I have to admit, I have something of a love-hate relationship with Timothy Zahn. His last few books have been fun science fiction reads; Angelmass was something of a throwback to the classic Golden Age of SF, while The Green and the Gray was an interesting look at the post-9/11 world, mixed with a science fiction mystery. I’ve also read some of his more military science fiction (Conquerors’ Pride) along with some individual novels, which have felt more juvenile. His latest novel, Night Train to Rigel, has some interesting ideas but in the end falls somewhere between the two.
Night Train begins when a young man drops dead at the feet of Frank Compton, a former government agent now working freelance. The dead man was carrying a ticket for the Trans-Galactic Quadrail, a rail-system that connects the known galaxy… a ticket made out to Compton himself. Intrigued, Compton decides to use the ticket and heads for the Rigel system, but before he arrives he is approached by an agent of the Spiders, the mysterious aliens who run the Quadrail. The Spiders believe someone is plotting to attack the entire Quadrail network, using battleships smuggled through the Quadrail itself – something which should be impossible. Compton agrees to try and find the identity of their enemy, but soon learns that discovering the truth of the mystery – amidst lies, deception and danger on all sides – will be no easy task…
The whole premise of Zahn’s novel is the Quadrail and it’s an interesting premise. It’s often thought that were the galaxy ever to be populated, only the rich and famous could travel to the new worlds because of the expense, creating a new class-divide in human society. The Quadrail, though, means that anyone can travel to the stars, catching the Quadrail as simply as a train, and so all peoples (and races) have spread throughout the galaxy. Because only the Spiders know how the Quadrail works, they are able to ban all weapons and illegal content from passing through the Quadrail, creating peace. In that way it’s this idea of travel in the future that is the main character of the novel. The Quadrail feels real; from the metallic stations to the the hyperspace journey through the Tube, the Quadrail feels textured and believable. Perhaps that’s because this kind of travel hasn’t been overused in science fiction previously, but the idea works well and holds the whole story together.
The main problem I had with Night Train, though, was that a lot of it felt like parts of books Zahn had written before. The opening scene in Night Train is similar to the opening of The Icarus Hunt: in Icarus Jordan McKell notices three people waiting to jump him as he leaves a tavern, while in Night Train Compton sees the messenger watching him from the side of a cab. Likewise in Icarus McKell was a man with a hidden past, and in Night Train Compton too has his own mysterious agenda. And even the way Compton is not able to trust Bayta, the Spiders’ agent, is reminiscent of relationships between characters in Icarus and Angelmass. It feels like a novel of recycled ideas – and lazy writing.
I also found it hard to believe the idea that Earth is supposed to be so advanced, considering such a short amount of time has passed since the present day. Putting ideas of the Singularity aside, it’s supposed to be several decades into the future, yet humans are already using the Quadrail to colonise other planets. Perhaps gaining technology from other races has helped them, but being so advanced doesn’t feel believable. It seems more suited to a novel from the 50s, and a lot of Night Train feels like that: a throwback romp across the galaxy where trains go to the stars daily and strange worlds and aliens are more important than believable characters and science.
Still, Night Train is enjoyable if you can get past its flaws. People who aren’t as familiar with Zahn’s past work might want to check it out, as well as anyone looking for a fast-paced SF thriller. Just remember to pick up Angelmass as well to see how good Zahn can be when he gets it right.