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The Ecolitan Enigma
L. E. Modesitt, Jr.
Tor Books, 383 pages

The Ecolitan Enigma
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A review by Thomas Myer


"[The Ecolitan Enigma is] like a puzzle. If we wait until what we do is obvious and justified, then far more people are hurt, but we can claim justification. Or we can do what needs to be done as soon as possible... And then we're arbitrary and enigmatic... puzzling... and always called overbearing and high-handed." (p305)

The Ecolitan Enigma is a roman-à-clef, except it isn't about people that we know, but about entire societies that we know.

In a galaxy multi-sected by power blocks, governments, federations, alliances, and subterfuge, the impartial Ecolitan Institute stands alone as a foundation in moral courage--with the willingness and strength to strike an enemy down before that enemy kills millions of innocents.

This viewpoint is at once refreshing and rare. It's always easy to bomb an enemy back to the Stone Age once they've done something horrible to us. But if we were to ever assassinate the leader of an unfriendly state, or mayhaps park a few dozen Tomahawks in their military's high command building, we would be worse than they were, right? Modesitt doesn't think so, and I appreciate his blunt approach.

His moral backdrop, fortunately, is but a backdrop; the novel gives us real people on the page, people who have to live (or die) by their moral code. Ecolitan economist operative Nathaniel Whaler and his companion (and former secret agent) Sylvia Ferro-Maine have been tasked with writing an infrastructure report of a backwater colony world. Such blithe beginnings soon lead to the stench in Denmark, and along the way they walk into a cobweb of mayhem, power blocks, and finally, the militaristic and hell-bent Fuardians serving up galactic genocide like espressos at a coffee bar.

Our protagonists, by novel's end, have a colicky dilemma by the metaphoric diaper: either make a deadly preemptive strike, or wait and see if the power-hungry Fuardians actually declare a shooting war. Meanwhile, the fleets muster and the planets begin to burn. In this novel, at least, collateral damage is more than Pentagon buzzspeak.

If all this isn't good enough, Whaler and Ferro-Maine must dodge half a dozen attempts on their lives, ranging from neural toxins to sabotage of a space ship. If the general voting populace that Modesitt portrays is queasy about pre-emptive action, the bad guys, as usual, are not. They want to rub out the good guys, be it with an assassin's dagger, or through explosive decompression in the punishing void of space.

For those weary of positivism and random acts of kindness, this book also provides some very choice hard truths, to wit this pearl on personal responsibility, even in the realm of government:

"You're holding a people responsible for the actions of a few leaders."

"Exactly. Who else should be held responsible?" asked Nathaniel. "They allow the system to continue. No government can stand against its people, not if they really want to change it. So... any protests that they can't do anything about it are really a statement that they don't want to pay the price for changing it." (p325)

As Modesitt points out, though, the price for not changing a government is tyranny. In the worlds of reality and books, there is more to economy and ecology than the mere terms imply. There are shadow economies and ecologies: for instance, economies of interaction--you perform an act, and the act costs you, personally. And of course, there are ecologies of assent--if everyone believes one thing, then there is no diversity, and hence, no defense against ecological/ideological disaster. Think of Hitler's Germany, Stalin's Soviet Union, Noriega's Panama, and Saddam's Iraq. Then curl up with this book, and see if you could ever live up to Modesitt's definition of moral courage.

Copyright © 1997 by Thomas Myer

Thomas Myer is a technical writer and freelance scoundrel. When he's not reading or writing, his family (wife Hope, and dogs Kafka and Vladimir) makes him mow the lawn and scrub floors. He also happens to be an excellent scratch cook.

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