Tor, 1999, 468 pages, C$8.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-812-56661-0
In his previous novel Adiamante, R.L. Modesitt Jr. proved his talent for taking a standard space-opera premise and turning it into an unusually thoughtful piece of true science-fiction. Readers enthralled by that novel were more fascinated by social moral dilemmas than with the inevitable pyrotechnics. One reviewer coined (or re-used) the term “intellectual suspense” in reviewing Adiamante, and it still stands as one of the best general descriptors of Modesitt’s fiction.
With Gravity Dreams, he applies the same willingness to peer behind some of SF’s standard gadgets to draw a wide-scale portrait of a new society built on better foundations than ours. If the plot is less satisfying than Adiamante, the book is nevertheless an improvement over his previous effort.
To immerse the reader in thirty-first century Earth, Modesitt begins by using the time-honored device of the innocent. Few would call Tyndel, Gravity Dreams‘s protagonist, an innocent in the confines of his native society. He is initially, after all, an apprentice Dzin master, a teacher/mentor of the fundamentalist state religion.
But keeping him in this state would make a rather boring novel. So Tyndel (through a somewhat bizarre set of events) is exiled outside his community to the neighboring Lyncol, a high-tech society that looks upon Tyndel’s community as charmingly quaint. Unfortunately for him, his rescue from Dzin required expensive treatment, which he will have to repay.
Before he can even properly learn the rules of his new environment, Tyndel is exiled again, this time as a laborer in a distant space station. Don’t worry, he’ll eventually learn to cope. The novel is obviously a bildungsroman in which the author can indoctrinate both protagonist and readers to cool new social ideas.
I may sound flippant, but the truth is that I enjoyed Gravity Dreams a lot, especially the ideas that are brought forth by Modesitt. None-too-convincingly disguising his libertarian sympathies, Modesitt writes of a society where widespread nanotechnology has brought forth a non-negotiable need for personal responsibility. A large portion of Gravity Dreams‘s thematic strength is built on an exploration of a society that expects responsibility from truly adult citizens.
Tangentially, that strikes me as one of SF’s next big themes. With emerging technologies putting ever-more powerful capabilities at the grasp of everyone, the need for everyone to behave responsibly. Call it the “polite society” argument of gun enthusiasts. Unfortunately, recent history has proven that there’s still a long way to go before reaching this point, as numerous cases of vandalism, real or virtual (think spamming, online harassment or website defacement), continue to make headlines. Like it or not, increased power without increased accountability cannot depend on the assumption of good behavior.
While the above may not be explicitly mentioned in the book, it is the type of reflections inspired by Gravity Dreams, a novel that could have been a perfectly good space-opera without depth. Ironically, the most plot-driven moments of Gravity Dreams (with its late-coming revelation of interstellar Dangers That Must Be Conquered) are the weakest parts of the narrative, paling in comparison with Tyndal’s training and relationship issues.
Moral lessons served as entertainment aren’t rare, of course, but it’s always pleasing to see a result so professionally realized. Instead of turning in run-of-the-mill space adventures, Modesitt chooses to inspire as much as he entertains, and the result is not only one of the best SF novels of 1999, but also another proof that Modesitt is one of our best SF writers around.