Saturday, December 22, 2007

Coral versus . . . everybody

kw: book reviews, science fiction, space aliens, mysteries

Arthur Clarke said, "A sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." When a writer of SciFi chooses an imagined world having technologies thousands or millions of years beyond our own, it is only the stated intent, and the strong tendency to adhere to consistent rules, that makes the book Science Fiction rather than a Fantasy.

Timothy Zahn has picked a winner in the two books he has placed in a universe with interstellar train transport. An unknown technology from a vanished species' distant past is used to travel between the stars. The trains seem to move at a 100 kph rate, but a trick of morphing space near a cosmic-string "coreline" allows them to traverse a light year each minute, or sometimes faster. I read his SciFi mystery Night Train to Rigel a number of years ago (pre-Blog), in which the premise is laid out. His newest book The Third Lynx develops the theme.

The train system, its hyper-paranoid custodians and their "Spider" allies, plus the danger imposed by a secretive, telepathic coral form the backdrop of these mysteries in which Frank Compton and the part-human part-Spider Bayta seek to thwart the coralline Mohdri's plans.

Twelve species now share the use of the Quadrail trains (plus a thirteenth, the custodians and the spiders combined), making a major chunk of the Galaxy resemble Europe. For a fee, including the cost of shuttle and torch ship transport between Quadrail stations and planetary surfaces, one may travel a few hundred light years overnight.

I found it interesting to speculate on the origin of the species names. The hulking Halkas—think a bipedal 120kg bulldog—and the bellicose Bellidos from Bellico—they look like chipmunks but carry four sidearms each—seem obvious. The Seejlis and Tra'ho'seej are less so. But that's OK. Zahn himself may know, and may not.

The human/alien drama aside, the core idea in this novel is a 3-section weapon that is quite innocuous when disassembled, but once the three parts are together, it packs almost nuclear levels of firepower into a rifle-sized package. The titular Lynx is one part of such a package.

I sometimes try to outline or diagram a plot line. Not here. There are enough plot twists and unexpected turns to fill three books by an ordinary writer; Zahn is way beyond ordinary!

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