Following his latest fantasy (Imager’s Intrigue, 2010, etc.) the prolific and inventive Modesitt switches back to science fiction with this variation on a couple of time-honored tropes, the Big Dumb Object—in this case, a continent-spanning stone canal—and time travel.
The vast, ancient canal, impervious to all forms of energy, features a control structure into which people can open doors and windows by touch and thought. Three different far-future civilizations, each threatened with environmental catastrophe and violent insurrection, study the canal. In the earliest of these, facing glaciation and a murderously sinister political takeover, Lord Maertyn and his lady, Maarlyna, find that their psychic connection to the canal’s mysterious controller strengthens to where Maarlyna begins to acquire memories not her own. Far in Maertyn’s future, researcher Faelyna and her tech partner Eltyn probe deeper into the controls as their hive-like culture confronts desertification and a ruthless military insurrection bent on enforcing uniformity. Far again in their future, with the Earth facing utter ruin, soldier-scientist Helkyria and her tech consort Duhyle battle religious revolutionaries who anticipate Ragnarok and want only to depart in a blaze of glory—and wield universe-destroying weaponry. Somehow, the canal’s interactions with time itself entangles the three groups. Modesitt presents three very different civilizations confronted with relevant problems, and interweaves their fate with some seriously challenging and intriguing speculations on the nature of time itself.
Though the narrative sometimes plods—Modesitt’s not the world’s finest purveyor of action prose—he always turns in a good yarn, and approaches his best when combining practicalities with new ideas.