You know the colour “octarine”? It’s the colour of magic, visible only to magicians and cats, a sparkly, glowing combination of yellowy-green and purple. I thought of octarine and the way it became a stand-out feature of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld Fantasy novels when I was visualizing the strange brown-purple-grey world, “Stittara”, that L.E. Modesitt, Jr., invented for his novel The One-Eyed Man.
Brief confession: this is the first novel of L.E. Modesitt I’ve ever read. It’s embarrassing, I know.😳
The plot, taken from the jacket flap, is as follows:
“The colony world of Stittara is no ordinary planet. For the interstellar Unity of the Ceylesian Arm, Stittara is the primary source of anagathics: drugs that have more than doubled the human life span. But the ecological balance that makes anagathics possible on Stittara is fragile, and the Unity government has a vital interest in making sure the flow of longevity drugs remains uninterrupted, even if it means uprooting the human settlements. Offered the job of assessing the ecological impact of the human presence on Stittara, freelance consultant Dr. Paulo Verano jumps at the chance to escape the ruin of his personal life.” (Text from front jacket flap)
The cover of the book and his descriptions reminded me of the 1948 painting, Christina’s World, by Andrew Wyeth. Girl in similar outfit, similar hairstyle, seem from the back, same brown grasses, flat field, remote, looming horizon. And the girl is disabled in both instances; in Christina’s World, her legs are paralyzed, in The One-Eyed Man, she has a strange neurological condition which allows her to only speak in quizzical rhymes. From that image, Modesitt created the character of 450-year-old “Ilsabet” who gives the protagonist, freelance ecological consultant “Dr. Paulo Verano”, clues to solve the puzzles on Stittara.
Both images create the impression of disorientation and distancing, reflecting the emotions of the subjects. In the same way, Stittara is a reflection of the characters and moods of the inhabitants of the colony. I was struck by Modesitt’s genius for creating the world of Stittara in detail, comprehensively (leaving no aspect out), consistently, logically and precisely. Modesitt has painted a picture of this world, above ground, below ground or in space, exactly as one would paint a super-realist landscape – with an almost clinical attention to the minutiae – the spaceships, Geology, Biology, vehicles, roads, restaurants, clothes, lodgings, offices, and even the windows of the buildings.
The landscape of Stittara is set apart by the presence of tube-like, possibly intelligent cloud formations, called “skytubes”, that float in the sky like slow-moving massed tornado landspouts. They cause terrible storms so the colonists live in low-level villages or in underground cities.
“…the next thing I noticed was the grass, brownish purple-green, that seemed to cover everything, leaving no bare ground or rocks. The next was that there were no trees, not anywhere I looked, and the clumps of bushes that I did see were domelike and barely a meter tall. Nor were there any sharp shapes or jagged peaks, even of the hills and mountains in the distance. All that presented a landscape with an almost surreal and streamlined appearance, and in colors that would have seemed dull, monochromatic, had it not been for the intensity of those colors themselves. Then… then there was the sky, or what was in it. Stittara didn’t have clouds. Well… not clouds in the way anyone from a standard water world would consider them. What struck me immediately was the complexity and the intricacy of the skytubes, that and the intensity of their purple-grey, a shade that didn’t stay exactly the same in one place for more than moments.” (pp. 49-50)
The landscape creates a suspenseful atmosphere of bated breath and is not merely a setting. Modesitt uses it as a character, something to engage and communicate with. He also makes it a reflection of the characters’ mindsets and their moods. Due to its threatening nature, it also acts as an antagonist, and a catalyst for the climactic final events on the planet. What happens, when it happens, is nature giving a sharpish backhanded whack to the meddlers amongst the humans.
Subtitled a fugue
The novel is subtitled: A Fugue, With Winds and Accompaniment. Isn’t that pretty? Looking back now, I realized that Modesitt was giving a clue about the plot with the subtitle. In music, a fugue is a contrapuntal compositional technique in two or more voices, built on a subject (a musical theme) that is introduced at the beginning in imitation (repetition at different pitches) and which recurs frequently in the course of the composition. A fugue usually has three sections: an exposition, a development, and a final entry that contains the return of the subject in the fugue’s tonic key. A fugue with winds is therefore a little pun on the fact that the “skytubes” cause catastrophic windstorms, which recur under specific circumstances. History, like a fugue, seems to repeat itself in the novel. A disaster that happened before, now purposefully buried in official reports and hidden in environmental assessment data, could happen again. And unless Dr. Paulo Verano can ferret out what’s going on, it will just keep on happening.
