Review: Haze by L. E. Modesitt Jr.

Haze by L. E. Modesitt Jr.
Haze by L. E. Modesitt Jr.

Haze
L. E. Modesitt Jr.
Tor, 2009

I first came across L. E. Modesitt Jr. while reading Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series mainly since both Modesitt and Jordan featured covers by Darell Sweet.  While I read an enjoyed The Magic of Recluse I didn’t continue on with other books in that series.  Not too long ago I read and enjoyed the first three books in the Corean Chronicles which had a real strange blend of dying earth/frontier world that I particularly enjoyed.  So when I saw that Modesitt had a new sci-fi novel coming up I was interested to see how he would handle a different genre.

Haze starts on a Federation ship near a planet nicknamed with the same name; a name earned by the strange gray barrier impervious to sensors that surrounds the planet.  Keir Roget, a Federation Intelligence agent is dropped to the planets surface in order to determine who or what is down there.  At the same time Roget reminisces about an earlier assignment on Earth and the book alternates between the present day exploration of Haze and flashbacks to Roget’s experiences in a backwater Norram (North American) town.

Haze is a rather strange book.  On the one hand it gives an absolutely fascinating overview of the political and economic future of Earth.  Roget’s Federation is a Chinese dominated government with strict almost Orwellian methods of watching its populace.   Through Roget’s exploration of Haze we examine an alternate culture, vaguely socialist in nature, and completely pragmatic in its governance that stands at odds with the very top-down power structure of the Federation government.  At the same time, during the flashback sections of the book, we examine a third cultural milieu that of the backwater, religious fringe (apparently religion is mostly frowned upon in the Federation government).  All three are interesting, well thought out, and certainly thought provoking but I’m not sure that they make explicitly compelling fiction.

However, Modesitt does an excellent job of doling out information about each society in dribs and drabs and keeps each chapters short enough that things never get stale.  The flashback chapters, with their spy-flavored mystery add a little extra tension into the mix and provide an interesting contrast to the high-tech sheen of the rest of the novel.  At the same time I felt that the flashback sections never quite gelled with the rest of the novel and, while there are symbolic and idealogical links between what we read on Haze and in Norram I never felt those links were quite explicit enough nor was it ever entirely clear how exactly Roget’s experiences in Norram set him apart from the rest of the Federation.

Roget himself is an interesting character though one we never get to know too well;  an effect which is perhaps intentional as Roget’s inability to form close connections to those around him and his ability to remain impartial and non-judgmental regarding his observations is remarked upon at least once during the novel.   At the same time Roget’s independence of thought and adaptability sets him at odds with cog-like efficiency of the Federation.  Roget’s distance combined with several interesting quirks including a frequently dry, occasionally droll, humor and an inordinate fondness for dachshunds reveal a character more depth than the reader ever gets to experience.  With a laser like precision Modesitt maintains Roget’s narrative point of view and we never get a clear glimpse of him through anyone else’s eyes outside of conversation.  Furthermore, as the flashbacks illuminate Roget’s past mission, it is never exactly clear how much his experience there influenced his current perspective.  It is, in truth, something Roget remarks upon in the novel regarding his experiences in Norram and, late in the novel, regarding his experiences on Haze.  It leaves the reader, like Roget himself, wonder if his observations (and thus our observations) are the by-product of our own thought processes or the result of outside forces.

The examination of Roget, while interesting, runs parallel to what I perceive as a the novel’s lack of focus.  The majority of the novel seems focused entirely on Roget’s examination of the various social, cultural, and philosophical elements he encounters during his missions and lacks any sort of bridging plot structure to tie all those elements together.  While the Norram mission flashbacks have an interesting plot and sense of mystery they only represent about half the novel and remain disappointingly detached from the rest of the novel’s plot; though not its philosophical underpinnings.  The novels “climatic” ending suffers from an air of inevitability that renders it impotent.

Modesitt comes up with a myriad of meaty ideas both in terms of future technologies and surprisingly unique, and wholly believable, futuristic societies but fails to truly capitalize on those creations to create a truly engaging read.  Haze isn’t a bad book by any means but it has a very incomplete feel to it; like a novel half-written that could have been something truly special.  I was a bit disappointed by Haze but there is enough interesting material here that leaves me hopeful that there could be something truly great down the line.  I don’t know if Modesitt plans to continue adventures in the world of Haze but, if so, it servers as an excellent introduction to the world and culture readers may see further down the line.

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