Timothy Zahn’s Quadrail novels, also known as the Frank Compton adventures, showcases one of sci-fi’s best thinkers in his best work to date.
Many science fiction authors, including the great Isaac Asimov, wrote their stories as mysteries. The mystery is a classic genre in literature, appealing to our desire to know. It also allows the sci-fi author a unique vehicle to explain their world to the reader, as detectives often ask questions about how and why things happen, even when they already know to a certain extent, just to ensure they have the facts straight (or to catch someone in a lie.) And the working out of a puzzle, be it a crime or just a strange set of circumstances, gives a story an immediate sense of purpose and conflict.
Zahn is a master of the sci-fi mystery, and even his Conqueror’s trilogy, ostensibly about an interstellar war, has a number of mysterious circumstances at its heart. The Quadrail series takes this to the next level, presenting you with Frank Compton as a protagonist and the Quadrail itself, along with the aliens who run the Quadrail, known as Spiders, as some of the first mysteries you’ll have to figure out.
Let’s be honest, having a whole train system in space as the primary means of interstellar travel is a little mysterious. In fact, it might be the most difficult hurdle for most sci-fi fans to get past (but it’s worth it, there is a very solid reason for the Quadrail, trust me.) The quirky, almost B-movie feel of the Quadrail is part of the charm, and if you can’t get past that there’s certainly no way you’ll get used to the talking chipmunks with guns*.
In the Quadrail’s galaxy, humanity is surrounded by eleven other civilizations that have been riding the Quadrail longer than they have. Aliens with unusual and distinctive social structures are a trademark of Zahn’s fiction and he really goes over the top with the races on the Quadrail.
Being a fairly experienced traveler who is familiar with the basics of interstellar politics, and more importantly, out of a job, Frank is recruited by the Spiders to deal with a problem they anticipate occurring in the next few months involving one of the oldest and most powerful interstellar civilizations on the rails. If that wasn’t enough, Frank quickly finds no one is really telling him all he needs to know- not that he’s being entirely honest himself.
Frank’s attempts to get a handle on the Spiders and their problems, not to mention the parter they saddle him with and the enemies he makes on the way, fill a total of five books of suspense, clever reasoning and wry irony. A fan of suspense, espionage or science fiction will enjoy the Quadrail series, a fan of all three should definitely check them out.
*Chip ‘n Dale’s Rescue Rangers all grown up.