Written by John F. Carr, The Ophidian Conspiracy is one of the least-known SF novels (from a major publisher) that I've encountered. I have a battered, yellowing copy that I picked up somewhere – don't even know where or when, exactly. I cannot find the book at present, and it is so little known that specifics of the book cannot be found on the internet, so this review will lack specific names. If I find the book again I'll edit this review to have the character names and other appropriate details.
Its obscurity is not at all deserved. While it may not rank up with the Great Classics of SF, it's a fun, well-paced, and surprisingly complex adventure that hearkens back to the Golden Age, and could stand well next to the work of Christopher Anvil and James Schmitz.
In a far, far distant future, the huge, not terribly organized Anomian League serves as oversight and guardian to the widely-varying civilizations within it (in, if I read it correctly, the Magellanic Clouds!). Centuries ago, the Ophidians – an alien race of beings engineered in ancient days from snake, human, and other DNA – exploded onto the galactic scene and, using their unique psionic powers, made a good start at conquering the known galaxy before the League stopped them and drove them back, finally isolating them to a single world, Seker.
Now the League has heard rumors that at least some factions of the Ophidians are planning to try the route of conquest again; though their planet is generally at a low level of technology (medieval-Renaissance), they have apparently suddenly acquired a small fleet of starships. With a deep preference for peaceful resolution, the League sends a special agent out to investigate and, if necessary, deal with the problem.
In some ways the story is as straightforward as it sounds… in other ways, not. The Anomian special investigator is of course not the only alien on Seker, and the opposition are a group of people who believe in achieving salvation through amalgamation of human with machine; a classic 1970s concept of human beings purified of all emotion and living by the essence of rationality and logic.
Why these ultra-rational beings are on Seker, what they intend to accomplish, and how Our Hero will stop them, are the mysteries that The Ophidian Conspiracy presents.
I found the novel a clear, very well paced read. The characters were interesting, developing within the novel in ways I didn't initially expect but which made sense to me in context. There are several extremely clever sequences in the novel; I don't want to spoil much more of it for potential readers, but one very interesting sequence included the agent having to take a memory implant from one of the Ophidians (in order to understand their language, culture, and so on) and for a while viewing things through the perceptions of an Ophidian rather than a human.
I couldn't say that I was influenced by this novel greatly, but there were some minor yet notable effects. When re-reading the book a while ago, I realized that I had taken the title "Prime Monitor" from this book for use in my "Demons of the Past" series; the implications of impassiveness, with a bit of threat, were exactly what I was looking for, and I'd forgotten where I'd gotten that phrase. But it was from The Ophidian Conspiracy, and perhaps I have also been somewhat influenced by the style. Carr's approach in this novel was a smooth, deceptively straightfoward narrative interspersed with just enough glances at what the bad guys are doing to make you go "Oh, crap!", and wonder what the heck the good guys are going to do in order to get past this, and I certainly try for a similar "feel" in my own work.
The Ophidian Conspiracy may not be a great work, but it is a very good piece of 1970s science fiction, well worth reading. If you have the fortune to run across a copy, pick it up; it will reward you well for a few hours of your time!