City of Pearl by Karen Traviss

January 2, 2011 at 3:21 am | Posted in 3 stars, Book Reviews, Science Fiction | 1 Comment
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Karen Traviss is mainly known as a writer of licensed novels, writing a number of Star Wars novels before having a falling out with Lucasfilm and moving on to some Gears of War books. Apparently something related to Halo is on the way as well. I admit to being a bit of a snob these days about licensed fiction. It’s not that some of it isn’t good (Timothy Zahn’s original Star Wars trilogy is his best work by a fair margin), but it’s hard to find the quality amongst the uninspired stuff since fans of a given license tend to have at least somewhat different criteria for judging fiction. However, one thing you can usually count on is that an author getting a lot of licensed work wrote something of their own that was well received in order to get that work in the first place. I’ve read a lot of good novels simply by backtracking down license authors’ careers, from Timothy Zahn’s early old-school science fiction in Spinnaret, Coming of Age, and Deadman’s Switch to Michael Stackpole’s clever fantasy Talion: Revanant to Matt Stover’s Heroes Die. Even Kevin J. Anderson’s Climbing Olympus wasn’t too bad.

All this brings us to Traviss’ City of Pearl, the first of a six book series that so far is her only non-licensed work at novel length. A ship full of cryogenically frozen people has made the excruciatingly long journey to a habitable planet many light years from Earth hoping to found a religious colony. Contact with Earth was lost soon after arrival, but there is reason to think these colonists made contact with intelligent aliens. The government of a future version of the EU decides to send a secular follow-up mission on a ship called the Thetis to find out what happened.

Just presenting the setup like that makes the novel sound a lot like Maria Doria Russell’s The Sparrow. There are, however, some large differences. Unlike The Sparrow‘s flashback structure, the novel is told from the perspective of the secular crew of the Thetis. And while The Sparrow used its story to interrogate the Christian values of its Jesuit main character, religious thought in City of Pearl is analyzed but not seriously challenged. The biggest difference, of course, is that the religion City of Pearl is centered on is not Christianity. Oh, the colonists were indeed Christian separatists setting up your typical city on a hill, but the Thetis arrives to find them having adapted their faith so that it fits into the value system of an alien species, the Wess’har. The Wess’har, it turns out, are fervent environmentalists.

For long time readers of science fiction, City of Pearl has an old-fashioned feel to it. The main character Shan Frankland is a woman, but otherwise she wouldn’t be out of place as the hard-nosed, omni-competent protagonist that once starred in most science fiction novels. By trade a police officer, she wound up commanding the Thetis despite having no relevant experience and skills (I’m not being snarky, the surprise and consternation of her crew is an ongoing issue and the government’s motivation for placing her in command is subject to much speculation before finally coming to light at the end of the novel) but despite her inexperience she has very little difficulty, though her take-no-prisoners attitude isn’t always to the liking of the crew. The Thetis crew is a mix of military and scientific personnel, and already you know there are two ways that might go. It soon becomes obvious this is the story of story where the soldiers are brave, upstanding people and the scientists (who work for those malign entities, corporations) are greedy and put their personal ambitions ahead of the mission. Well, fair enough, and I’ve had a long run of evil-soldiers-good-scientists so it was even a little refreshing. In a shocking twist on both formulas, the ship’s one journalist even turns out to be a decent guy. Although authorial sympathies are clear, there’s still some balance: the Thetis finds itself in a delicate diplomatic situation since the Wess’har having overwhelming technological superiority, and when the inevitable misunderstandings inflame tensions, the military and the scientists each contribute to screwing up the situation.

The book is also oddly reminiscent of Ender’s Game in that the crimes committed by the Thetis crew that so anger the Wess’har aren’t actually intentional. Perhaps this is meant to accentuate the different values of the Wess’har, who claim not to understand the concept of forgiveness (nor the distinction between murder and manslaughter) despite long association with the Christian colonists. As for their beliefs about the environment, they are the most extreme I can recall seeing in a science fiction novel. The Culture’s opposition to terraforming stays mostly off screen, and the Mars conservationists in Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy were portrayed as the radical fringe. In addition to despising the consumption of meat (fair enough) and regarding all forms of life as equivalent (hmm), the Wess’har hold the somewhat paradoxical notions that the biosphere must be kept intact and that the most virtuous way to live on a planet is to dig out underground cities, because that way the landscape still looks the same. It’s not at all clear to me that an underground city has less ecological impact than one above ground, but the Wess’har merely present their beliefs, they don’t defend them. And rapidly the main character Shan Frankland comes to see the Wess’har way of life as more virtuous than humanity’s. Given what we end up finding out about her biography this is not implausible, but the process is aided by the reckless greed of both the scientist characters and the corporatist society back on Earth, so it’s hard to avoid the feeling that the author’s thumb is on the scale.

So: not really The Sparrow after all, and instead an environmentalist version of Out of the Silent Planet. It doesn’t have the philosophical content of C.S. Lewis’ novel, but its story component is much more substantial. Frankland is a likable protagonist and her struggles to chart a course between human and Wess’har demands make for an engaging narrative. While I’ve been a harsh here about ideas I didn’t feel were adequately developed, there are after all five sequels, so I’ll be giving the next one a try to see where Traviss takes the series.

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