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Judgement at Proteus by Timothy Zahn book review

The cover for Judgement at Proteus calls it the Quadrail finale which sums up the downturn of the series. What could have been a perfectly entertaining open ended series unnecessarily became an arc that strangled the life out of the premise of a detective using his wits to solve mysteries on a train that runs between the stars.

Judgement at Proteus

The first 100 pages of Judgement at Proteus is borderline unreadable if you haven’t read the previous Quadrail book and it still dances on the edge of being unreadable even if you have. Still Timothy Zahn eventually recovers and Proteus Station eventually becomes the setting for some of the same logical games and switcheroos influenced by 40’s and 50’s spy and detective movies as the rest of the series. But it’s only when Judgement at Proteus leaves the massive alien space station and goes back to the Quadrail that it picks up properly and gets back into the flow of murder on the interstellar express.

Still the arc drags Judgement at Proteus down and the series suffers from the need for constant new revelations. The Modhri, a menacing pod people enemy who lives as intelligent coral that can take over any body is replaced as the series foe by the Shonkra-La a genetically engineered variant of the Fillies, who were once the master/slave race that ruled/destroyed the galaxy. And their main weapon, a telepathic whistle that can take over the mind of any race, except humans, is weak.

The Shonkra-La are basically equine Nazis, and Zahn manages to sell the idea, and even manages to make me overlook that the enemy’s big telepathic weapon can be defeated through the simple expedient of earplugs. Still the Shonkra-La, like the Modhri, is an enemy who would rather spend time gloating and entrapping Frank Compton in complex conspiracies, and only later charges at him with all its minions. And Zahn milks a certain amount of pathos out of the Mohdri’s transformation from a parasitic to symbiotic entity.

There are logical and plot holes in the Judgement at Proteus that you can drive a Quadrail through and it’s disappointing that Zahn or his publishers chose to end the series instead of continuing it as an open ended series. This book and the last have both been weak due to the arc, but I still have fond memories of a series that began with Night Trail to Rigel and offered a dose of classic Science Fiction with Asimovian mystery solving.

Shadow of the Giant by Orson Scott Card review

When toward the end of Shadow of the Giant, Bean admits that he is not loved as Ender was, it is also the author, Orson Scott Card somewhat bitterly admitting the reality that although we have been repeatedly told that Bean is smarter and better than Ender, he was never really accepted by readers or gained the acclaim that the Ender books did.

Today Ender’s Game is an acclaimed classic novel to be adapted into a movie. By contrast the Bean books all too often seem like a case of an author trying to cash in on a successful franchise by drawing it out further. That is not true but the perception lingers because the Bean books are fundamentally different in nature from the Ender books. Where the Ender books, Ender’s Game, Xenocide, Children of the Mind, were really stories about space and human limitations, the Bean books read like warmed over Harry Turtledove mixed with some Timothy Zahn. They are far less about the characters and barely qualify as Science Fiction and are essentially wargaming books, a problem that became truly pronounced after Ender’s Shadow as the Bean books essentially became the narrative of the Battle School Graduates trying to conquer the world.

Ender’s Game certainly left open a great tale, the story of Peter rising to power and conquering the world. Unfortunately that is not really the story Orson Scott Card chose to tell. Peter’s conquests are a sideline to Bean who himself is a sideline to the absurd wars that are fought among the Battle School Graduates. Orson Scott Card is trying to borrow from that Timothy Zahn style of plotting out brilliant strategies that produce instant victory so devastating it brings an enemy to his knees while hardly ever firing a shot. This itself is part of the more elitist school of Golden Age Science Fiction writing that believed the abilities of the human mind could conquer any chaotic situation.

While Timothy Zahn’s writing may stretch this premise to absurdity, in the Bean books, including Shadow of The Giant, Orson Scott Card goes well beyond absurdity. In this world simple battle plans can bring down entire nations with ease. Despite the passage of nearly two centuries, the technology on both sides seems to have only marginally improved, so that even though Earth has interstellar warships, the average war is fought by groups of infantrymen and their supply trucks with occasional air power. This is the way wars may be fought today in the Asian theater where the wars in Shadow of the Giant take place but it isn’t too likely that this is how wars will be fought two centuries from now. Even today remote drones are changing the battlefield, insurgent tactics and military tactics compete in both strategy and technique and robotics is increasingly taking its place on the battlefield.

