In early 2012, Tor editor David Hartwell launched what came to be known as the Palencar Project: a set of short stories based on a painting by John Jude Palencar. The project would end up including stories by Gene Wolfe, James Morrow, Michael Swanwick, Gregory Benford and, yes, L.E. Modesitt Jr. All five stories are available on Tor.com or can be purchased as an ebook.
In one of my Talking With Tom articles on Tor.com (and later in a separate blog post) Modesitt explained that his first attempt at the Palencar story ran to over 10,000 words with no end in sight. He decided to set this story aside and write a new one, which is the “New World Blues” story that was included in the Palencar Project. Later, in a break between novels, Modesitt went back and finished up the first story, which turned into his latest stand alone science fiction novel, The One-Eyed Man: A Fugue, with Winds and Accompaniment. (And yes, the gorgeous and distinctive cover illustration is the Palencar painting that started it all.)
Although I’ve never been able to articulate a solid reason for this, I’ve always been more partial to Modesitt’s SF than his fantasy. Because of this, and because I love the way this story got away from the author and demanded to become a novel, I had high expectations for The One-Eyed Man. I’m very pleased to say that those expectations were met.
Dr. Paulo Verano is a freelance ecology consultant who is just emerging from an unpleasant and financially disastrous divorce. When he is offered a consulting job on a faraway planet, he jumps at the chance to escape the ruins of his personal life, even though given the distance involved and the travel time dilation, it’ll be 150 years later if/when he returns home. The job itself is intriguing: Verano is tasked with studying the ecological impact of the human presence on Stittara, the faraway planet that also happens to be the main source for the anagathic drugs that have extended human life spans considerably.
The assignment is something of a mystery in itself: any results Verano finds would only reach the central government a century and a half later, and even if the human impact on the ecology is disastrous, will that really be allowed to affect production of the longevity drug? Is the whole thing just a political gesture, or is there more going on here? Regardless, Verano leaves behind the fragments of his old life and sets out for Stittara.
Once he arrives, he quickly becomes entangled in a complex net of political and corporate relationships. Stittara is a mysterious planet with many puzzling geological and ecological features, not to mention a colonization history dating back to well before humans first landed there. Mysterious creatures called “skytubes” that look like floating, translucent tentacles make their incomprehensible ways across the sky. Most of the official population lives in underground facilities to avoid the planet’s abnormally destructive storms.
In this very alien-seeming human environment, Verano must use all his personal and intellectual skills to try and uncover Stittara’s many secrets. He has to balance the necessities of his research with powerful political and corporate interests, not to mention his own personal safety. Some of Verano’s new contacts are helpful, some suspicious, and some clearly have alternate agendas. The planet itself is a mystery, from its strange geological history to its weather patterns and even the odd stability of its population. Strangest of all is Ilsabet, a seemingly young woman with gray hair who only speaks in cryptic rhymes and lives in isolation, only occasionally making a brief appearance outside.
Readers who are familiar with the author will find many references to Modesitt’s background in politics in The One-Eyed Man. Despite the novel’s clearly SFnal setting, the commentary on ecological exploitation for political and corporate profit has obvious roots in our times. Verano is the titular one-eyed man, king in the land of those who are blind to the consequences of their actions.
For me at least, there was a pervasive sense of cynicism in this novel: people never learn, profit always trumps awareness, patterns are doomed to be repeated. Verano knows full well that, for all his diligence and dedication, his work is unlikely to make a huge difference: “Every consultant knows that ninety percent of what they do is either give cover to doing nothing or to support a decision already made.”
Then again, later on Verano says “Cynicism is often the last refuge of the idealist,” attributing the quotation to “some early space-age writer whose name I’d forgotten.” (Modesitt fans may recognize the line from one of the author’s earlier novels, The Ethos Effect.) The author shows many different ways of approaching Stittara’s alien ecology, some more balanced and viable than others, but taking the long-term view, it’s clear that the planet abides, no matter what. Whether that should count as a ray of hope or an indication of the sheer inevitability of human folly, I’ll leave up to you. (The author’s thoughts on this are fascinating too, as expressed in a recent post on the Tor/Forge blog: Alien Ecology As Character—although I’d save this one for after you’re finished with the novel, the better to savour its mysteries)
The only negative point I can bring up here is the recognizability factor. The One-Eyed Man feels in many ways like a synthesis of elements Modesitt has been using for decades, from the recognizable consultant protagonist to the focus on the local restaurant scene (and the quality of the lager!) to, yes, the ecological and ethical themes. Depending on how much Modesitt you’ve read, you may get a slight paint-by-the-numbers feeling. Then again, it’s a pattern the author owns by now, and one this fan will gladly read again and again.
Most importantly, pattern or no pattern: when seen side by side with some of Modesitt’s other works, The One-Eyed Man is actually one of the more powerful and elegant expressions of Modesitt’s themes. I’m always excited when the author takes a break from his fantasy series to write a new science fiction novel, and out of the ones from the last five or so years—Haze, Empress of Eternity and now The One-Eyed Man—I would rank this one highest and gladly recommend it to fans and newcomers alike.
This review was originally published at Tor.com on September 17th, 2013.