Tuesday, September 18, 2012

The longest odds

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

What goes a light-year per minute, is operated by folks that scare just about everybody, and offers all the amenities you could possibly afford? If you have been reading Timothy Zahn's books, you know: the Quadrail. This cross-galactic "railroad" can get you across the entire Galaxy in about ten weeks. A minor jaunt to someplace nearby such as Dubhe (the brightest star in the Big Dipper, as seen from Earth) takes a mere two hours, once you get to the station, somewhere beyond Neptune. For getting to and from the station, Zahn has thoughtfully provided torch ships, which presumably can zip the required 5 billion km in a day or so (compared to a decade or so for NASA spacecraft), at a velocity in the neighborhood of 0.2 c.*

Judgment at Proteus is the fifth, and apparently the final novel in Zahn's Quadrail series. I has been quite a ride. By the middle of this volume, we understand that Frank Compton and his sidekick Bayta are up against the biggest odds I've ever seen an author get away with. A former galactic empire called the Shonkla-Raa is being revived, and Compton is nearly alone in standing against their attempt to arise again. His one ally, a chancy one at that, is a collective, self-telepathic being called the Modhri, that spreads by "infecting" members of other species, which it can then partially or totally control.

Early on the Modhri was Compton's perceived enemy, but the greater danger forced them to work together. The secret of the origin of both Modhri and Sonkla-Raa is the hinge upon which the situation is resolved.

So what can one man do, pitted against a Galaxy-wide conspiracy of powerful agents? Compton knows there is no such thing as a fair fight. As the twists and turns of the novels reveal, it is tactical creativity more than strength that makes him the warrior he is. At one point, expecting an attack using sound waves, he provides for a hefty dose of helium to be mixed into the atmosphere. You know how helium makes your voice sound? It turns the fearful sonic weapon into a squeaky, impotent joke.

I read a book like this and think, "If only…" It'd be nice to bomb around the Universe as easily (!) as we cross the skies of our lone planet. Even better if some super-engineers belonging to a million-year-old species have provided the means to do so. Now if we can just find out what it takes to be invited to join the galactic federation.

*Note, just under 20 hours at 10g acceleration will take you 2.5 billion km, reaching a velocity of 70,000 km/s or 0.23 c. It takes you another 20 hours to come to rest at the 5 billion km point. You'd better have great gravity control to live through the trip.

No comments: