Deadman Switch was written in 1988 and I think it might be one of my favorite Timothy Zahn books to date. There was something about how this story played out that really resonated with me and I was really impressed when I was finished. Zahn has a knack for creating characters that play well off of each other in order to tell his stories with dialogue and interaction to go along with the action. He is in fine form with all of the characters he introduces into Deadman Switch.
The Solitaire system is rich with mineral asteroids, but there is a catch. The only way to get into the system is to sacrifice a convicted felon so that a mysterious force can take over the body and guide a starship through a strange field effect that surrounds the system. This means that for every ship that wants to enter and then leave the system two people must die. Obviously this creates an interesting situation for the ruling coalition of planets, the Patri. If they want to keep mining the Solitaire system, they better hope that people keep being convicted of crimes and sentenced to execution.
Gilead is a member of a group called Watchers. From a very young age he has been trained in the art of observation and has the ability to read facial expressions, behavior, and emotion to determine if someone is telling the truth or not. Watchers also have a very high level of moral altruism which means they do not support the idea of the Deadman Switch which requires a human life to operate. As a member of an expedition into the Solitaire system he has a difficult time watching a convict be executed to make the trip and after speaking with the convict scheduled to assist in their departure from the system he discovers that she is innocent.
With the discovery of the convict’s innocence, Gilead begins a vendetta to prove her innocence to the man he works for and find a different way to get their ship out of the system. His employer is sympathetic to Gilead’s cause and wants to help but his ability to do so is limited. He does help though, and in the end Gilead somehow manages to find the results he needs in order to blow all sorts of things wide open. During the investigation and search for a local convict to use instead of the one on his ship, Gilead discovers an as of yet undiscovered alien race that just so happens to be the reason the field effect exists around the Solitaire system as well as responsible for the operation of the Deadman Switch technology so ships can enter and leave.
Why these aliens have created the field, and why they have allowed humanity into the system to mine the minerals in the asteroids comes to light and Gilead discovers he’s unwrapped a very juicy morsel of misdirection. Deadman Switch deals heavily with morals and ethics as well as themes of religion and belief. Those are not themes you see in a lot of science fiction today. If you are a fan of Timothy Zahn you should definitely try to get a copy of Deadman Switch, I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.