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Book cover art by Wayne Douglas Barlowe.
Review © 2002 by Thomas M. Wagner.
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L. E. Modesitt’s SF output is much less prolofic than that of his fantasies. But I can’t say from my impressions of this book that we’re seeing a significantly different writer at work. Modesitt seems to think that the most mundane of topics — in this case, a trade dispute over microprocessor import tariffs — is the kind of thing exciting fiction is made of. Maybe it could be, but you'd have to come up with better storytelling than this.

The Ecologic Envoy, first of a tetralogy, is the story of one Nathaniel Firstborne Whaler, a member of the Ecolitan Institute in the distant star system of Accord. Immediately Modesitt adopts a practice, that he will maintain throughout the novel, of explaining nothing in the deluded notion that this will pique our curiosity and involvement. We are never given a clear idea of what the Ecolitan Institute is. On the one hand, they’re like a university, specializing in economics. On the other, they’re bioterrorists. Accord seceded four hundred years prior to this novel’s opening following an incident in which the Ecolitans destroyed Earth’s ecosystem, forcing everyone to move underground. So…these are the good guys!? The perplexing character of the Institute translates to Whaler himself. He’s an economist…and a trained killer. Bwuh? Man, don’t anyone give Alan Greenspan any ideas!

Whaler is sent to Earth to act as an envoy to negotiate better tariff deals. Since this is a premise that holds all the breathless excitement of a documentary in Polish on the history of tweezers, Modesitt makes these negotations the sort of thing certain factions on Earth want to kill Whaler to prevent. From his first day there are attempts on his life (his office is bombed twice), and it seems that his entire office staff on Earth has been filled to the brim with spies and plotters.

With a great deal of patience I was able to work out that, while one of Earth’s many bureaucracies was pushing for the tariff negotiations to go through smoothly, the military wants them to fail because they’re still smarting over what went down 400 years previously. So obviously, it’s just so logical to dispose of a minor functionary as a pretext to a vengeful war that will hopefully win back the fifty systems that slipped from Earth’s imperial grasp when the secession took place.

I suppose I’m making the whole thing sound terribly foolish, but mostly it’s just dull and often head-spinningly confusing. One problem, of course, is sorting out all of the different bureaucratic departments Whaler has to deal with, then figuring out who’s hiring all those ineffectual assassins and why. Modesitt stubbornly keeps readers at arm’s length for as long as he can. This aloofness inhibits reader involvement. Most of the characters have hyphenated last names; their similar sound adds to the obfuscation. (Just remember the one on Whaler’s side is Sylvia.) Modesitt races through plot points without sufficient setup or clarity. You just can’t tell what half these people are after. There’s one point at which Whaler thwarts an attempt to place a perfect physical double of himself in his place, but Modesitt, obtuse as ever, doesn’t make it clear what Whaler’s enemies hoped to accomplish with such a ploy. In the end it’s as if the scene only exists to give Whaler a chance to provide proof of the trouble he’s in to his few allies.

Then there’s the tiny matter of Whaler’s not being the world's most exciting protagonist. We get no background on him, and we’re literally more than three-quarters of the way through the book before Modesitt provides any scenes of character interaction that contain human warmth. Tor’s cover copy taunts, “Move over, Retief!” But Keith Laumer may rest untroubled in his grave. So too may Poul Anderson and Dominic Flandry. Cloak and dagger stuff is supposed to be tense and exciting, and not so baffling you can’t find your way around at all. When one character says to Whaler in the final chapter, “I don’t think any of us here really understood what was going on,” you just want to hug her. Or is this just Modesitt hanging a lampshade on his own arsed-up plotting? Ah well. Let us hope, in volume two, Modesitt is a little more generous about letting us in on all the juicy secrets.

Followed by The Ecolitan Operation.