Night Train to Rigel is in many ways an unashamed throwback to the kind of novels that were being written regularly before the New Wave and have grown far less common today. And that is no bad thing. At once referencing Agatha Christie and classic detective novels and movies, Night Train to Rigel is more a story of a series of plots and mysteries being unraveled than it is a story about technology or action adventure. For those who want nothing more from their Science Fiction than experimental treasties on quantum mechanics and nanotechnology are better off sticking with Robert J. Sawyer and Greg Egan. For those who want a great read in the tradition of classic American Science Fiction, Night Train to Rigel is a wonderful reminder of how readable Science Fiction once used to be.
The proper predecessors to a novel like Night Train to Rigel are Isaac Asimov’s earlier Caves of Steel books and Robert Heinlein’s Between Planets and Double Star that propel you into a world of interstellar intrigue and logical puzzles. Night Train to Rigel begins with Frank Compton, a former Western Alliance agent fired for being a little too good at his job and uncovering a UN plot to cover up faked reports touting Yandro, the fifth planet colonized by Earth, at a tremendous waste of resources and material. Yandro was colonized anyway and Frank Compton went to look elsewhere for work, but while still on the retainer of earth’s wealthiest man looking to get aggressively involved in intergalactic commerce, Frank Compton finds a dead man with empty pockets and a train ticket with his face and fingerprint on it. A ticket to Yandro.
The train is the great tube Quadrail railway running through the galaxy, its operation carried out by the mysterious and enigmatic Spiders, a race that appear to be machines or creatures in shielded suits, who provide transit between different solar systems and promote trade and diplomacy between races for a hefty charge. Weapons may not be carried on board the train, except for disassembled weapons systems. Nor may any acts of violence be engaged in there. But on board the train Frank Compton finds himself recruited by the Spiders and some of their seemingly human agents to find out who is about to begin the first interstellar war in thousands of years.
A great deal of the pleasure in Night Train to Rigel lies in Frank Compton’s slow secretive procedural uncovering of the plot. Combined with a professionally paranoid mindset that leads him to maintain secrecy and misdirection and surrounded by characters equally deceptive and reticent, Night Train to Rigel becomes a mystery locked in the minds of the characters. Frank Compton himself, Batya his link to the Spiders and the members of the other races he encounters on his journey all pose enigmatic riddles, directing and misdirecting him to the final answer.
Science Fiction and Detective novels are two genres that seem a natural fit but in practice are difficult to fuse. Night Train to Rigel is indisputably one of the best efforts in recent years and a cleanly written refreshing read devoid of the angst and clutter of other novels in the field. If at times, Night Train to Rigel fails to live up to its own standards, that is somewhat unfortunate. Frank Compton often seems to overthink complex problems while ignoring far simpler realities. And the last twenty pages are simply a letdown. While the solution that brings together the puzzle of Yandro and the coming interstellar war is intriguing, the revelation of the identity of the Spiders is a strikingly weak cliche that has already been parodied relentlessly in every source down to Futurama. It is additionally unclear while Frank Compton needs to blackmail his employer for a trillion dollars when the Spiders have that money and more handily available. The question of the morality of the Spiders’ actions regarding Batya and others are finessed trickily at best.
That said the journey along to Yandro and then Modhra, a moon with little atmosphere but lugeboard and underground casinos buried in frozen seas, is a spectacular collection of tense moments and puzzle solving that nearly equals Isaac Asimov. Frank Compton’s professional intelligence work and Earth’s politics easily equal anything Robert Heinlein wrote but without the smug hectoring lectures or the preachy libertarianism piled on top. Possibly the cleanest aspect of Timothy Zahn’s writing here is that he simply tells the story without any of the asides and preoccupations of the grandmasters. Frank Compton is a seasoned professional with a personality but without any more depth or character than he needs. Batya is enigmatic and mostly remains that way. No more is introduced into the equation than is actually needed.
Night Train to Rigel also works as the answer to a number of questions on how to maintain interstellar peace by leveraging economic ambitions and trade and how non-violence can also be transformed into a strength. The resulting system Timothy Zahn has set up in Night Train to Rigel shows a plausible workable economic, political and social system that at once makes the setting for a wonderful story and allows for a kind of Oriental Express and Alfred Hitchcock style setting, without compromising its plausibility.
Timothy Zahn’s own writing handily blends humor, action and puzzle solving without ever slowing down until the end and the final mystery that he leaves for the closing page is a doozy that resonates back along the entire novel, shifting the reader’s perspective of the mission he was on all along in the best tradition of the great spy novel.