Thursday, October 03, 2002

I finished reading Eternity's End, by Jeffrey A. Carver, yesterday and found it a frustrating read. This is a stand-alone novel set in a universe that Carver has written about before, called "The Starrigger Universe". A Starrigger (or "Rigger", as called in the novel) is a specialized space pilot who has the ability to navigate starships through "the Flux", which appears to be a kind of "warp space" or "hyperspace" or something equivalent. Each ship has a team of Riggers who are responsible, therefore, for the ship's faster-than-light transit, by delving into the Flux. The Riggers work the Flux by actually shaping it so that it becomes a visual metaphor for them to work with; at times, the Flux appears to be a cloudy sky, at times it appears to be deep underwater in the ocean, at times it appears to be something else entirely, depending on the needs and abilities of the Riggers. (All this is explained in the novel, which is the only one of the "Starrigger" novels that I've read.) Of course, navigating the Flux has its own perils, one of which is that if one strays into the wrong part of the Flux, one's ship can seemingly vanish out of space-time entirely and only reappearing sporadically, becoming something of a "ghost ship". The search for just such a ship, the Impris, forms much of the backbone of this novel, which can be partly described as "The Flying Dutchman in space".

That also describes the main problem I had with Eternity's End. The idea of a ghost-ship in space, and the search for that ship, is a very interesting one, and those parts of the book which deal with that search are fascinating and even gripping. However, that whole plot is part of a larger one, involving some kind of vast interstellar conspiracy into which one man, a Starrigger named Renwald Legroeder (that name didn't help matters any), falls unaware. Legroeder is on the run almost immediately in the book, and he doesn't know why. He is also tagged as the fall guy for a ship that was captured by pirates before the events of the novel; his insistence on the reality of the lost ship Impris, which he sighted during a pirate-encounter, is suppressed; he is framed for murder; he is enlisted by the intelligence apparatus of an alien race....and after all that, he goes in search of the "ghost ship". The total effect is that I was never exactly sure of what story I was being told. Is the novel about the ghost ship? is it about humanity's stalled colonization of space? is it the Ludlumesque espionage thriller where a normal man tumbles into something that marks him immediately for death? is it a story about space pirates? is it a vast space opera? is it a legal thriller?

Eternity's End turns out to be, in some measure, all of those things -- so much so that the novel feels schizophrenic. The focus is constantly changing, so that there is no one central conflict that drives the novel forward. There are times when, as one conflict is beginning to gather steam, Carver steps back and forcefully reminds us of the earlier conflicts that are still simmering on the back burner. One would expect all of these conflicts to boil together into a single, explosive climax, but they don't; instead there is a series of climaxes that take place over the novel's last 150 pages. And there are so many plots going on that some of the most interesting ones are shortchanged, and some of Carver's most interesting ideas are introduced and then completely ignored. One such idea is that on the stranded Impris, time actually moves at different paces at different parts of the ship -- so one married couple has found a closet where time moves slowest, and that's where they stay, so they can be together. Of course, the ship's eventual rescue would have implications for that couple -- in fact, for everyone on the starliner that has been stranded for 120 years -- and yet, none of those implications are ever explored, much less even mentioned. The plight of the Impris could have been a harrowing novel of its own, but here it is merely a giant MacGuffin to drive the rest of the plot. Other ideas are also left underdeveloped: the secretive military organization whose commanding officer is not even named until the book's last 75 pages but who becomes the main villain behind it all, the competing pirate societies, Legroeder's coming to terms with his neural implants, the fact that the implants themselves seem to be sentient beings -- all of these ideas are left on the table, mentioned but never expanded.

Eternity's End, unfortunately, reminds me of a dish that should be baked in the oven at 400 degrees for 45 minutes, but is instead baked at 325 degrees for 30 minutes. Parts of it are undone, and as a whole it doesn't come together.

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