L. E. Modesitt Jr.'s latest novel, Empress of Eternity, is premised on what Vernor Vinge termed the "Wheel of Time." In this scenario, human civilization proceeds through a succession of collapses and recoveries, with scientists' ability to recover lost technologies playing a prominent role. There is no discernible progressive trend of the sort Robert Wright reads into history in his book Nonzero. The recoveries from collapse are frequently incomplete, later cultures often failing to attain the heights achieved by their predecessors, technological know-how (and the historical record in general) seeming to become all the more ephemeral as technology advances. (As a result, some cultures colonize space while their successors find themselves Earthbound.)
In the novel's world the only human artifact to endure through these eons is a massive canal running across the mid-continent of Earth. Two thousand "kays" long, and proportionately wide and deep, it is impressive not only because of its scale, precision, age, and forgotten purpose, but because of its mysterious imperviousness to all forms of energy, which hints at a level of technical sophistication that even quite advanced observers are incapable of fathoming. Adding to the mystery is a structure located at the west end of the canal, the doors and windows of which open to human touch and thought, but which otherwise stubbornly refuses to reveal any of its secrets.
Modesitt's story centers on the canal, and in particular the role it plays in the history of three cultures which rise and fall during the uncounted millennia of his timeline: the Unity of Caelaarn, the Ruche Empire (R.E.), and the Vaniran Hegemony. These three civilizations vary widely in ideology and sophistication. The Caelaarn is a quasi-modern society with a combination of democratic procedures and feudal/aristocratic trappings; the Ruche Empire is a totalitarian, "hive" culture dominated by an anonymous, dictatorial clique; and the Vanirans are a democracy in crisis.
The similarities are more important than the differences, however. All three societies face a combination of climate and energy crisis on a planetary scale, with the Caelaarn and the Vanirans both coping with the beginnings of an ice age, and the Ruche confronting a process of global warming and desertification. While all three are more advanced technologically than early twenty-first century humanity, none has the knowledge or resources to avoid, control or even fully understand the crisis, which is already having a powerful impact on their day-to-day existence.
In each of these cultures, though, there is some recognition that the canal functions as an ecological barrier. Accordingly, there is the hope that the canal contains technological secrets that will help the three cultures extricate themselves from their climate and energy crises. Each has researchers posted at the canal's west end for the purpose of studying it as the novel opens—Lord Maertyn S'Eidolon, Deputy Assistant Minister of Science for the Caelaarn, living at the site with his wife Maarlyna; Eltyn of the R.E. with his fellow scientist Faelyna; and Kavn Duhyle of the Vanir with his colleague Helkyria.
Empress of Eternity alternates between the three (ultimately, interconnected) plotlines unfolding in these three different periods, each of which sees the scientists' investigations, like the broader effort to cope with the ecological crisis, complicated by interference from powerful enemies within their societies. In Maertyn's case, his opponents are bureaucrats inside his own government; in that of Eltyn and Faelyna, an ultra-conservative junta that has just seized control of the R.E. and is hostile to the scientists of "TechOversight"; and in Duhyle's plotline, the Aesyr, a bizarre, anachronistic cultural-religious movement worshiping the "triumph of Chaos" and perhaps even possessing technology with which to bring it about. In each case, that opposition culminates in a physical threat to the project, and to the scientists themselves, who subsequently find themselves plunged into a common, time-spanning crisis in which not only their civilizations, but the entire universe turns out to be at stake.
This is a promising premise, combining an array of interesting elements—political ecology, the conflict between rational science and traditionalist authority, and the evolution of both human culture and a planetary ecosystem over an eons-long time scale. It's the stuff of science fiction classics from Olaf Stapledon and Frank Herbert on, and the presentation of three interconnected stories about different societies coping with a common challenge also has its interest.
Modesitt's writing has its good points. While the book hangs on the actions of individuals, Modesitt does not oversimplify the larger problems their societies face, which are rooted in how those societies operate as a whole. The characters find opportunities to shift the course of a whole civilization only in highly exceptional circumstances, and even this does not produce tidy resolutions to their crises—only openings affording some hope that the problem may be meaningfully acted upon. The organization of the book around short (five to six page) chapters shifting between Maertyn, Eltyn, and Duhyle's viewpoints also helps to maintain the story's pace.
