[Book Review] What does planet and a spider have in common?

Book Review: Spinneret by Timothy Zahn

This 1985 sci-fi novel fell into my hands as a result of me realizing it’s high time I read something by Timothy Zahn, and the Spinneret’s serendipitous re-release as an eBook. (And just in case the book isn’t representative, I have Blackcollar on hand, and Dragon and Thief on my To Read shelf.)

But here is Spinneret. In the far, far future of 2016, humanity has made it to the stars (well, who knew in the 80’s that we were going to scrap our space programs?), and is all ready to colonize the stuffing out of the universe. But it turns out the universe is already chock-full of technologically advanced alien who have already called dibs on all the habitable planets.

So humans get Astra, a useless piece of real estate, for an exorbitant price.

But soon after a reluctant colonization effort, the new owners of Astra discover that they are sitting on something unique – and uniquely priceless. Add a dash of military rule, a pinch of restless third world activist, a data worker with good intentions,  and a UN desperate to hold on to its newfound power, and you get something that approximates the delightful political machinations and intrigue of Spinneret.

The story is told through multiple points of view, both villainous and not, human and alien, serving to create a kind of panorama sweep through the narrative. Elements like the existence of the Soviet Union and cassettes date the story, but I have no trouble relating the broad strokes of the social and political struggles in this 30-year-old novel to today’s social and international landscapes. It describes a polarized society – elements of racial tension, international infighting, squabbling between the UN and US, developed world vs developing world, and more.

In fact, it might have been the recent overdose of politics (Hello there, US elections), but my little liberal canary heart was put through a grinder of libertarian-leaning propaganda during its journey from page 1 to page 351:

“I like the idea of UN control of Astra less,” he corrected. “Like you, I believe all of us here can do a better job of administering the Spinneret than any big government. And with the Ctencri trade locked up, the UN is fast becoming a form of big government.” (From Spinneret, Timothy Zahn)

The aliens introduced in chapter 1 (shown on cover above) are first described around page 230 (out of 351).

In terms of style, though, readers who like nuanced characterization (or nuanced, human personalities) and 3D worlds may be disappointed. The main actors of the story blur together and very little time is spent in description, beyond the necessary – I still have very little sense of what people look like. Instead, the reader is teased with glimpses that rarely resolved into concrete scenery. Mileage may vary.

I would label Spinneret a concept story that skims only lightly over characterization and world-building, and which is driven heavily by dialogue and character interaction. There is some action, but most of the suspense and drama comes from the looming threat of enemies known and unknown.  As a thought experiment on colonization and international politics in the modern age, Spinneret may also appeal to readers who love dialogue and political intrigue, as well as fans of military space opera. (Though I will say I am disappointed in how easily and conveniently the racial-tension subplot is shelved after it does its job furthering the plot.)

When it comes to the technobabble, I breezed over Zahn’s technical explanations for the phenomena in the novel (his Master’s in Physics to my degree in Russian Literature), but if it is just sci-fi handwaving, it is pretty convincing handwaving – and not too heavy, either. If it’s solid science, then I am even more impressed.

All in all, Zahn presented an intriguing premise I haven’t run into before in my Science Fiction forays and a fast, light read. And though the reader in me wasn’t entirely satisfied with the writing and approach to story, I definitely want to see what else the author has done.


Complimentary copy courtesy of
Netgalley and Open Road Media.


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6 thoughts on “[Book Review] What does planet and a spider have in common?

  1. Heh heh, yeah, I kind of like the old cover better, too. I’d call it retro, but it was contemporary, so I’d be inaccurate. If they’d put that cover on today’s version, I would have assumed a greater comedic content…

  2. Pingback: This Week’s Mine Shaft « thecanaryreview

  3. Pingback: [Book Review] Find the exiled commando ninjas, save the universe. « thecanaryreview

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