The Sibyl’s War – Good Ideas Alone Are Not Everything

One of my favorite science fiction authors is Timothy Zahn. I’ve raved about his many accomplishments in the past but today I’m going to take look at his shortcomings through the lens of his latest original series, the Chronicle of the Sibyl’s War. At a glance, this should be another dose of great Zahn storytelling, beginning with an interesting premise and setting up interesting conflict. However, as big a fan as I am, I have to confess that I haven’t been as interested in it as I could be. Since what makes good writing is very important to me, I’ve spent a lot of time trying to work out why that might be and I’ve arrived at some conclusions.

First, let me set the stage. Nicole Hammond is a low rent gang kid from Philadelphia who is abducted by aliens and dragged away to the alien ship Fyrantha to serve as a Sibyl, a human with the ability to telepathically hear the ship giving repair orders when she takes a specific drug. Unfortunately, on top of the whole abducted by aliens thing, taking that drug slowly poisons her and ensures she’ll die in a year or so. To top it off, one of her old gang members was abducted with her and is intent on raising a ruckus through the decks of the ship, getting her and her work crew into trouble. Nothing’s easy for Nicole but when she discovers there are prisoners on board being forced to fight in death matches for reasons unknown even Nicole’s jaded heart is forced to take an interest. Soon she’s doing her best to make peace, both in the death match arenas and the ship at large.

Now, this premise is fine and dandy. It has a protagonist, plenty of hurdles for said protagonist, lots of people for her to cross paths with along the way and so on. The ideas are solid. The problems come in execution. Zahn is not the best character writer in scifi. Now, as a genre more invested in ideas that’s not a major hurdle to overcome and Zahn has always brought strong plots, world building, mysteries and puzzles to the table. On the surface, the Sibyl’s War should be able to stand on its ideas.

Down on her luck girl gets a chance to save city sized starship from the hands of slavers? Great! Ancient battleship of incredible power teetering between the hands of villains and the common folk? Great! Kidnapped gladiators fighting for their freedom? Academy award winning premise! The problem is what happened when all those ideas got jumbled up together.

You see, Zahn’s character writing really shines when we spend a lot of time with a small group of people against the backdrop of a large, colorful cast who come and go but – and this is important – who are with the cast for most of any story they appear in. In short, Zahn can write very good characters, but he needs to spend a lot of time with them to do it. He does not have the gift or technique to sketch compelling characters quickly. But with all the ideas fighting for time in the Sibyl’s War series, characters appear and vanish quickly, sometimes appearing for only a couple of chapters a book, and even those that do receive development get it at a pace too slow to really feel like they’re paying off. This even goes for Nicole, one character who should absolutely not feel like she’s static, especially in the first book of the series (she gets more growth in the second).

Again, this isn’t a flaw in the premise of the series or in Zahn’s abilities as a writer. It simply feels like he has mismatched his talents with the demands of his story. Perhaps Zahn wanted to challenge himself as a writer. Perhaps he’s never attempted this kind of character writing and didn’t realize he would be so lackluster at it. Perhaps he just wanted to tell this story regardless of how well he did at it. Whatever led to it, the Sibyl’s War just doesn’t stack up very well against most of the rest of his work. Everyone has a bad project or two, and it’s better to over reach your grasp than never take risks. Still, a part of me will always wonder if the story would have been more satisfying if the ideas were pruned down, or tackled by a different writer.

Pawn’s Gambit and Other Stratagems

I don’t make much of a secret about my Timothy Zahn fanboy status. I’ve written approving reviews of several of his novel series and stand alone books. Today we look at something different but still decidedly Zahn. Pawn’s Gambit and Other Stratagems is a collection of short stories and one novella.

In spite of the title, Pawn’s Gambit is not unified by a theme of strategy to the stories. They are, by and large, just fun stories that touch on the idea of point of view. The title story, Pawn’s Gambit, is something of the exception as it is exactly what you’d expect from the title, especially as written by this author. The narrative revolves around a man kidnapped by aliens as part of an experiment to work out how humans think by watching them play strategy games against alien players. It sounds like the perfect job to me but it actually carries a fairly sinister hidden purpose and, in the end, only one player gets to go home.

But as I said Pawn’s Gambit is actually the odd story out in the collection. The centerpiece of the novel, Cascade Point, is a Hugo winning novella that revolves around a space captain who works with a faster-than-light drive that lets him see into alternate timelines and has to grapple with seeing the possible outcomes of his decisions on a day to day basis. The question of what could have been is a more literal one for him that it is for most people and it turns out glimpsing the answers can be worse than not knowing.

Stories like The Price of Survival and Hitmen – See Murderers revolve around what we know, when, and how it distorts our decision making process. Reality may be objective but our ability to grasp it is pretty limited. Likewise, stories like Protocol caution us about our limited understanding of others and The Giftie Gie Us reminds us that even our understanding of ourselves can be limited.

Whether the protagonist is a telepath who thinks to find the truth about human nature but is foiled by his own id or a wizard who’s magic carries a terrible price that paradoxically drives him to use it all the more, Zahn’s stories are simple, effective and engaging. What’s more, unlike much science fiction, they don’t speak to the intricacies of culture, science or progress but rather delve deep into human nature and the limits we will undoubtedly face no matter how advanced we think we’ve become. And that makes Pawn’s Gambit more than worth your while.