However, the same organization also makes the book slow to establish its exposition and hook the reader. More problematic, the writing is rather dry, with the characters suffering especially. In the early chapters they all appear to be mere ciphers bouncing theories off their companions, and are easily confused with one another if the reader's attention falters. The three protagonists admittedly do acquire a bit more personality as they struggle against their circumstances and through their relationships with their companions. Most notably, Eltyn is forced to develop a measure of individuality due to the threat the new dictatorship poses to him and his associates, and his feelings for Faelyna violate a cultural taboo; Maertyn has a complex, and compromising, involvement with the illegal clone of his dead wife. Yet, with the partial exception of Maertyn, none of them really has a past, or quirks, or concerns beyond those basic to the plot, and none of them possess the kind of emotional depth that would have given them dimension, with Duhyle, who lacks the kind of personal interest that humanizes Maertyn or Eltyn, the weakest of all.
The problems from which the characterization suffers also afflict the novel's worldbuilding. This is partly due to the very limited view Modesitt gives us of each of the novel’s milieus. Only Maertyn leaves his research post by the canal to travel in his world or interact with many others in it, and Modesitt makes little effort to compensate for the fixity of most of his characters in their isolated locations. The magnitude of the crisis in each storyline is conveyed mainly by a few remarks scattered throughout the dialogue, and the reader is told much more than shown what is happening. Nonetheless, even within these limitations, the details Modesitt presents about his fictional societies tend to be scanty and fail to evoke a sense of a larger world outside the research station. Where there should have been what John Updike once called that "sense of deep entry . . . into life somewhat below the surface of dialogue and description," each of these settings fell flat.
Modesitt's approach makes each of what should have been a trio of engagingly diverse worlds feel like a stock near-future scenario tweaked with a handful of well-known innovations (like Maglev trains), or unfamiliar names for familiar things (like calling a restaurant a "Victualary"). Despite the class system in Caelaarn (the extent and significance of which is never clearly defined), or the gender dynamics among the Vanir (also vague, apart from some odd gene tweaks), or even the Ruche's more distinctive reliance on a starkly utilitarian, electronic form of communication in their earlier chapters (before they change over to conventional speech), the characters are essentially twenty-first century people in their attitudes and thoughts. All questions of plausibility aside, the results are rather bland.
These weaknesses diminish the novel's impact, as do the problems with the course the story itself takes. Moments of genuine tension are few and far between, and again Duhyle's plotline is weakest in this respect. In contrast with the subtle bureaucratic games Maertyn plays with his opponents in the capital, and the dilemmas faced by Eltyn and his isolated associates in turning on their government, the Vanir storyline, in which the government becomes fearful of the Aesyr manipulating of the public through the media, seemed crude and unconvincing. Listening to the characters' complaints, I found myself thinking of historian Martin Van Creveld's quip that "'democracy,' like 'media,' has become an excuse for [military] failure." The shallowness of the Aesyr as a creation (which it seems to me is connected with the shallowness of the world in which they emerged) does not help: they are simply made-to-order fanatics, like many a simplistic depiction of religious fundamentalism springing up in the midst of an apparently rational society, and this makes them the weakest treatment of the theme of the danger of intellectual and cultural rigidity in a time of crisis in the novel.
Despite the connections that eventually emerge between its three storylines, Empress of Eternity reads like three separate novellas spliced together, partly because of the underdevelopment of each of these settings, but also because of the ways the storylines interact with one another. While parallels and contrasts between the three storylines are obvious from the start, it is only after the novel's midpoint that there is even the beginning of interconnection among the plotlines, and a convergence actually affecting the story comes only in the last third or so. Even after this, instead of coming together to make up an epic greater than the sum of its parts, the three stories feel quite small, rather than impressing the reader with their hints of the bigger, still-unrevealed mysteries of the canal.
For all that, Empress remains a brisk read, conceived with a fair amount of intelligence, and at its best moments it was reasonably engaging. However, the book's ideas are more compelling than Modesitt's treatment of them, and little in the ideas themselves is new. This all made for a novel that was not an unpleasant read, but certainly an unsatisfying one. It falls far short of both the epic it seemed to promise, and the classics that have previously traversed this conceptual territory.
Nader Elhefnawy has taught literature at several colleges, including the University of Miami. He reviews and writes about science fiction for several publications, and on his blog, Raritania.