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The Ethos Effect
L.E. Modesitt Jr
Orbit paperback £7.99
review by Patrick Hudson
In the far future, Van C. Albert is a navy officer commanding a starship for the Taran Republic, one of a number of power blocks in the known galaxy. Unexpectedly, he is appointed military attaché to the Taran embassy on the independent world Scandya. The diplomatic situation on Sacndya is delicate, and the previous attach� committed suicide in suspicious circumstances, and Van is curious why he has been appointed to this job having no prior diplomatic experience. For the next 100 or so pages he spends a lot of time snooping around while the author lays out his imagined universe: the Taran Republic is militaristic, the Argenti and the Kelts are expansionist, the Coalition are enlightened capitalists, and the Revenants are a fundamentalist monotheist religious cult feared by everyone.
Albert begins to uncover evidence that the Revenants are trying to take the planet over through economic manipulation and propaganda, but before he can do anything he is badly wounded in a terrorist attack on a diplomatic soiree. He awakens after months in treatment and is unceremoniously mustered out of the navy. With nothing to do, and seemingly abandoned by the military, he eventually takes up the offer of the shifty Trystin Desoll, a managing director of Integrated Information Systems, an interplanetary intelligence and security company, to command one of their ships.
That's more or less the set up, and things start to get moving when Albert gets control of the IIS ship, but we don't get there until page 240. Up to this point there's been a lot of info-dump and filler, with only the occasional bit of drama or action to lighten the load. Albert is more or less led through these early chapters, which robs him of interest early on. He's ordered around by the navy and sits around having info dumped on him. He says things like "Pretend I don't know anything, how would you gauge the situation," and "I'm new here myself, you should start from the beginning." The situation on Scandya is not that complicated, and the info-dumps drag somewhat.
There is an irritating tendency to pad throughout this novel. Pedestrian meals that are described in detail, perhaps a habit picked up from Jack Vance, but Vance describes exotic and alien foodstuffs, where Modesitt sticks to mostly familiar Terran varieties. Every cup of coffee (called 'café' here because, like, it's the future, you know?) is rated good, fine or excellent. The outfits (nearly always described) that are essentially just coloured overalls. Every docking and leaving at every spaceport is recorded in full, down to the last over-and-out. The various planets that Van visits don't seem to have much to distinguish them, despite the time spent talking to taxi drivers and arranging shuttle trips.
Van is also a bit of a wet blanket, despite his staunch military reputation. When anything happens to him, he mulls over what happened in as much detail as the original description, and then meets up with one of his old comrades from Scandya and they'll mull it over together. None of these long conversations ever seem to go anywhere, and the whys and wherefores of what's happening are finally revealed when Van breaks into a Taran army base and steals the plot from a drawer. The result is a very dull book, which is a shame as Modesitt has the all the elements for a chewy space opera but just can't seem to get them into an interesting shape.
It's curious that a decade ago many pundits predicted the death of the book as the pace of living sped up and the slow pleasure of reading was left behind. In fact, the opposite seems to have happened. It's as if the 'super-size me' attitude has spread from fast food to fiction: forget the quality, look at the quantity! With the extraneous material summarised and excised and a pithier approach to characterisation, The Ethos Effect could have been an exciting space opera adventure in the 200 to 250-page range. Instead, we get the typical tedious, bloated monster that has come to dominate genre fiction.
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