Sunday, April 5, 2015

The Elysium Commission - L.E. Modesitt, Jr.

Although much of his output is fantasy, L.E. Modesitt, Jr. delivers a science fiction novel every other year or so. The Elysium Commission is the most recent of these I own and it is already eight years old. It's been on the to read stack for over six years now. I came across it while digging for Terry Pratchett's Small Gods that suffered a similar faith. Like many of Modesitt's science fiction novels, The Elysium Commission is a standalone, although it does have many links with his other works. The novel will not surprise readers familiar with Modesitt's work. It is, as always, solidly written, well plotted and fairly fast paced but it does rely on views Modesitt expressed in many other novels as well.

Blaine Donne has settled into a career as private investigator after serving in the military. He does moderately well and manages to get enough clients to pay for the considerable expenses of his job and his more altruistic side activities. One day, he gets a request to look into the connection between a wealthy entertainment mogul and a scientist. It seems straightforward but is soon becomes clear that Donne looking into the matter is not appreciated by the object of his investigation. After the first attempt on his life, he is caught up in a series of events that unveils a conspiracy large enough to threaten the very existence of the planet.

The novel is set in a fairly distant future on a planet colonized by humans. The city most of the action takes place in is modeled after Paris and many of the names of places, institutions and people have a French flavour, often referring to some of the French literary greats. I couldn't help wondering how much of this novel was inspired by Hugo's Les Misérables for instance. The dynamic between Donne and a police officer named Javerr reminded me of Valjean and Javert and the name seems obvious. Names are big thing in this novel. Modesitt refers to a lot of science fiction and fantasy writers in the novel as well. There are references to Robert Jordan, David Harwell (Modesitt's editor at Tor), Gene Wolfe and Paula Volsky, among others.

The planet appears to be unified but there are several factions in human occupied space with different outlooks on society. One of them is a faction based on the Mormons that shows up in a number of other books. Although the balance of power between these factions is only vaguely discussed, it does limit the effectiveness of the  planetary government and it's space to maneuver. Something that has far-reaching consequences for the plot of the novel.

Modesitt's approach to the novel is familiar. Donne's career path is similar to that of Daryn Alwyn in The Octagonal Raven (2001) and Jonat DeVrai in Flash (2004) for instance. He strikes out for himself after a career in the military. He keeps in shape, keeps up his piloting skills and has a more or less similar outlook on society. Much of what Donne thinks of society, and what other characters contribute over the course of the novel can be linked back to the Paradigms of Power, a set of principles that govern society in his novel Adiamante (1996). One of the factions mentioned in the book may also refer to a faction in his novel The Parafaith War (1996). I haven't read that one myself and he changed the spelling a bit bit so I might be wrong there. The Parafaith War and it's 2003 sequel The Ethos Effect (which I have read) do share the same outlook on society, ethics and the use of power though. Although none of these novels appear to be set in the same future, Modesitt's vision of socety is very consistent across these novels and often voiced by Exton Land, the philosopher Modesitt named after himself.

Where Donne does deviate from other characters is his activities as knight of the shadows. He walks the streets of the city exposing criminals after their intent is clear but before they can do physical harm. In a high-tech society is true identity cannot remain hidden of course and in the later stages it becomes a fact used to put pressure on him. So a dark knight looking to foil a plot by a super rich megalomaniac. If you put it that way, the plot sound downright simplistic. Entertaining perhaps, but not something that you'd remember long after finishing it. Modesitt once stated that he thinks a book should first entertain the reader or whatever else you try to do with it will not matter as the reader will abandon it. This plot creates opportunities for entertainment but it is the deeper layer that makes of breaks the novel in my opinion.

What I liked about it, is that the dark night can't just take a gadget out of his pocket and neutralize the villain. He is hemmed in on all sides by the need to comply with laws and regulations, by public appearance and by his own moral standards. These limitations don't just work for him, it is something everyone, from the highest level of government to the lowest level in law enforcement have to deal with. Not everything they do is legal, but is has to appear legal. Not even the villain, who is not above assassination, bribing or mass murder if it suits his purpose, escapes these restrictions. It is one of the examples of the internal logic of Modesitt's worlds that can be found throughput his novels. As a result, no actions without consequence, excellence cannot be achieved without hard work and no victory is without a price. It's this rigorous consistency that allows the plot to attain more depth than my dark knight versus megalomaniac villain comment suggests.

I do think that Modesitt leans on what he has done before a bit too much in this novel. Not so much in terms of characters (an often heard criticism of his work) but thematically. Over the course of many novels he's laid out a structure of ethics, views on society and human nature that is so central to his work that it is almost misleading to consider The Elysium Commission a standalone story. The author builds on the foundations he has laid in earlier books. They are so interlinked in a way that you will get more out of this novel if you have read more of his work. If you like Modesitt's writing you can't really go wrong with this one, but if you are looking for a good entry point into his oeuvre I'd look elsewhere. 

Book Details
Title: The Elysium Commission
Author: L.E. Modesitt, Jr.
Publisher: Tor
Pages: 356
Year: 2008
Language: English
Format: Mass Market Paperback
ISBN: 978-0-7653-5654-3
First published: 2007

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