Finally, after his last 3 books that were glacially paced, with wooden dialogue and peopled by stock crews of greedy (and stupid) businessmen, corrupt (and stupid) political leaders, weak-kneed (and obtuse) co-workers, plus one resourceful hero, Modesitt delivers a good story with interesting people, genuinely worrisome situations, awe-inspiring settings and a plot. Welcome back!
Modesitt set Solar Express 100 years from now where not much has changed in terms of politics or people. The US and Canada (and maybe Mexico) are now Noram; China plus unknown other countries are now the Sinese; India is a world power and Europe is one big agglomeration with strong Russian leadership. African, Middle East, Australia and South America are smaller powers with the African/Middle East/Australian grouped into a union nominally allied with India.
Modesitt writes excellent hard science fiction, which this is, and good to excellent fantasy like the Imager series. He has three major habits that you either need to love or be able to ignore in order to enjoy any of his books.
- Politics with head-shaking cultural observations and wooden dialogue
- Slow pacing
- Rinse and repeat characters.
As usual Modesitt can’t resist declaring his political beliefs in Solar Express. He imagines a news outlet, Hot News! that combines accurate reporting, innuendo, celebrity watching and political acumen. Hot News! stories cover global warming results, environmental havoc in polar regions, flooded cities and ravaged coasts and speculation about the Sinese intentions and the apparent inability for the Noram leaders to do anything.
The more interesting snippets are news articles and memos from the Noram government leaders that present facts that align to some Hot News! speculation with just enough to tease us readers. I wanted to know a lot more than Modesitt gave us!
The pace varies between really slow and slow with a touch of zip-bang. The pace fits the subject – neither pilot Chris Tavoian nor astrophysicist Alayna Wong-Grant can exactly hurry their work along – and is countered by the fast-moving Solar Express and geopolitical events. I got a little antsy about a third through, but the Hot News! punctuated the crawling science.
One pleasant change was the characters. Yes, we still had evil, greedy people who lust after power, but none appeared in person. “Colonel Anson”, Chris Tavoian’s superior officer is well-meaning and effective (many Modesitt superior officers are either venal or incompentent) and the minor characters Kit and Emma are warm and interesting. Chris and Alayna are interesting people, a bit reserved, but with feelings and interests.
Modesitt is one of the few authors who successfully write fantasy and science fiction (Bujold and Dave Weber are two others) and some of his science fiction has fantasy-seeming elements (Empress of Eternity and Hammer of Darkness). Solar Express is unusual in being set so close to today, with technology and politics we can easily extrapolate to. It made it easy to follow. Even if you don’t agree with his extrapolated climate, political and cultural changes you can visual them happening.
In Solar Express Modesitt slipped in a fourth annoying habit, dumping complex geographic and political backgrounds early, explaining some later and some not at all. For example, page 15 in one sentence he introduces: FuxEx burners (apparently the standard shuttle/small freighter), DOEA (Department of Off Earth Affairs, a government agency charged to oversee space), Policia Espacial (never re-introduced, likely the South American security force), Sudam (South American government), magline (OK, that’s pretty easy, basically a train on the moon), ONeill Station (believe the main transship point orbiting the moon, run by Noram), the elevator (moon to space elevator), standard climber (likely a car that runs on the elevator), main station (terminus for the elevator).
The next page gives us fusionjet (similar to the FusEx?), vasimr slowboats (never explained, likely just what they sound, a s-l-o-w way to move cargo) and Hel3, otherwise known as a helium isotope. I wouldn’t mind the dump if he gave just a bit of background first or omitted altogether if never revisited. It is not wise to make your readers feel stupid, especially when the author’s entire body of work holds up thinking as a great virtue.
The Amazon reader reviews for Solar Express are split, about 2/3 positive and 1/3 negative and almost no 3 stars. Modesitt in his blog attributes this to too many fantasy readers who were turned off by the science fiction aspects. Several readers complained about the characters communicating by delayed message vs. real time in person (as they would in fantasy series). However other readers noted the slow pace and abundant political commentary as turn offs so I think the criticism was more than reaction from disgruntled fantasy fans.
Overall, Solar Express is an excellent addition to Modesitt’s novels. 4 Stars.