Cool Things: The Conquorer’s Saga

Who’s the master of modern day sci-fi suspense? Well that would probably be Timothy Zahn. Don’t believe me? Didn’t read the Quadrail series? Choo-choo trains in outer space just a bit too far fetched for you? Don’t like the idea of a digitized soul? Then try this series on for size.

As the title implies, the Conquerors’ Saga trilogy consists of three books – Conquerors’ Pride, Conquerors’ Heritage and Conquerors’ Legacy and they can only fairly be looked at as a whole. The basic premise is as familiar as space opera itself – humanity has expanded into the cosmos and winds up leading a multiplanet group of aliens that it has dominated primarily through fecundity and martial prowess. The story opens with a human task force (or group of warships) encountering another task force belonging to a previously unknown starfaring species. Being responsible sorts, the human task force fires up the radio and broadcasts a first contact package intended to establish peaceful communications.

The aliens promptly blow up the human fleet.

This marks the beginning of a war, one where humanity is actually on the losing side for the first time in a long time. The aliens capture a single soldier from the human fleet who must endure imprisonment by the seemingly savage Zhirrzh while his family struggles to recapture him. The first book closes with humanity reeling from the might of the Zhirrzh fleets even as the sole survivor of their first encounter is brought home to his family.

The second book switches things up like no one’s business because suddenly we find ourselves seeing the world through the eyes of the Zhirrzh who was in charge of looking after the alien’s one and only human captive. With his prisoner escaped our new protagonist finds his career plunging  into a downward slide. This is what sets the Conquerors’ Saga apart from most other space operas – it makes a wholehearted attempt to show both sides in a fair and positive light. There’s no moralizing or attempts to brush off differences between species as unbridgeable chasms created by circumstance, there’s just solid characterization and a fair shake given to each side.

That’s not to say these books don’t have problems. Characterization can be weak on some fronts and the end of the story feels very coincidence driven. Some people will say the technology end of things seems a bit weak, based on “old theories” about faster than light travel and such, but since none of those theories have been proven beyond the blackboard I tend to be more forgiving of that kind of thing. The biggest problem as I see it is a failure to develop anything outside of the two warring races – only the Zhirrzh and humans get a good examination even though both races are over hegemonies of other spacefaring races they have conquered.

Still, as a space opera that manages to tell a story with a grand scope, an even balance and a suspenseful tale, the Conquerors’ Saga is pretty good, and well worth your time.

Cool Things: Soulminder

Timothy Zahn is the king of well crafted scifi thrillers, specializing in space opera. But in Soulminder he outdoes himself twice.

The premise – Dr. Adrian Sommers looses his five year old son in a car accident. For years he lapses into obsession, convinced that with the right technique his son’s body could have been healed. Finally he perfects the Soulminder, a device to that hangs on to the human soul long enough to let modern medicine repair the body intended to host it so the soul can be returned. A new medical procedure capable of saving thousands of lives has been created. And with it comes problems. So very, very many problems. The first comes when a man who’s soul is in a Soulminder is declared dead and malicious parties try to have the body cremated. And the cases only get more bizarre from there.

Zahn is always at his best when there’s scheming and clever tricks to be played and the concept of the Soulminder gives him an incredible new set of gambits to make. Soulminder is episodic, with each chapter covering a new problem Soulminder causes Dr. Sommers, his clients and frequently, the legal systems of the countries where Soulminder Inc. is operating. While the ideas are interesting and each new problem is handled in a clever way, many of the problems Zahn presents us with are frankly disturbing, not only in what they do to the people trapped in them but how realistic they sound. If a Soulminder trap were to be created in the modern day, these are exactly the kinds of things we could probably expect to happen as a result.

On the other hand, Zahn also approaches this new technology with a clear understanding of the need for moral oversight. In fact, the second chapter of the book deals extensively with how religious leaders and other sources of moral oversight might react to something like Soulminder and, in a refreshing change from the way such figures are normally treated in scifi, even Sommers’ most strident critics are treated fairly and respectfully, with the understanding that they are also doing their best to deal fairly with strange, new technologies. In fact, for the fairness and clear understanding Zahn shows to his religious characters alone this book is a stand-out among scifi today and worth your reading.

Sommers tries his best to ethically use his technology but ultimately others have to be involved and the problems just keep multiplying. That leads to his ultimate solution which, while interesting, does disturb me to a certain degree. I’m not sure if Zahn was trying to make a point with it or not, and I don’t think there really was a better solution for the problems Sommers faced, but I have to admit on reflection it’s uncomfortably close to an endorsement of suicide. I don’t think that’s what Zahn meant by it, I may just be overanalyzing it and in the context of Soulminder, a technology that’s more fantasy than true prediction of the future in my opinion, it may be the only right solution. It’s the only thing keeping me from recommending this book to anyone and everyone who loves good thrillers.

But still, that small caveat aside, it’s a good book. If you don’t mind reading about the darker things man can do with technology and trying to work out whether the solutions we find to those problems are correct, Soulminder is the book for you.

Cool Things: The Quadrail Series

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.