The highlight of this absurdity features Peter Wiggins waiting around while the wars slowly rage as all the nations line up to surrender their sovereignty in favor of a United Earth, without any real basis for it except for the army commanded by Bean, who has grown to a massive size. It is certainly not what readers of Ender’s Game had in mind when they pictured Peter’s rise to power. To properly comprehend the implausibility of this scenario, national governments in the FPE have no actual authority because the FPE stands for the Free People of Earth and is constituted only of the citizens. Considering the reluctance of even the European powers to give up some sovereignty to the EU, the FPE scenario as is portrayed in Shadow of the Giant is simply absurd. The conflict that supposedly propels the FPE signup takes place in Asia between Pakistan, China and India. It is unclear why so much of the rest of the world then joins up.

The result leaves Peter Wiggins a Hegemon who has lucked into power with a world it seems inconceivable that he could control for any length of time. Bean, who Card tells us is the real power behind the throne, departs… leaving Peter as an accidental boy emperor. And that is the real shadow which is cast in Shadow of the Giant, the shadow of Bean falling over Peter Wiggins.

Split between the political fallout of the wrangling between Caliph Ali and his Caliphate advisors, Han Tzu (Hot Soup) who has declared himself the Emperor of China, Virlomi, who has made herself a goddess is Bean’s search for his and Petra’s missing children, told primarily from Petra’s view. Petra was hardly the most interesting character to begin with and Orson Scott Card does what he can but despite her supposed brilliance, he instead chooses to write her as weak and vacillating, initially completely opposed to Bean’s departure into space and then giving up and acceding without any genuinely logical explanation or fight. Only Virlomi’s antics really lend anything interesting to the proceedings, her propaganda techniques and mobilization of the Indian peasantry forming a picture of a kind of violent teenage Gandhi with a goddess complex.

Shadow of the Giant in many ways brings a welcome end to the portion of the Bean books set on earth. With a spaceship and genius children at his disposal, Bean will no doubt have his adventures among the stars much as Ender did and it will be interesting to see if freed from Orson Scott Card’s weak attempts at political and military game theory, if he can bring Bean out of Ender’s shadow after all.

Timothy Zahn takes to Star Wars again with Outbound Flight

There is a problem in writing the story of an inevitable disaster. Stories, particularly stories of adventure and heroism, focus on victories and narrow escapes. When a venture is doomed from the start, it becomes difficult to write about it. One path is of course to tell the story as if success is possible only to have it all end in a crushing defeat. This is the kind of narrative that tends to depress and irritate readers. Then there is the second path which is to assume that failure is a given and then begin relating the causes of that failure and the very human failures that brought it about.

Timothy Zahn takes this approach in Outbound Flight, a prequel set in the closing years of the Old Republic, which is in many ways the Jedi version of the Titanic, a massive and ambitious venture which ended in a historic disaster, a display of hubris rebounding in a massive cascade of destruction.

But the same difficulty of writing the story of an inevitable disaster haunts Outbound Flight as much as it haunts the prequel movies and stories. Since the Old Republic is destined to fall in fire and ash, evil to triumph for quite some time, we know how the story already ends and it ends badly. More to the point the story of the triumph of evil is not nearly as interesting or dramatic as the story of good, particularly since the forces of good as a result display themselves as being either corrupt, incompetent or well meaning but ultimately useless. That is also the story Timothy Zahn tells in Outbound Flight.

While behind the scenes Chancellor Palpatine, Darth Sidious and their henchman, Kinman Doriana, manipulate the events of Outbound Flight into motion, arranging for its flight and eventual destruction, in the foreground Jedi Master Jorus C’baoth, sensing a dark force coming into the galaxy, namely the Yuuzhan Vong, forces the creation of the Outbound Flight expedition carrying six Jedi Masters, twelve Jedi Knights and a number of force sensitive children along with twelve thousand personnel on six dreadnoughts on a mission to scout territory and possibly colonize planets along the way, venturing through Wild Space and into the Unknown Regions.