Verano = Verus
The surname, Verano, is another clue: Verano means summer in Spanish, but it is also a play on the Latin for “truth” or “real”, from “verify”, which has its roots in medieval Latin “verificare”, from “verus” meaning ‘true” or “real”. (Main Forms: Verus, Vera, Verum.) Modesitt’s fans have noted his talent for natural-sounding but clever names for his characters. So Verano is himself a truthful person, and he is also in the business of finding out the truth. Without knowing anything of the author’s reason for writing this, I’d think he has a message about damage to the environment putting people’s lives at risk.
“I found I was actually glaring at the idiot. ‘When you use words to hide meaning, you’re lying. When there are no words and no descriptions, when critical facts are simply not there, that’s also lying. You can call it deception in the cause of a greater good, or service to a higher ideal, but in the end, it’s lying, and it will cost you in ways you can’t possibly comprehend because you’re perverting the very basis of human communication, and every time in history that’s happened on a large scale the result has been disaster. I just hope that doesn’t happen here.’” (p. 319)
How the crisis gets resolved, and who ends up on top are for you to read. It’s the journey to get to the climax that makes the book fascinating and, oddly, a thing of some beauty – a Sci-Fi thing of something poetic, something picturesque, something very skillfully depicted. Just like a very good painting.
About the author – L.E. Modesitt, Jr., and the art origin of the novel
The cover image is an illustration by John Jude Palencar, for Tor.com editor David Hartwell’s Palencar Project. Palencar’s illustration for Tor.com was waiting to be used in a story or article. In 2012 Hartwell commissioned five authors to write stories about the painting. Those writers and stories were New World Blues by L. E. Modesitt, Jr., Dormanna by Gene Wolfe, Thanatos Beach by James Morrow, The Woman Who Shook the World-Tree by Michael Swanwick, and The Sigma Structure Symphony by Gregory Benford. All five are completely different interpretations of the one painting, and you can read them online on Tor.com. But in Modesitt’s case, it led to a full-length novel. I wonder what was going on in Palencar’s mind when he painted those tube-shapes in the sky.
“The One-Eyed Man is a novel that was one I never intended to write. Some two years ago, my editor, the esteemed David Hartwell, approached me and several other authors and asked us to write a short story based on a painting by John Jude Palencar. I started writing, and I kept writing, and by the time I got to 15,000 words or so, and was just beginning to get into the story, I realized two things: first, that I was nowhere close to finishing the story, and, that, in fact, it wasn’t a story; and second, that I wasn’t going to finish the Imager Portfolio book I was also working on by the time I’d promised it to David. So… I put aside the story that had become at least the beginning of a novella, if not a novel, and wrote a much shorter story entitled “New World Blues,” which was published by Tor.com in February of 2012 as part of the “Palencar Project,” consisting of five stories, all based on the painting, by different writers.” (L.E. Modesitt, Jr., in, The Palencar Project, Two Stories From a Single Vision: L.E. Modesitt on The One-Eyed Man, Tor.com, May 3, 2013, Rtrvd. 2017-06-21)
New World Blues is included in full in The One-Eyed Man, at the back of the book.
About L.E. Modesitt, Jr.
L. E. (Leland Exton) Modesitt Jr. (born 19 October 1943) has written 77 novels to date. Yes, 77! He is best known for the fantasy series The Saga of Recluce which consists of 20 novels. In addition to his novels, Modesitt has published technical studies and articles, columns and poetry. He recommends reading widely, amongst other things, in order to be successful. His first short story, The Great American Economy, was published in 1973 in Analog Science Fiction and Science Fact. In 2008, he published his first collection of short stories, Viewpoints Critical: Selected Stories (Tor Books, 2008). Regarding his surname, Modesitt explains that “…it’s pronounced MODD-ess-it, where “Modd” rhymes with “odd.” The pronunciation breaks a number of rules, but it wasn’t my decision, obviously.” (—L. E. Modesitt, Jr.: June 1st, 2009, Monthly Questions, Rtrvd. 2017-06-21) On his occupation of author, he says:
“Successful writing requires that you engage the reader. In fiction, that means you must entertain while having the technical facility to tell the story. If you can’t entertain, no one will want to read your work. If you can’t tell the story in a clear and understandable fashion, no one can tell what you’ve written. Beyond that, the more you know about everything the richer and deeper your writing will become. Read widely and continuously, in fiction and non-fiction, outside and inside your genre. Then, remember that talent, technique, and hard work will get you published, but whether you’re just another published author or a wild bestseller is as much luck and the time as it is all the effort you’ve put into it.” (L.E. Modesitt quoted in A Conversation with L.E. Modesitt, Jr., by Matthew Cheney, June 22, 2011, Tor.com, Rtrvd. 2017-06-21)