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Manta's Gift
Timothy Zahn
Tor Books, 496 pages

Manta's Gift
Timothy Zahn
Timothy Zahn's SF career began by selling SF stories to Analog magazine while he was a physics grad student at the University of Illinois. When his thesis advisor died, he decided to write full-time. He started with hard SF, writing the Cobra series of military SF novels. In 1984, he won a Hugo for his novella "Cascade Point." His writing has a distinctly humanistic touch, so it seems obvious to some that Theodore Sturgeon was an early influence. Zahn is perhaps best-known as one of the original authors commissioned to write novels in the Star Wars realm.

ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: Angelmass
SF Site Review: Icarus Hunt
SF Site Review: Star Wars: Specter of the Past
Timothy Zahn Interview
Another Timothy Zahn Interview

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Alma A. Hromic

I love the central idea of Manta's Gift -- an ornery, shallow and callow human youth trades a hopeless existence as a quadriplegic for a chance to be reborn as an alien being with a (reasonably) human mind. The description of a birth from the point of view of the thing being born is... interesting. The depiction of what is a truly alien society -- in setup, in physiology, in mindset -- is well done, and is a fascinating thread to follow throughout the book. Everything is accounted for, in suitably alien ways. I am particularly enchanted by, in Timothy Zahn's own words, the existence of a network between worlds and star systems which is "...accessible only to beings who have never seen the stars". The concept has a poetic tragedy to it, a nobility, even.

But it is this supposed star-drive that goads the less-than-honorable moiety of the human species to do unconscionable acts. The alien Qanska, in the meantime, have a problem of their own -- two, in fact, because the central predicament is exacerbated by the fact that they are not "a problem-solving race" and cannot even think about trying to begin dealing with the main issue because they don't know where to begin. Enter Manta, or Matt Raimey as he used to be known in his previous existence as a human being. The humans are using him as a spy amongst the Qanska; the Qanska have their own agenda. Manta, caught in the middle, has his central dilemma put into a nutshell for him by one of the Qanska elders: some of the Qanska believe he is now Qanskan, and has lost his human abilities, and therefore can't help his adopted species; or he remains quintessentially human, and therefore a threat to the Qanska, and won't help them.

The other side of the equation has put the situation in its own nutshell, and I think I see the glimmer of the genesis of this novel in the anecdote that the humans use to illustrate the situation -- the old story of a scout sent to infiltrate the native tribes, and report back to his commanding officer.

"I did what you told me, Colonel," the scout reports, "I made friends with the natives, learned their ways, studied their culture."

The Colonel says, "And what do you have to tell me?"

The scout responds, "Get off our land."

Zahn has made that land reach out to the stars.

Timothy Zahn's previous book, Angelmass, left me largely unmoved with its almost contrived plot and pages of what somehow came off, despite the author's advanced degree in the subject, sounding like pseudo-physics to me. I kept on looking for the verve and the sheer momentum of another Spinneret, and never quite found it.

Manta's Gift, although not a Spinneret either, is a much more satisfying book. It does achieve what a depressingly large number of books achieve these days -- make me thoroughly ashamed of at least a certain subset of my species. Sometimes I am left thinking that we are simply not principled enough to go to the stars and deal with people who don't renege on a deal on a whim because the other guys have something we want and we want it badly enough to lie, cheat, coerce, extort, blackmail and even kill for it, before we'll deal for it with some semblance of honor. It also, however, makes me very proud of another subset of those same species -- the kind that will sacrifice their careers, their reputations, their comfortable existence and even their lives if necessary in order to stand in the way of the other kind. As long as there is this balance, even, the human race will muddle through somehow.

As with every story, there are probably nits to pick along the way -- but there is one thing about Manta's Gift that supersedes nit-picking, and is definitely rare enough to make a note off. It's the sort of story that makes you want to stand on your chair and cheer out loud. And that's probably the highest praise a storyteller can receive.

Copyright © 2003 Alma A. Hromic

Alma A. Hromic, addicted (in random order) to coffee, chocolate and books, has a constant and chronic problem of "too many books, not enough bookshelves". When not collecting more books and avidly reading them (with a cup of coffee at hand), she keeps busy writing her own. Her latest fantasy work, a two-volume series entitled Changer of Days, was published by HarperCollins.

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