Master Jorus C’baoth is arrogant and driven. Meanwhile his Padawan, his student, Lorana Jizzler, is well meaning and friendly but constantly nervous and utterly useless up until the end. Despite the presence of six other Jedi masters, Jorus C’baoth somehow monopolizes leadership and command and takes a dictatorial control over everyone on board Outbound Flight down to the smallest details. The results alienate everyone from the Captain on down to the engineering crew but predictably no one including Lorana is capable of opposing Jorus.

This being a prequel, Anakin Skywalker and Obi Wan of course must appear on Outbound Flight, temporarily placed on board to try and monitor the situation. Anakin admires and hero worships Jorus C’baoth while Obi Wan Kenobi displays his suspicions of Jorus C’baoth, but despite clinging to his heels and occasionally making a useless protest, he proves to be as hapless in dealing with Jorus as he eventually turns out to be with Anakin. Obi Wan and Anakin are removed early from Outbound Flight making the final outcome inevitable, though indeed it was inevitable anyway. At the core that is the problem with the story. It’s an inevitable disaster which we can see coming but which no one takes action to prevent.

Everyone from the Jedi Council on down feels uneasy about it but none of them seriously commit themselves to a course of action. And that is the problem with a Titanic scenario from which little of anything is salvaged.

The alternate section of the novel focuses on Jorj Car’das, crewmember on board a smuggler’s ship, which after a firefight with an angry Hutt, finds its way into Unnknown Space and Chiss Territory and into the hands of the youngest commander in the Chiss Expansionary Force, Commander Mitth’raw’nuruodo , to be better known as Grand Admiral Thrawn.

Thrawn was arguably the most compelling character Timothy Zahn created with his original trilogy that relaunched Star Wars novels beginning with Heir to the Empire. There was no question that Thrawn was a fantastic creation and easily overshadowed the paper and cardboat cutout additions to the Star Wars prequels like Mace Windu. Even after his death, Grand Admiral Thrawn maintained a powerful presence in the Star Wars universe. The young Thrawn we see here bears many of those qualities of the elder Thrawn. He is brilliant and perpetually calculating, a chess game always playing in his head and his glowing red eyes curiously watching everyone and everything, learning, conceiving, synthesizing and understanding.

Timothy Zahn, who before he became more associated with Star Wars novels, excelled at creating the Cobra and Blackcollar novels spun tales of complex strategies and brilliant concepts of tactics that allow small numbers of forces to cleverly overpower and destroy far larger ones. Thrawn is arguably his ultimate creation in this regard. In what has been called The Thrawn Trilogy, Timothy Zahn pictures Grand Admiral Thrawn as a brilliant commander, a blue skinned Napoleon, calm and rational, ruthlessly brilliant and determined to exploit every weakness and cleverly make use of every asset in innovative and unexpected ways.

That holds true in Outbound Flight as well, but where in The Thrawn Trilogy, Thrawn was a brilliant and visionary Grand Admiral, given to flaws like an overeliance on technological gimmicks and plans dependent on a single strategic variable, in Outbound Flight he passes the realm of brilliance and becomes downright supernatural. Thrawn’s tactics in the Thrawn Trilogy are brilliant but plausible. In Outbound Flight they’re simply absurd as he uses a single cruiser and a few fighters to destroy and dominate every opponent that comes his way including an entire Trade Federation fleet and the combined force of Outbound Flight and a massive Vagaari fleet, at the same time. That is simply well on the unrealistic side.

A good deal of new developments that came about in the EU universe and the Star Wars universe have to be retconned in. Including the entire prequels. Where Thrawn’s statement to Pellaon in Heir to the Empire that the Emperor had him destroy Outbound Flight, this is altered to mean that the Chanchellor via Darth Sidious had him do it. The Yuuzhan Vong occupy a good deal of space by way of premonition with the Chiss encountering them and Thrawn’s agreement to destroy Outbound Flight motivated supposedly by this threat. Yet Thrawn agrees to spare Outbound Flight if it goes around Chiss territory.

Outbound Flight may be described as an attempt to describe Thrawn’s fall, in the manner and pattern of Anakin’s transformation into Darth Vader, as Thrawn’s desire to carry out preemptive attacks and mete out justice to slavers drives him to the dark side, yet it is never truly clear that Thrawn has fallen or that he was ever unfallen. He remains too enigmatic a character to so easily pin down. And the more Outbound Flight attempts to pin him down, the more he remains a shadow, a creature of fog, darkness and thin air.

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