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the genre's premiere review magazine for short SF & Fantasy since 1993

InterstellarNet: Enigma by Edward M. Lerner

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Edward M. Lerner



(FoxAcre Press, June 2015, 440 pp., tpb)





Reviewed by Dave Truesdale

Edward M. Lerner is a physicist and computer scientist who has worked in high tech and aerospace industries for over thirty years. He began writing full time in 2004. He has written near-future techno-thrillers, more traditional SF, and a handful of novels in collaboration with Larry Niven in the Fleet of Worlds series set in Niven's Known Space universe. I have read half a dozen of Ed Lerner's novels over the past decade or so, and regardless of the type or thematic material I have thoroughly enjoyed every one. He is one of the best kept secrets in SF for those familiar only with names like David Brin, Gregory Benford, Ben Bova, Greg Bear and a small handful of others. But for those of us who follow SF more closely, have done so for a much longer period of time, and know Who's Who, Ed Lerner is right up there with the rest of the more well known hard SF authors known to the “outside world.” Their loss is our gain, and with InterstellarNet: Enigma Ed Lerner has given his faithful readers another in an unbroken string of SF novels guaranteed to engage the intellect, to stretch the imagination and tickle the sense of wonder with a cleverly imagined Big SF idea, and keep the pages turning with a suspenseful mystery. An Ed Lerner book is always worth every penny you pay for it...always. And that's saying something these days, believe me.

I am hardly the only one to have discovered Ed Lerner's work and then to marvel at its consistently superior quality. While I am highly dubious of author-solicited book cover blurbs in most cases, I have found the praise Ed Lerner's colleagues heap upon his work via dust jacket blurbs to be 100% spot on; no hyperbole here. So if you won't take my word for the quality of his work, please consider the following comments regarding InterstellarNet:

A breathtakingly richly realized vision of what tomorrow's civilization may look like...”—Ben Bova

Edward M. Lerner's InterstellarNet is one of the most original and well-thought-out visions of an interstellar civilization I have ever seen.”—Stanley Schmidt, Hugo-winning editor of Analog and author of Argonaut.

Yes, this is a hard science story, and yes, it's really, really good.”—Kristine Kathryn Rusch

When people talk about good hard SF—rigorously extrapolated but still imbued with the classic sense-of-wonder—they mean the work of Edward M. Lerner, the current master of the craft. InterstellarNet: Enigma is Lerner's latest gem, and it's up to his usual excellent standards; a winner all around.”—Robert J. Sawyer, Hugo Award-winning author of Red Planet Blues.

After reading InterstellarNet: Enigma I asked Ed if we could talk about it a bit, to discuss some of its finer points as well as some of its more obvious attractions, for the benefit of readers not familiar with him or his work. He graciously agreed, and what transpired follows.



Tangent Online: InterstellarNet: Enigma is the third book you’ve set in your InterstellarNet future history. For readers not familiar with the series, can you give an overview? 

Edward M. Lerner: Absolutely. InterstellarNet, as you might guess, is a community of high-tech intelligent species, humans among them, indigenous to several neighboring solar systems. InterstellarNet: Origins begins with SETI and First Contact. This novel follows the rise of a community—with plenty of associated conflicts, both intra- and inter-species—able to interact only by radio. 

As InterstellarNet: New Order opens, Earth and its interstellar neighbors have been in contact for a century and a half. Vigorous e-commerce in intellectual property has accelerated technical progress for all members. Now one species, leveraging advanced technologies from across InterstellarNet, has constructed the community’s first starship. InterstellarNet: New Order is a startling adventure of Second Contact, up close and personal, in which humanity discovers that meeting aliens face to face is very different—and a lot more dangerous—than swapping messages. 

That will catch everyone up, at a very high level, to events as of the opening of InterstellarNet: Enigma. I hasten to add that the three books, while set in a shared future history, are self-contained novels. 

Tangent: The central mystery of the InterstellarNet: Enigma (and also the first segment of that novel) goes by the name “The Matthews Conundrum.” What exactly is that conundrum, and how did you come up with it? 

Lerner: The novel is about Joshua Matthews, an historian for the Interstellar Commerce Union. The ICU regulates trade between humanity and its neighbors, and Joshua has been appointed to write the definitive history of InterstellarNet. Friends throw a party to celebrate his good fortune. He gets into a cab after a few too many drinks. When he steps out of that cab, feeling worse than when he entered—a month has passed. He has no idea how it’s happened, or even that it’s happened. To him, only an hour has gone by. Family, friends, police: no one ever found a trace of him during that entire month. The general perception is that he realized he wasn’t up to his new responsibilities, panicked, and went on a month-long bender. So: he’s disgraced, discredited, and unemployable—unless, perhaps, he can somehow get to the truth of his disappearance. 

At one level, that’s the Matthews Conundrum: the mystery of what happened to Joshua, and why. At a larger level, the Matthews Conundrum is that InterstellarNet ever happened. Joshua comes to believe his disappearance was somehow meant to keep him from directing the public’s attention to that historical oddity.   

