Review: The Eternity Artifact by L.E. Modesitt, jr.

Book jacket: The Eternity Artifact by L.E. Modesitt, jr.

Humanity has left the Earth and expanded into the universe. (Don’t we always). But in all the planets they have settled, they have never encountered another sentient species, they have never encountered aliens. Now one of the superpowers is putting together a clandestine operation to investigate something which might finally prove we are not alone…

A planet, hurtling through the void  between galaxies, with buildings that have remained preserved through millennia, even after the atmosphere has either frozen or been blown away from the surface. A planet with incredible, unmatched technology that seems to verge on the impossible.

It has to be a major operation, of course, and staying clandestine when you are recruiting the cream of several professions and building one of the largest ships ever built in a future of advanced technologies and advanced surveillance is nigh on impossible. There are other superpowers, and they all have reasons for wanting the mission to fail. Whether it’s to stop advanced technology from falling into the opposition’s hands, or whether it’s because their entire society is based on humanity being the foremost amongst God’s creations (an advanced alien race, of course, throwing their whole theology into crisis).

There are, inevitably, attacks on the mission, from the more direct throw ships and missiles at it, to the more insidious infiltration and subversion type. The latter being the main purpose of one of the four main characters.

The book is presented in from the point of view of the four characters, and they are a good spread of characters. The enemy agent, alone in unfamiliar territory; the educated ex-military academic; the hard-nosed ace pilot; the visionary artist. Each chapter is headed with their name and written in the first person, which works surprisingly well. They all have distinctive and believable voices, for the most part. The female pilot is supposed to be closed off and business-like, burned in the past and defensive, but she felt a little too masculine at times. The professor uses long words and long sentences which offers a good contrast to the pilot character, but a couple of time he thinks ‘perambulates‘ instead of ‘walks’ and I just can’t believe anybody would do that, no matter how articulate they were or how expansive their vocabulary was. The artist quite often thinks about how colours clash, not a consideration of the military mind, and that device seems a little too obvious to distinguish his thoughts. But these are minor quibbles. The distinct voices do work very well.

It took me a long time to finish this book, for a number of reasons, but I never wanted to leave it, which is a good sign. I have a nasty habit of putting books down and moving onto something else if I am not motivated to finish them at a good pace. Not so with this, it is well put together, intriguing and exciting.

My major issue with the book (there had to be one, didn’t there…? ;) ) is in the agent character. The book opens with his storyline, an assassination. In the early parts of the story, most of the tension is with him, his infiltration aboard the ship, his mission, remaining undetected. At the end however his story is unfortunately anticlimactic. His voice effectively vanishes and the storylines of the other three brings the whole thing to a strong conclusion. In fact, where the other three characters show different and important sides of the main story, and give the book its satisfying end in the way they come together, the agent character is almost entirely separate.

I can only conclude he is in there to add tension in the early stages of the book, as his storyline contributes nothing that couldn’t have been covered within the other three. I don’t know whether removing him would have made the beginning too dry, but I do wonder whether he should have been cut entirely (at least as anything other than a side role).

Having said that, he doesn’t bring the book down, while he is there, his story is interesting and readable. It is the other three, however, who are the key. They bring such a human edge to the story, and a different and interesting angle to the usual SF vista. In fact, where I was expecting (hoping for, even) a grand, explosive, wide-screen ending, I was impressed and very pleasantly surprised by the totally effective and very personal ending I got instead.

In some respects, the Eternity Artifact is typical (if well-written) idea-driven space sci-fi, but really, it is far more than that. For the most part it manages to avoid clichés, or at least, when someone (or something) initially seems a cliché they often turn out to have another side, more depth. It has space combat, but it doesn’t overly dwell on it. It has action, but in moderation. It’s really good. Highly recommended for the fan of expansive, space SF who’s looking for more, but not just more of the same.


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