far future society is even more interesting, biologically than the Rusch in that there is much more and rather interestingly distinct sexual dimorphism between men and women in this time period.

Thus we have three cultures separated by at least hundreds of thousands of years, if not millions, all trying to make sense of a seemingly timeless artifact with not a lot of features to actually explore. At first there is a real sense of wheel spinning on the part of all three civilizations, since the canal and its environs are just literally a big dumb object, even if it is an object that seems impervious to everything including the ravages of time and space. The descendant civilizations from its builders have very little real idea how the canal was built and even less understanding as to why and what it is for. This gives the narrative and the reader a lot of time to get set up with the societies and their underlying problems, as well as the triple set of characters. The Canal does give up its secrets, but slowly.

One of the pleasures of reading a Modesitt book is working things out. Modesitt is a writer who likes to have his readers engage and figure things out on the page. This, by the way, sometimes makes his audiobooks a little more of a reach than physical books, because sometimes you will want to stop reading and puzzle out a problem or a question raised in the narrative. One spoiler I will give early and often because it helps lean into the mystery is that there is no moon and instead there is a ring in the sky. Yes, this takes place on Earth, and yes what happened to the moon and why becomes plot relevant. Are there links to any other Modesitt books? Modesitt does have a penchant for putting one or two easter eggs that suggests a particular book is linked to another, and sometimes rather surprisingly connections (the origin of his Recluce novels is from one of his science fiction verses, strangely enough). Here, the easter egg is in a future novel--having read it last year, I now see that Quantum Shadows (reviewed here at NOAF by Joe: takes place in the same future verse as this novel does. 

Modesitt loves to explore themes, too, and in addition to all of the worldbuilding, is the themes of the book. “History does not repeat but it rhymes” is the prevailing theme of the crisis points that the three civilizations face, and Modesitt is not shy in drawing parallels between the three, both for the reader, and eventually for the characters as well. The history in question is a matter of autonomy, freedom, and resisting authoritarianism. All three cultures, Caelaarn, The Ruche, and the Aesir/Vanir are cultures where authoritarianism is rearing its ugly head in ways that resonate across time. All three crisis points are unique and the individual problems are different, and yet not so different after all. How does one resist authoritarianism? What is justified in that resistance? How does it distort individuals, societies, civilizations? In the midst of a novel full of techno-jargon (three sets) and a Big Dumb Object, Modesitt does spend a lot of time and energy on these problems. AS mentioned above, since for a good chunk of the book, the canal itself is an impenetrable enigma, the narrative weight goes elsewhere. It is in the latter portion of the book that we get more of the technological speculation, and revelations of what the canal is for, how and why it is built, and, just what the book title actually means.

There are the usual touches one finds in a Modesitt book, too. In some ways, there is a lot of mannerism in his books, his interests always come to the fore. Sometimes, as in this novel, it can be a bit shoehorned in.  Food, for example, and the well detailed description of meals and what they are composed of is a major feature of his work. Even though all of his characters wind up under possible privation within the control structure of the canal, there are still opportunities in the narrative for Modesitt to elaborately and mouth wateringly describe meals that the characters eat. This is particularly true of Lord Maretyn, who spends much of his time in the capital but all three of the timelines talk about food and what they are eating. Readers used to old school SF where food was ignored should look no farther than Modesitt for their fix of lavishly detailed meals. Modesitt also does like his travelogues, often under threat or trouble, which is a hard thing to do where a lot of the action is very constricted to a series of rooms in a mysterious building at the edge of the canal. Lord Maretyn, again, comes through here, with his flight from the capital an ornate cat and mouse spy vs spy set piece that is really well done and had me envisioning and thinking of movies like Charade and The Third Man.

I am still looking for a better SF L E Modesitt Jr book to introduce readers to the SF side of his writing. I still think, even given its age, the aforementioned The Eternity Artifact is the most successful of his SF books for new readers. This is a solid and deep SF novel for fans of the author’s work, but readers new to him and his work, particularly the SF side, Empress of Eternity is not likely the Modesitt book you are looking for to give it a try.  It’s too slow and mannered, and too easy for readers unfamiliar with his work to bounce off of it on a number of grounds. It makes it ultimately impossible to really recommend this book to many new readers, which ultimately, given the author’s skills and oeuvre, is a shame. 


The Math

Baseline Score: 6/10

Bonuses: +1 for interesting technological and sociological and even biological speculations.

+1 for strong use of themes that resonate across the three time periods.

Penalties: -2 for being a little too glacial and sedate for readers unused to Modesitt's style

Nerd Coefficient: 6/10

Reference: Modesitt Jr, L.E. The Empress of Eternity (2010, TOR)

 POSTED BY: Paul Weimer. Ubiquitous in Shadow, but I’m just this guy, you know? @princejvstin.