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Night Train to Rigel
Timothy Zahn
Tor, 253 pages

Night Train to Rigel
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: The Green And The Gray
SF Site Review: Star Song and Other Stories
SF Site Review: Manta's Gift
SF Site Review: Angelmass
SF Site Review: Icarus Hunt
SF Site Review: Star Wars: Specter of the Past

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Rich Horton

Timothy Zahn is one of our most reliable producers of traditional action-adventure SF. His latest adult novel is Night Train to Rigel. Earth is the twelfth of the Twelve Empires: twelve alien races linked by an explicitly train-like interstellar travel system. The system is run by the Spiders, inscrutable aliens who do not allow details of their FTL method to be understood by anyone. But they do allow races access to this transportation network -- for a price. And those races who have colonized enough planets become part of the "N Empires."

At first blush this setup seems transparently an excuse to use a silly title like Night Train to Rigel. But so be it -- there have been worse backgrounds for good SF stories! The hero is Frank Compton, a former agent for Earth's intelligence service who was cashiered for his public criticism of the expensive plans to colonize the last planetary system required to make Earth an "Empire" in the Spiders' eyes. As the story opens he is accosted by a murdered man, and offered a ticket to Yandro, Earth's controversial colony in the Rigel system. He accepts seemingly on impulse -- though we learn that he has accepted another job, its nature not revealed until much later.

Once onboard the train, Frank is quickly apprised of the nature of the commission implied by his acceptance of the ticket. It seems the Spiders are concerned about a potential future war among the Twelve Empires: a war that they had hoped to prevent by their strict policy against taking weapons on the trains. Frank acquires a mysterious human companion, a young woman named Bayta who can telepathically communicate with the Spiders.

Frank and Bayta begin a journey along the interstellar railways, looking for the unidentified warmongers the Spiders want to find. Frank quickly realizes they are the objects of interest of a variety of entities, including an alien Frank had known on his previous job, and also his former boss, a man whom he has cause to hate. They survive attempts on their life, and attempts to frame them for murder, and they seem to be herded towards the Sistarrko system, which includes a resort on one of a pair of gas giant moons, a moon which is home to the extremely popular Modhri coral. And there, of course, (this being the kind of novel it is) they learn secrets affecting the future of the Galaxy... and they are in the position to affect said future.

I must say that for the first half of the book or so I was annoyed. Zahn seemed to be driving his plot by a series of absurd coincidences and unlikely actions. But to be fair, he is aware of all this, and by the end of the book things are explained in a satisfying manner. The central idea of the book, and the eventually revealed good guys and (especially) Bad Guy, aren't terribly new ideas, but they are fairly well handled in this context. The book is pretty enjoyable, though the opening sections do drag a bit. As I suggested, Zahn redeems some of the weaknesses of the beginning by the end, and I ended up a pleased, but not really thrilled, customer.

Copyright © 2005 Rich Horton

Rich Horton is an eclectic reader in and out of the SF and fantasy genres. He's been reading SF since before the Golden Age (that is, since before he was 13). Born in Naperville, IL, he lives and works (as a Software Engineer for the proverbial Major Aerospace Company) in St. Louis area and is a regular contributor to Tangent. Stop by his website at

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