(c) 2005-2007 Oliver Bonten
I've read some books by Tim Zahn before ("Deadman's Switch" and "The Green and the Gray"), and in both books, while the stories were quite suspenseful adventure stories, they were addressing deep down ethical issues, fictional or very real (racism). Not so the "Night Train to Rigel". This is a plainly entertaining adventure story. But, like in "Deadman's Switch", the setting is so strange that you think the author must have smoked the wrong mushroom before writing.
Frank Crompton, a former government agent, who was fired over a political affair a couple of years ago, is approached by a man in the street who suddenly dies at his feet. The dead man carries a travel ticket issued in Crompton's name in his pockets - and if you want to know what kind of travel the ticket is good for, check the book's title. It's about a one week trip in space to the railway station outside Jupiter orbit, and from there another eight hours or so to reach Rigel by rail.
Space travel all across the galaxy is possible, at the speed of about 1 lightyear per minute, by train. From the railway station you can board trains to all conceivable destinations in the galaxy. The train itself mysteriously runs on four rails (no one knows why, except probably for the railway operators, and they won't tell) and the rail outside the station is actually enclosed in an impenetrable black tube, so that no one really knows what is going on outside the station. But while the train apparently travels at a leasurely 160km/h for someone inside the train, it reaches Rigel in one night and the other end of the galaxy in a couple of weeks. Would have made Captain Janeway's job a lot easier.
The train is operated by a mysterious species called the "spiders" and again no one knows why the spiders are doing this or what they are doing when they are not running trains, except for charging tremendous amounts of money for railway services or the construction of railway stations. No one knows where they come from. Reliability and precision of the railway services would make a Swiss proud. Humans are the latest addition to about a dozen "galactic empires" whose citizens use the rail, and are the paupers in this universe. Some of those empires are very powerful and aggressive, but the fact that the spiders are pretty strict about weapons on the train (or gun and spaceship parts on cargo trains) makes warfare impossible.
At least, that's what everybody thinks. The spiders learn of potentially dangerous and apparently impossible things going on and now they recruit Frank Crompton as their agent to find out what is going on. Crompton is equipped with a general purpose first class ticket, and with a mysterious girl as an assistant who is able to communicate, apparently telepathically, with the spiders.
A lot of the action happens on railway stations and on trains but there is also a holiday resort for the rich and the powerful of the galaxy, on an ice moon with a volcanic core where you can ski on the surface and scuba dive underneath (with some very exceptional coral formations). And a bunch of aliens, some friendly, some less so, some weird.
On the total, good entertainment. The book would have worked the same if the spiders hadn't operated trains but a fleet of mysterious space ships (al long as the spiders are the only ones who know how to travel faster than light), but then, everybody could have thought of such a story with space ships.
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