Tangent: And what is that historical oddity? Why did you focus on it? 

Lerner: A lot of popular SF, such as Star Trek, relies on two conveniences: faster-than-light travel and nearby alien neighbors. Apart from storytelling expediency, there’s no justification. The known universe seems to insist on a light-speed limit, and we have yet to detect an alien bacterium, much less alien intelligences. But for fictional purposes, we authors want not only alien intelligence, but alien neighbors. And not only must these aliens be nearby, and intelligent, they need also to have technology so similar to human level—no matter that our worlds may differ in age by billions of years—that conflicts between us and them are interesting. That an InterstellarNet even exists—a bubble of high-tech, peer-level civilizations in an otherwise silent galaxy—is the enigma of InterstellarNet: Enigma. Joshua’s focus on this puzzle is what sets the story into motion. 

In the earlier InterstellarNet books, I stuck with slower-than-light travel and radio-based communications. To even set up an InterstellarNet, my aliens had to live nearby, within radio range. They had to be technologically advanced enough to have radios. I got to wondering: could I find a justification beyond “It’s my universe, and I’ll construct it for my convenience?” Eventually, I did—but the scenario it took to explain the Matthews Conundrum was … different. As storytelling constraints so often do, this all led to a multilayered, and—if I may toot my own horn—unusual book. 

Tangent: That is an interesting back story. What else is noteworthy about  InterstellarNet: Enigma? 

Lerner: The explanation behind the Matthews Conundrum turned out to require some pretty unusual (dare I say, novel) alien technology. That tech isn’t anything I can discuss without spoilers—but it was, IMO, so cool that I added an appendix to further explore its capabilities and implications. 

Tangent: The Matthews Conundrum springs from, and is an answer to, the Fermi Paradox, which is: if there are so many planets Out There conducive to life, presumably many of them will have intelligent life, so where is everyone? Not only do you postulate that there are a number of intelligent species but that they are in close enough proximity for us to actually communicate with—albeit by slow radio transmissions at first. And then, beyond that, worlds with intelligent alien life with which we have formed a trading alliance, but which exhibit roughly the same technological level we do, though the aliens’ home worlds are younger or older than Earth by, in some cases, billions of years. The odds against this technological parity are beyond astronomical, but your explanation forms part of the greater mystery that InterstellarNet: Enigma holds for the reader.   

You worked in high tech and aerospace for thirty years and keep up with current scientific thought in a number of areas, so I wonder how you came to the Matthews Conundrum as a possible answer to the Fermi Paradox. Is it based on any scientific theories currently tossed around, or did you come up with it on your own? I find it a fascinating speculation.  

Lerner: The Matthews Conundrum, for better or worse,  is all mine. I only wish humanity had intelligent neighbors chatting on the local party line. (The conundrum only arises if we have chatty neighbors in an otherwise silent galaxy.) 

Tangent: I think the plotting in InterstellarNet: Enigma is one of its many strengths, as it is in all of your novels. You begin with the personal mystery of historian Joshua Matthews, why unknown parties are thwarting his attempt to write the history of the InterstellarNet by destroying his credibility, and then each part of the puzzle he seeks in order to clear his name leads to further unanswered questions, each to a larger and more broad-sweeping set of answers implicating powerful players on a scale not to be imagined. This in turn leads to the reader slowly being enveloped in not only a gripping multi-layered mystery of the highest order and with potentially species-shaking consequences, but provides a true sense of wonder at the scale, in terms of time, the story paints. Not to mention the answer it offers as to why humankind evolved as it did. I found it to be a quintessential hard SF space opera, and based on a fascinating speculation as a possible rebuttal to the Fermi Paradox. Has plotting always come easy to you or do you still have to work hard at it after all these years and novels under your belt? From reading your other novels it appears you start with small problems or mysteries and then they always unfold into one larger problem or conflict after another until there are a lot of intricate, moving parts which must be resolved.  

 Lerner: I like to believe that over the years I’ve mastered a few tricks of the writing trade, including some tricks about plotting—and yet from book to book developing a plot doesn’t always get easier. It might get easier if I were willing to write the same kind of novel over and over. Instead, I try with each new book to give myself more challenging—and hopefully, ever more interesting to the reader—situations. That certainly was the case with InterstellarNet: Enigma.   

Tangent: I note that one of the alien races here is structured so as to have a Foremost. Is this a nod to the alien Puppeteer hierarchy in the Fleet of Worlds novels you wrote in Larry Niven’s Known Space universe which featured a Hindmost, or merely a coincidence?  

Lerner: I can see why you would think to relate the Foremost of the alien Hunters in InterstellarNet: Enigma to the Hindmost of the alien Puppeteers in the Fleet of Worlds. As it happens, that (anti)parallel isn’t a subtle homage. I introduced the Hunters earlier in the InterstellarNet series, before I first contacted Larry about a possible collaboration.    

