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The Ethos Effect
L.E. Modesitt, Jr.
HarperCollins Eos, 448 pages

The Ethos Effect
L.E. Modesitt, Jr.
L.E. Modesitt, Jr. is the author of the Recluce fantasy series and a string of science fiction novels, notably The Parafaith War and Adiamante.

L.E. Modesitt, Jr. Website
ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: Legacies
SF Site Review: The Octagonal Raven
SF Site Review: Colors of Chaos
SF Site Review: Of Tangible Ghosts and Ghost of the Revelator
SF Site Review: The Soprano Sorceress
SF Site Review: The Ecolitan Enigma
L. E. Modesitt, Jr. Tribute Site
L. E. Modesitt, Jr. Tribute Site

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Donna McMahon

Commander Van Albert is an accomplished career military officer, but a constant source of annoyance to his politicking superiors in the upper ranks of the RSF. After achieving dramatic success at a mission they intended him to fail, he is posted to a lame duck position as military liaison to the Tarran Republic's embassy on Scandya, a minor planet caught up in dangerous galactic politics.

When Albert once again succeeds all too spectacularly, he is promoted into retirement. But still young and wanting to work as a ship's captain, he accepts a lucrative and mysterious offer from a foundation called Integrated Information Systems. IIS claims only to collect data on interstellar economics but Albert suspects they have a huge, surreptitious influence on the galactic balance of power.

When war breaks out, Albert finds himself in a pivotal position and he must face tough choices about who lives, who dies, and who will control the fate of the galaxy.

In The Ethos Effect, L.E. Modesitt, Jr. is interested in thorny ethical questions, such as: "do the ends justify the means?". Unfortunately, this entire novel is little more than an exercise in illustrating his points.

It is didacticism, rather than character or plot, that drives this story -- and at a lurching pace, too. The novel starts with Albert's posting on Scandya, introducing us at length to a large cast of characters and a complex political scenario. But after 23 chapters, the plot veers abruptly and most of the characters are never seen again. Readers who have invested time and energy in sorting out all this backstory are likely to feel miffed.

And mere plot is not sufficient to illustrate Modesitt's views. Characters hold improbable and tedious conversations about politics, economics, and morality, and just in case we STILL didn't get the point, Modesitt introduces long excerpts from a fictional treatise on "Values, Ethics and Society," which (amazingly) makes frequent reference to scenarios from late 20th century Earth.

Initially, Van Albert reminded me of protagonists in Neville Shute or John Wyndam novels -- a modest but capable man who tackles difficult tasks with a minimum of fuss. Unfortunately, Modesitt beats this point to death by having all the other characters tell him -- again and again and again -- what an ethical and upstanding fellow he is. And after all that advertising, Albert's actions don't withstand much scrutiny. He asks remarkably few questions about his own military and government, and even when it becomes clear they are corrupt, he does not rebel or attempt to make changes. Finally, he accepts a job with IIS even though he is not clear what the organization does, where its loyalties lie, or what his role will be.

Secondary characters in The Ethos Effect are strictly perfunctory; the women especially so. In this far future setting they still sit in outer offices as secretaries to senior staff, and while a few are portrayed in non-traditional roles, they are not crucial to the plot. Albert even acquires a romantic interest whose only role is to admire him and to wait months or years at a time for his visits.

Finally, Albert's character is never developed. His motivations seem inadequate and his emotional reaction to personal tragedy is shallow.

There are good points to this book. The political problems are well thought out, the technology feels realistic and unobtrusive, and Modesitt makes an earnest effort to develop complex social and philosophical themes.

However, this is supposed to be a novel, and as such, it fails.

Copyright © 2004 Donna McMahon

Donna McMahon discovered science fiction in high school and fandom in 1977, and never recovered. Dance of Knives, her first novel, was published by Tor in May, 2001, and her book reviews won an Aurora Award the same month. She likes to review books first as a reader (Was this a Good Read? Did I get my money's worth?) and second as a writer (What makes this book succeed/fail as a genre novel?). You can visit her website at

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