Tuesday, September 8, 2009

The Octagonal Raven - L.E. Modesitt Jr.

His fantasy, in particular the Recluse 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 though 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 exist 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 a pair with a modest income to loan the necessary funds, it will put them in severe debt for many years to come. For the rich, the is of course not much of an obstacle. Since more intelligent people tend to be more successful, an elite has developed of 'pre-selects'. 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 an 'norm', even an exceptionally gifted one, a person who has not benefited from pre-selection, to penetrate this circle. It's an elite based on ability, but a tyranny none the less.

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, tests and what and how we are teaching students will show up sooner probably than later.

Although the connection is not immediately obvious the situation I described above is at the centre of the problems Daryn encounters when he 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 discuss 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 novel, 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 is divided in 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 fledgeling 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, 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 novel 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 read 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 this book depends on how much patience you possess. In the end, I am glad my store of patience sufficed.

Book Details
Title: The Octagonal Raven
Author: L.E. Modesitt Jr.
Publisher: Tor
Pages: 460
Year: 2002
Language: English
Format: Mass Market Paperback
ISBN: 978-0-8125-7008-3
First published: 2001


  1. A very detailed review of what sems to be an interesting, albeit puzzling novel. I will be keeping an eye out for this one. I don't mind a slow start, although it's the confusion I don't like to experience.

  2. If you read a couple of his novels this one won't confuse you. If it's your first... hmm, it might make you wonder where he's taking it.