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The Octagon Raven by L.E. Modesitt, Jr. (Amazon commission earned)3 stars

Buy from Barnes & NobleBuy from IndieBoundBuy from PowellsThe degree to which you’re likely to take to The Octagonal Raven will depend upon two questions: whether or not you’re already a devoted fan of L. E. Modesitt, and whether your idea of a good SF read is a talky political thriller about hostile corporate takeovers and social inequality. This is not a novel for newcomers to Modesitt’s densely written, meticulously constructed science fiction. But what it lacks in the pacing and suspense one might expect from a more conventional writer, it makes up for — somewhat — in its intellectual engagement. This is a novel with much more mind than heart, so to speak, but it’s an interesting attempt to address relatable social ills through an SFnal lens, even if the some of the conclusions Modesitt draws from his ideas aren’t entirely realistic.

We begin some time in the future after climate change and wars have altered both the world’s physical and political landscapes. Daryn Alwyn is the younger scion of one of the world’s most powerful families. His father and his eldest brother Gerrat both run the media giant UniComm, which dominates the field even though it’s been gradually losing market share for a decade to several upstart rivals, among them OneCys, run by none other than Daryn’s sister, Elora. But as a young man, Daryn chose to forge his own path rather than ride his family’s coattails, and enlisted in the Federal Service, where he spent about 25 years undergoing arduous pilot training. (A lover of romantic metaphor, he thinks of himself as a raven among eagles.) Now in early middle age, he works as a freelance methodizer (a kind of corporate consultant) and edartist (something equivalent to a popular blogger or influencer) and has no aspirations to social climbing.

But Daryn is privileged in another way: he is a preselect. In this future, nanite technology to enhance the human mind and body is available to any who can pay, and that of course means the rich. The wealthiest preselects make up only about 10% of the general population but command over 90% of its financial and social resources. Daryn, naturally, lives in a bubble where he’s convinced himself that even the non-enhanced “norms” have it better in life than the vast majority of people living in any prior era, a convenient kind of dogma that allows the privileged not to notice their privilege. Or at least, turn a blind eye to the levels of resentment the norms have for them.

Things change for Daryn when he is invited to a soirée hosted by his cousin Kharl, where he meets an alluring young woman, Elysa, who promptly attempts to kill him by overloading his system with invasive octagonal nanites. He recovers, Elysa has vanished as if she had never existed, and Daryn is left baffled as to why he’d be the target of an assassin in the first place, due to his lack of affiliation with the family business. But further attempts on his life follow, including one that hits much too close to home, and so Daryn, with the help of an old flame with whom he’s become reacquainted, finds himself racing against the proverbial clock to identify his would-be killers and learn their shadowy motives. He’ll eventually uncover a conspiracy, not only to take over UniComm, but remake all of human society.

The big idea at the core of The Octagonal Raven is that great social inequalities exist because society’s elites create self-selecting power structures designed to repress the social mobility of anyone not in the club. In this future, not only has this been implemented through nanotech preselection, but through an educational system increasingly relying on an intelligence test called the PIAT (Perceptual Integrative Ability Test), which has been expressly designed to favor the enhanced intellects of preselects. Those who pass the PIAT automatically have access to the best higher education and most lucrative career prospects. Thus the social divide is widened even further by an elite ruler class who have not only their thumb but entire hand on the scale.

Now here’s what’s interesting: Modesitt could have gone the cliché route and turned The Octagonal Raven into a story about a man of privilege awakening to the injustice of the system and, you know, throwing in with the rebellion or something. But Daryn — and by extension Modesitt, as he can’t resist getting polemical here — is a committed elitist, firm in his belief that it’s the natural order of things for societies to have elites, as the only alternative is mob rule. (False dichotomy?) Daryn takes the view that elites have a responsibility to be ethical, and that while no society can possibly be completely fair for everyone, we can strive for as much fairness across the board as possible. The problem with the PIAT is that it’s inherently unfair. No matter anyone’s birth or status, whether a rich preselect or working-class norm, Daryn believes with his whole heart that everyone with determination and ability should have the same chance to succeed.

Okay, fine. But, I would argue, naive as hell, as I don’t think one can point to any time in history when a self-selected societal elite has had the well-being of the masses as a high priority, except in those rare instances where a political advantage over rivals can be gained thereby. There are those rare rulers of integrity who do their best to make fair systems a reality. But for the most part, well, we can see in our own lives every day how the gulf between the privileged elites and the remaining 99% of the human race draws ever wider. (And to be honest, Daryn’s main motivation here is to save his own hide and his dad’s company, with whatever benefit the norms derive from his actions a fringe benefit.)

But it’s all to the book’s credit that Modesitt gives us a lot to think about, and it helps compensate for some storytelling shortcomings. Consider the characters: Daryn Alwyn feels very much like every Modesitt male science fiction protagonist, such as Trystin Desoll from The Parafaith War or Nathaniel Whaler from the Ecolitan series. Stoic, rational and exceedingly well-spoken, rarely plagued by self-doubt, and possessing a strong ethical sense and rugged determination to see any situation through, this has become a stock hero archetype for Modesitt. It’s an idealized hero, rather than one we can identify with as readers on any personal level. Modesitt is so cerebral in his approach to his characters that Daryn and his paramour Majora undertake possibly the most unromantic romance you’ll ever read. (But hey, they kiss... once!)

And because Modesitt as a storyteller is far more interested in his ideas than his people, much of the drama unfolds in endless dialogue rather than action. He takes ages to get the ball rolling here. His prose is typically thick with detail (Modesitt is the kind of writer who will describe a room right down to the measurements of the floor tiles). And for its entire first half, Modesitt splits Raven’s narrative between present and past, so we get far more information than the story needs about Daryn’s education and military training. Much of this does help establish the sociopolitical and cultural background, of course, but a lot of it feels like Modesitt just enjoys writing scenes of military training. There’s a lot of dry padding, resulting in overlength.

But Modesitt fans willing to go the distance will find The Octagonal Raven rewarding in the end. I found it a perfect example of the kind of book I can say I admired more than enjoyed. Most of the rest of you would do better sticking with James S.A. Corey.