Tangent: While many of the details and much of the background of the book are based solidly in science—or scientific speculation—the section titled “Championship B’tok” (one of last year’s novelette Hugo nominees) deals with psychology, and more to the point a war game much like chess in some respects, that one of the other alien races with which we must deal is particularly adept, and which United Planets intel agent Carl Rowland’s knowledge of and experience with, is crucial. Much of science fiction from its earliest days has dealt with the problem of effectively communicating with an alien mind, whose concept of the universe would be, well, totally alien to ours. The hurdles would be immense. So the challenge of a human playing a game conceived by an alien mind, and with so much at stake, becomes even more interesting. Could you tell us a bit about the game and its role in the story? 

Lerner: B’tok the game is also deadly serious: it’s the traditional method by which the warlike, clan-oriented Hunters teach military strategy. Uninitiated humans hearing that description jump to the comparison, “Oh, like chess.” The contrast someone in the know might come up with (and in the novel, Carl does) is, “B’tok was to chess as chess was to rock-paper-scissors.”

B’tok is four-dimensional and can only be played virtually. The offensive and defensive capabilities of each game token depend on its 3-D coordinates, the time spent at that location, and interactions with nearby pieces both friendly and rival. Also unlike chess, with its unchanging board of sixty-four squares, the b’tok domain of play evolves. It varies turn by turn, and what’s in view is different for both sides. A player sees only into game regions where his pieces have explored. These dynamic features quickly undo any equilibrium that might arise between rivals; it is a rare game of b’tok, unlike chess, that ends in a draw.

There are other differences between the games. Chess has defined rules, game tokens, and game board; b’tok has only fixed rules. The b’tok “board”—the battlefield—and the competing forces are either negotiated between players before the game begins or are created randomly, in theory fairly balanced, by the game-controlling computer.

B’tok, in turn, serves as metaphor for the larger situation. That is, in part, the decades-long, Cold War-type rivalry between the Hunter clan interned on a remote moon of Uranus and the United Planets authorities, led by Carl Rowland, ever watching for escape attempts. In the ongoing psychological duel between Carl and the Hunter Foremost, Firh Glithwah, he keeps learning while she keeps winning—and they both find significance in that. Even losing, he learns from how she plays a lot about her psychology.

Ultimately neither Carl nor Glithwah can anticipate where his training will lead …

Tangent:  I’ve always found your novels to be rich in inventive detail, and this one is no exception. From the concept behind the Matthews Conundrum to the final mind-expanding answer at journey’s end, in between you have interesting bits of business, creative plot complications, complicated characters in complicated situations, and even items familiar to SF these days such as transhumans—but with your own signature twist to them (AI computer biochips deeply integrated into the cerebral cortex of a human host), all of which keep the pages turning and the suspense and drama at a high level. From the personal travails of a single human fighting against unknown and powerful forces, to the unraveling of a galactic-scale conspiracy involving the origin of several intelligent races, mankind among them, you’ve made InterstellarNet: Enigma one of the most rewarding SF reading experiences anyone could ask for, on both an intellectual and emotional level.  

Lerner: That’s quite the endorsement. Thanks!

Tangent: Do you foresee any more InterstellarNet novels?

Lerner:  I have no more books in mind for the series. Of course I also said that after finishing the second novel, so if you ask me again in a few years, my answer might be different. Certainly I won’t say never, because developing this future history has been extremely satisfying.

Tangent: The story ends on a positive, upbeat note, which is all too rare these days and a welcome change from so much other SF. That said, it shows once again that homo sapiens should not consider itself the center of the universe, that despite the forces over which we possibly have no knowledge or control, we are still capable of shaping our current and future destiny as a species, and despair or hopelessness should not be an option. Is that a fair interpretation to be drawn from the conclusion of the book—after all of the plot threads have been tied up? Do your thoughts on humanity run to the negative or positive, the glass half full or half empty, and do you think your personal view is reflected in your fiction? 

Lerner: I’m of the glass-half-full persuasion. I’ve seen quite too much improvement in the human condition in my lifetime to be a pessimist. Sure, we have a great ability to make a mess of things, but—big picture—over the long haul, we’re headed in a good direction. Once humans succeed in becoming a multi-world species, a step well within our grasp, our long-range prospects will be even brighter.

Tangent: Thank you very much for taking the time, Ed. I hope readers will find InterstellarNet: Enigma as entertaining and a joy to read as I have. I look forward to your next one.

[While each novel can be read as a stand alone, below are the three novels comprising the InterstellarNet saga.]


♣  ♣  ♣ 

Dave Truesdale has edited Tangent and now Tangent Online since 1993. It has been nominated for the Hugo Award five times, and the World Fantasy Award once. A former editor of the Bulletin of the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America, he also served as a World Fantasy Award judge in 1998, and for several years wrote an original online column for The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. Now retired, he keeps close company with his SF/F library, the coffeepot, and old movie channels on TV. He lives in Kansas City, MO.