"Do you understand now?" he asked again, more forcefully, with a hint of hoarseness.
Vileena stared into the pulsing red of the paging signal. "I don't believe it," she answered hesitantly. "Maybe I just refuse to believe it could be what I suspect."
Eftalan Quest let out a hoarse laugh. "Yes. But that's exactly what it is."
The command bell struck a second time, a sonorous, metallic sound.
"You're..." She paused. As a healer she wasn't allowed to say such a thing.
Vileena took a breath, deeply, as if she would never get another chance. "Perhaps there are borders that a human shouldn't step over."
Now his eyes came out of the darkness. A terrible coldness shone in them.
"When you have nothing to lose," he said -- and it sounded like a violent oath -- "you can do anything."
Andreas Eschbach's novels haven't been translated from German to English yet. One of them (Die Haarteppichknüpfer, which I haven't read yet) is coming out from Tor Books in April of 2005. I hope others will follow. Quest is a fascinating work of science fiction.
Reading a book of this size (526 pages in a large-format paperback) was a strain on my ability to read German, but well worth it. Eschbach presents a story of vast scope, with plenty of surprises. The richness of sensory imagery in his writing is reminiscent of Poul Anderson.
The Realm (Reich) spans many worlds, but it is threatened by the military machine of the powerful Empire. In a desperate situation, the starship MEGATAO sets out to find the legendary Planet of Origin -- the source of all life in the universe. For it has been found that life on every planet is related; even alien races with no resemblance to humans have a biochemistry based on amino acids. The ship's commander, Eftalan Quest, leads a mission whose exact purpose he doesn't reveal even to his top officers -- nor does Eschbach reveal it to the reader till near the end. The Planet of Origin may be a long-dead rock for all that anyone knows, but perhaps it contains a secret which will change the balance of power against the Empire.
But Quest is hiding another secret: He is slowly dying. Only the ship's First Healer, Vileena, knows that he has a degenerative disease that is gradually destroying his nervous system. Perhaps the planet contains hope for him personally as well.
On route to its first destination, a planet inhabited by an ancient race that may know how to find the legendary planet, the ship receives a distress signal from a ship which has been marooned for four hundred years. Most of the cold-sleep chambers have failed, and only the commander, a man named Smeeth, is still alive. He is a relic from the time of the Republic, before it had become the highly stratified Realm which produced the MEGATAO. The resulting conflict of views is fascinating, and eventually Smeeth proves to hold the most amazing secrets of all.
The tropes are familiar -- Republic and Empire, ships traveling in hyperspace, the search for a legendary place -- but Eschbach treats them in fresh ways. It's the only SF novel I can recall that begins with a space raid on a heavily defended library. There are nice scientific touches; for instance, the MEGATAO's weapons produce a visible beam only when the ship is in an atmosphere.
Yet the novel is rather arid, not offering any characters who can really be admired other than Smeeth. And it's difficult for a normal human to feel kinship to Smeeth, for reasons I can't go into without revealing too much. The characters are like pre-programmed robots, unable to deviate from their collision course with destiny. "I hear and obey" is the line heard most often on board the ship. Quest fascinates, but his Ahab-like monomania isn't something anyone would want to emulate.
Still, I'm glad to see some good German-language science fiction. My previous inquiries about SF in German had led only to Wolfgang Hohlbein, whose Dino Land is just a routine thriller. I currently have Eschbach's Das Jesus-Video on order.
This review last revised on November 28, 2004
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