His fantasy, in particular the RECLUCE saga, is a lot more popular but L.E. Modesitt Jr. has also written quite a few science fiction novels. I’ve read a number of these now and they are usually an all or nothing read for me. Some I enjoyed tremendously (Flash, Adiamante, The Forever Hero), others I will never read again (The Ethos Effect, Archfrom: Beauty). The Octagonal Raven has the unusual distinction of combining these two feelings in one book. I have never come across a book that is so much in need of some serious editing in the first part of the story, yet managing such a thrilling climax that I read the second part of the novel in one sitting.
The main character in The Octagonal Raven is Daryn Alwyn, a man from a privileged family on a far future earth. His father is the future equivalent of a media tycoon and controls one of the largest businesses in the sector. He would like his sons to take an interest in the company. Daryn has other things in mind, however. He wants to make his own way in the world, not using the family connections to gain wealth and status. Just about the only place where he can be free of the ties of his family is the Federal interstellar fleet. Daryn signs up for the very tough training to become a pilot and passes all tests. After a twenty-five-year career in the military, he retires and sets up his own consultant business.
Daryn makes a decent living that way, but suddenly an attempt on his life changes everything. It is soon followed by a second attempt and a successful attempt to kill Daryn’s older sister. Daryn inherits her shares in their father’s company and is now one of the largest shareholders. Events force him to take an active role in the family business, but why anyone would want to kill him is still a mystery. With the sophisticated tools used by his would-be assassins, there is not much evidence the authorities can use. If Daryn wants to get out of this mess alive, he is going to have to take action himself.
Some people say science fiction novels are not about the future, but about the present. There is certainly some truth in that for Modesitt’s science fiction. It is always filled with social criticism on US society (although one could argue a lot of it is applicable to other places, too). I’m not going to list every item of social criticism Modesitt put in this novel, there is simply too much of it, but in The Octagonal Raven the emphasis is on education. Daryn’s society is a deeply divided one. Technology exists to give your children pre-selected genes and thus influence not only health but also physical attributes and intelligence. This procedure is costly and, while it is entirely possible for parents with a modest income to borrow the necessary funds, it will put them in severe debt for many years to come. For the rich, there is, of course, not much of an obstacle. Since more intelligent people tend to be more successful, an elite group of ‘pre-selects’ has developed — a small group of rich people, buying these societal benefits for their children, thus ensuring their family’s wealth and standing. It is almost impossible for a ‘norm’, even an exceptionally gifted one, to penetrate this circle. It’s an elitism based on ability, but a tyranny nonetheless.
To make matters worse, society is very much geared to a single type of intelligence referred to as perceptual integrative ability. To get a top education or good position in a company, a good score on a test designed to test for this type of intelligence is a necessity. At the opening of the book there are even proposals to make the test mandatory for access to certain levels of education. This again widens the gap between the pre-selected elite and the norm bulk of the population. Tensions are mounting and protests against this move soon turn violent as the norms see their chances of joining the elite dwindle even further. I think the parallel with the current situation in the US educational system is clear. Keep an eye on Modesitt’s blog and entries on education, testing, and what and how we are teaching students will probably show up soon.
Although the connection is not immediately obvious, the situation I described above is at the centre of the problems Daryn encounters when he is trying to keep himself alive. It takes him a while to figure this out, however. Early on in the book we see Daryn musing over events in the world that don’t make sense to him, as well as discussing them with his old history teacher. Exton Land, Modesitt’s alter ego (L.E. = Leland Exton) and commentator present in several of his science fiction novels, also makes a brief appearance to add his bit. Modesitt lays a very thorough foundation for his story. Unfortunately this slows down the first of the two parts of the book considerably. The first part of the novel follows two main story lines. Daryn’s earlier years (chapters named Fledgling) and more recent events (Raven chapters). While the Fledgling chapters give us some insight in Daryn’s past and motivation to make his own way in the world, I wonder if we really needed all this attention to his early years. His motivation would have been clear enough without them and when you get right down to it, he has a rather uneventful career as a pilot.
The Raven story line is equally puzzling. Modesitt carefully presents some of the pieces of the puzzle, but Daryn clearly doesn’t see the whole picture. By the time the attempts on Daryn’s life start to make sense, we’re some 270 pages into the book (out of the 460 in this edition of the novel). Modesitt is taking too long to get his point across here. It may be a point worth listening to, but by the time it becomes clear he will have lost a lot of readers. If you make it to the second part of the novel though, the story explodes into action as Daryn uses all his resources to defeat his enemies. As usual in Modesitt’s novels, the actions of his hero are ethically debatable. I was so impressed with the strong finale of The Octagonal Raven that I stayed up way too late to finish it.
The Octagonal Raven is a book with two faces and a slightly unbalanced feel to it. If you hang in long enough to give the story a chance, it is a very rewarding read. It does have some severe pacing issues however. It is not his best SF novel I have read so far, but it is definitely not in the one-read-only category, either. I guess whether or not you’ll enjoy The Octagonal Raven depends on how much patience you possess. In the end, I am glad my store of patience sufficed.