L.E. Modesitt, Jr.’s newest novel of hard science fiction is THE ONE-EYED MAN. It features politics, ecological science, the challenges of drugs that greatly prolong the human lifespan, and most intriguingly of all, the possibilities and challenges of living nearby to something that may be so far in advance of humanity that it may as well be a deity. The majority of the action takes place on the world of Stittara, the source of the life-prolonging drugs (called “anagathics,” because of their ability to greatly slow or even stop the aging process).
The hero of THE ONE-EYED MAN is ecologist Paulo Verano, an erudite ecological scientist with a gift for seeing the whole picture. Verano starts off his journey in THE ONE-EYED MAN thusly: he’s just endured a bitter dissolution (divorce by any other name) while living on the planet Bachman, and has lost ninety percent of his assets thereby due to a quirk of the law. He needs work, and needs it badly; more to the point, he needs off the planet in the worst possible way. So when a request comes in from Stittara that asks for the help of an ecologist to do an impact study due to the importance of the anagathics only Stittara can produce, he decides to go, mostly because the pay is lucrative and it’s a change of scenery.
En route to Stittara, Verano notes a great deal of unrest among the passengers. Granted, Stittara is not a place for the timid, as it features hellishly bad storms with insanely high winds along with an unusual ecologic fragility. Even so, some of the passengers seem much too nervous, and more to the point, some of the passenger list doesn’t match up with Stittara’s known needs.
You see, Stittara is important mostly because it’s the only known source of anagathic drugs. So biologists, chemists, and even the occasional ecologist like Verano are not unusual . . . but what is a renowned physicist doing on the ship?
When Verano lands, he finds more and more strangeness. For example, while anagathics have been known to extend the human lifespan up to two hundred years if taken regularly, on Stittara people seem to be living far, far longer than that even if they don’t take anagathics at all. And while everything on Stittara seems to contain these life-extending benefits to a certain degree, or people wouldn’t be living so long, it’s not the same as taking a concentrated drug — or at least it shouldn’t be. And Verano’s more than competent enough to realize this.
Of course, the political situation is extraordinarily challenging, too. Anagathic drugs are expensive, so only the wealthiest people can obtain them, at least if you don’t live on Stittara. Verano knows that over half the reason he’s there is to avoid rocking the boat, because these same wealthy people don’t want their anagathic supply disrupted.
And the people of Stittara aren’t exactly the most friendly and welcoming sorts, either, perhaps because they all live underground due to the aforementioned horrific weather. The only people who seem to be friendly are either Verano’s direct co-workers or those in the “outie” settlements — those living way out in the boondocks, who have yet to be recognized by the overall planetary leaders.
But the most important part of Verano’s ecological study is in figuring out at least in part what the skytubes in residence over Stittara actually are. Direct communication is out, as many humans tried in the earliest days of colonization to communicate with the skytubes and ended up either “disappeared” or dead, so indirect communication must serve instead. Fortunately for Verano, there is one known survivor who contacted the skytubes and returned, albeit greatly altered . . . that person, Ilsabet, now speaks in rhymed couplets and seems like a simpleton to most.
Fortunately, Verano is not most men.
What will happen when Verano gets to the bottom of why Stittara is the only planet known to have anagathics? What is the deal with that physicist, anyway — surely he can’t be up to any good? And will Verano’s discovery of what the skytubes are have any effect on future galactic political philosophy? All of these questions, and more, will be answered at the end of THE ONE-EYED MAN, but of course will raise even more questions.
As with most of Modesitt, Jr.’s hard SF novels, the plotline of THE ONE-EYED MAN is well thought out, multiplex, multifarious, and interesting. But that’s not the only attraction here, as there’s also a nicely understated romance between Verano and a security officer named Kali that added a great deal of depth to Verano’s characterization. Considering Verano starts off bitter, lonely, and distrustful in the extreme — and considering that Verano uses all of this to strengthen his ability to be a truly neutral observer — it’s amazing that Verano can shed all that long enough to notice there might just be someone worthy of his time and attention.
But it’s very human. And it’s because of that humanity that THE ONE-EYED MAN held my interest, made me consider just how difficult Verano’s task must be, and made me sympathize with a man who at first annoyed me profoundly.
The drawbacks? Well, the contemplative style of THE ONE-EYED MAN may not be for everyone. It has a Byzantine plot structure without a whole lot of overt action, and as I said before, Verano starts off being hard to root for.
But to my mind, it was the little piddly things that were more of a problem. The frequent reuse of favorite adjectives and adverbs — the word “ruefully” (or “rueful”) is used a great deal, for example — kept throwing me out of the reader’s trance. (Why weren’t a few synonyms for the word ruefully used a couple-three times to avoid this problem?) The intentional misspelling of everyday words — “duhlars” for dollars, “kalzone” for calzone — was a little distracting. And I’d have preferred that the Tuckerizations of various actors and actresses (mild, and somewhat disguised) weren’t there.
Bottom line? THE ONE-EYED MAN melds huge ideas with a thoroughly human protagonist living in a fully understandable and imperfect universe. More SF should be like this.
— reviewed by Barb