Zahn, Timothy (1951– )

There are writers who specialize in hard science fiction whose work is cool and intellectual, and there
are space opera writers who have a gift for a fine adventure and generating a sense of wonder, but whose
hard science skills are minimal. And then there is
that minority, including Timothy Zahn, who excel at
both and who often blend them to create thoughtprovoking and exciting stories. Zahn began his career
in the late 1970s, writing stories of increasing merit,
culminating in his Hugo Award–winning “Cascade
Point” (1983). That was also the year in which he
began writing novels, which have been the dominant
form in his writing ever since.
The Blackcollar (1983) pits a band of physically
augmented soldiers against an alien race that has
conquered humanity. The novel ends on a hopeful
note, and the rebellion finally succeeds in the sequel,
The Backlash Mission (1986). Despite some
rough spots, the two novels are quite entertaining,
and a second series about physically altered soldiers was even better.
The Cobra series consists of
Cobra (1985),
Cobra Strike (1986), and Cobra Bargain (1988). Although initially it appears to be a variation of his
first novel, Zahn introduces considerably more
complex subplots and, more importantly, considers
the psychology of his characters in greater detail.
After defeating their alien enemy, the Cobras hope
to resume a normal life; but they are forced into an
uneasy alliance with their former enemies when an
even greater alien menace threatens them both. In
the third volume, two separate social conflicts enrich the story considerably. The first woman to join
the elite forces causes contradictory emotions
among her fellows, and efforts by the enhanced
soldiers to merge back into normal society prove
more troublesome than expected.
A Coming of Age (1984) explores a real generation gap, one that occurs when children on a colony
world begin developing psi powers. Humans discover a shortcut to the stars in
Spinneret (1985), an
alien construction apparently now abandoned. Unfortunately, and predictably, disagreements about
how best to make use of this new technology divide
the human race even further.
Triplet (1987) is set on
a planet whose alien inhabitants have a technology
so advanced that it is indistinguishable from magic.
Deadman Switch (1988) suggests yet another unusual method of traveling to the stars. In this case
the pilot of any departing ship dies during the transition to faster-than-light travel. At this point Zahn
had produced nine novels during seven years and
had firmly established himself both by his ability to
turn out entertaining hard science fiction and as a
leading writer of space operas. Two collections of his
short stories had also appeared,
Cascade Point
(1986) and Time Bomb and Zahndry Others (1988).
Zahn began the 1990s with
Warhorse (1990), a
fascinating story about contact between humanity
and a race that used biotechnology rather than
mechanical means to reach the stars. He then
expended considerable effort on a series of
tie-in novels that were unusually good of
their type but were not up to the quality of Zahn’s
original work. His next serious novel opened a trilogy of his own creation,
Conqueror’s Pride (1994),
Conqueror’s Heritage (1995), and Conqueror’s
(1996). The trilogy follows the history of a
war between humans and a rival alien species; one
volume examines events from the human point of
view, one is set among the aliens, and the final one
combines the two perspectives. The internal politics of the alien race are of particular interest.
The later novels have shown sustained improvement in Zahn’s writing skills.
The Icarus Hunt
(1999) is an excellent, absorbing story of a merchant ship harried from star to star by various parties who wish to seize its cargo. Angelmass (2001)
pits a single world against a human empire that
wishes to absorb them forcibly; the action revolves
around a black hole that radiates something that
the local inhabitants interpret as the essence of
goodness, a mystical concept that Zahn rationalizes
quite ably. It is probably his best novel to date.
Manta’s Gift (2002) is a well-conceived story of
human efforts to communicate with an intelligent
race living within the atmosphere of Jupiter.
Two additional volumes—
Distant Friends and
(1992) and Star Songs and Other Stories
(2002)—include virtually all of Zahn’s previously
uncollected short work. His most recent books,
Dragon and Thief (2003) and Dragon and Soldier
(2004), are the first two volumes in a young adult
series about a teenager who inherits his uncle’s
spaceship and has various adventures in consort
with an alien symbiote. Pulp science fiction usually
sacrificed traditional literary qualities in favor of
exotic settings and fast-paced action, while much
modern science fiction tends to overlook the necessity to tell a good story while dealing with serious themes and developing its characters. Zahn is
one of those rare writers who knows how to strike
a balance between the two.