It’s hard not to get excited whenever L.E. Modesitt Jr. releases a new standalone sci-fi novel. Despite being better known for his various fantasy series than his science fiction, some of his best work can be found in the latter genre. Novels like The Parafaith War, Archform: Beauty, Adiamante and Haze (just to name a few) are wonderful examples of this amazingly prolific author’s talent when it comes to science fiction. The newest addition to this list, Empress of Eternity, is no exception. Despite being a bit dry and inaccessible, its scope and ambition are stunning.
The novel follows three separate story lines, set in far-future Earth societies that are separated by tens of thousands of years. In each of these, scientists are investigating a 2000 mile long artificial structure known as the Mid Continent Canal. The canal is indestructible: even a meteor hit in the far past seems to have made no impact. Researchers are especially interested in learning more because the canal doesn’t seem to be affected by temperature changes in the same way as other materials — and in each of the future societies described in the book, extreme climate change is causing untold havoc for human civilization, including (in the third one) a brewing rebellion that employs a doomsday device that could unravel the structure of the entire universe…
Empress of Eternity is, initially, a very hard novel to get into. The rapid introduction of three completely distinct far future societies, without much in the way of exposition, makes for a confusing set of opening chapters. This is exacerbated by the fact that each story line features a couple with, as is often the case with Modesitt, a highly cerebral male character and a strong female one, who are all examining the canal at different times in the future. This similarity makes it hard to get settled into the novel. In addition, the second story line is initially very confusing, mainly because its characters often communicate by “pulsing” jargon-heavy messages to each other:
Metstation sole unit structure inhabitable south side MCC west of desert research station. Interrogative estimated habitation/equipment viability duration.
Interestingly, they also often denote emphasis by adding exponents to their adjectives:
Dubious probabilities for serious and officious5 chief.
Each far future society has a different flavor, e.g. the “Hu-Ruche” society in the second story line is totalitarian and emphasizes an almost hive-like adherence to the rulers’ dictates, whereas the first society is more feudal. Each one is also affected by climate change in a different way, with an ice age on the way in the first one and the earth dangerously heating up in the second one. There’s simply a lot of information to piece together and digest early on — like me, you may end up going back to reread the first handful of chapters to get your bearings before moving on.
The experience of reading about three far-future societies that are this far removed from each other is strange and slightly uncomfortable. Separated by tens, if not hundreds of thousands of years, there’s barely any knowledge of e.g. the Hu-Ruche society left by the time the third society is active, millennia later. (And that’s not even counting other, earlier, societies that are referenced occasionally — and that are apparently responsible for the extreme levels of climate change and the fact that there appears to be no moon in the sky anymore.) All of this gave me the same feeling as e.g. seeing everything before the year 2000 referred to as “pre-history” in Olaf Stapledon’s Last and First Men, or watching the evolution of society in Brian Aldiss’ Helliconia trilogy: there’s a sense of helplessness that comes with such a frank description of the futility of human endeavor. It also means that, for the first half of the book, you’ll be reading three seemingly unconnected stories, all set in the same location but separated by thousands of years. Fortunately L.E. Modesitt Jr. pulls everything together in the second half of the novel, in a truly dizzying spin that easily justifies the struggles early on.
In the end, Empress of Eternity is an impressive but somewhat impersonal novel. Especially in the first half of the book, the focus is more on societies than on the people that inhabit them, and more on ideas than on feelings. Mere human relationships simply pale in significance next to the climate issues and the sheer scale of the future history L.E. Modesitt Jr. displays here. As a result, Empress of Eternity is stunning in ambition and scope, but unfortunately a bit too dry to be as enjoyable as some of the author’s past SF works. If I were alive in the Hu-Ruche society, I’d probably summarize my opinion as [respectful8 admiration] rather than [thrillied3 enjoyment].