Night Train to Rigel

Night Train to Rigel
Timothy Zahn

The thing I miss the most about Japan, after quality ramen and bathhouses, is the train culture. Our own nascent train culture was swallowed up by the vast distances from sea to shining sea and the machinations of General Motors, a true American tragedy. While trains are fantastic from a pragmatic point of view (as I was once again reminded by my worst week of commuting nightmares), there is a certain romance to the rails that buses and airplanes will never duplicate. They are also iconic settings for storytelling, a fact which Timothy Zahn is kind enough to remind us of in Night Train to Rigel.

Zahn is perhaps best known for his work in the Star Wars universe; the original Thrawn trilogy is widely considered both good reading and the spark that set off the current Expanded Universe explosion. (Does that mean it also takes responsibility for the Episodes 1-3?) Those books were my introduction to Zahn, followed shortly after by the Cobra novels. I thought they were pretty good, but 14 year old me thought a lot of things were pretty good, so that might not be the best indication. No matter, Rigel is another fast-paced, adventurous yarn, with explosions and derring-do to placate the masses and just enough Deep Thought to entertain a more discriminating clientèle.

Rigel is hardly the only SF to use a train theme, Peter F. Hamilton’s Commonwealth books come to mind, as does the anime Galaxy Express 999. Nor does Zahn beat the theme into the ground – the trains are there as a nod to past stories, much like the periodic Hitchcock references. The trains are also his convenient FTL mechanism: a race called The Spiders operates an interstellar rail service that forms the only way of traveling through the galaxy. No spaceships, no armadas, no jumps to hyperspace or stars lengthening into incandescent white lines, just train stations in the outer regions of solar systems and regular rail service to other planets.

The story itself is fun and fast moving. Frank Compton is a former UN operative and current man for hire. He is kind of a general troubleshooter with a broad range of skills that are put to convenient use throughout the plot. Zahn does have the grace, however, to keep him a couple of notches below superman level. Other people are better at one thing or another, and Compton is likely what would happen if people could min-max their stats in real life. (For the non-gamers out there, min-maxing is when someone creates a character by maxing out useful stats, like strength, at the expense of superfluous ones, like charisma.) Frank spends the book on a wild goose chase to defuse a potential galactic crisis, riding the rails, meeting exotic creatures, and immersing himself in a giant conspiracy built on undersea critters. Everything moves at a brisk pace, with Zahn demurring to dig too deeply into his world. There are hints of broad galactic history and other tales to be told, but for now, the focus is clearly on the matter at hand.

Two spoilery comments. First, I appreciated that the potential love story resolved itself the way it did. Second, I’m not sure how I feel about the “twist” that was really more of a punchline. With all the dark foreshadowing about Frank’s terrible secret, there really wasn’t anything to it. It could possibly have been left out all together.

How to summarize? Rigel is mostly for fun. The characters engage in brief philosophizing and moralizing, but never for long. Frank is sharp and a quick thinker, but he is not a profound thinker. The mystery and the story are kind of goofy and pulpy, but in a good way. Mind warping sea life! Killer chipmunk-like alien commandos! Faster than light trains! I liked it. By the last couple pages, I was thinking, “Zahn feels like he’s setting himself up for a possible franchise here.” Lo and behold, he did. There are apparently four books in the continuing Frank Compton Saga, so I will probably read them as long as they remain interesting.

Rating: A mid-season, mid-table clash involving two teams the viewer has no strong feelings about. Good fun, a nice way to kill an afternoon, but nothing to get too worked up over.

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