A readable example of what some have referred to as “social” science fiction, that is, science fiction that (at least ostensibly) deals with the human or personal story rather than engines, guns, planets and stars – though all of the latter four items figure in this book. Other examples of this sub-genre would be Maria Dona Russell’s The Sparrow (reviewed here) and Dark Eden by Chris Beckett, reviewed here. We can include in this category, some sci-fi classics like Ursula Le Guin’s The Dispossessed and The Left Hand of Darkness.
I found this copy in a pile of second-hand books in a church in the Peak District, and it did make for entertaining and satisfying holiday reading. To me, that is enough. However, once into it, one swiftly became aware of the rather conventional Californian left-liberal politics and moral philosophy of the author. It’s all co-operation and warm fuzzy feelings, and that’s fine, as far as it goes – even if it all seems a little far-fetched to this hard-headed and cynical reviewer.
At one level, this is exactly what I have long called for – science fiction that is positive, warm and encouraging, eschewing the dreadful dystopian vision of many modern writers. At another level, it beggars my belief at least – there are no convincing baddies in this book, save possibly for a few prison guards. There’s never any sense that things could go badly wrong.
What’s the story? A young, well-born woman escaping from her past, takes a job as a clerk on a ship…a ship whose crew, all have their own secrets. The ship is then swept up into an escalating war, from which they narrowly escape. The plot, which is solid and believable, is pretty much used as an excuse for five or six essays or short stories on the secrets of the crew. We have a nod to Vernor Vinge’s “Fire on the deep” in that humankind are part of a pan-galactic community of sapient species, all connected by some form of galactic internet. We have a borrow from Ursula Le Guin in the use of her word “ansible” to mean a device enabling faster-than-light communication. The author must be familiar with the darker futures described in the works of such writers as Richard Morgan and Alistair Reynolds. She has worked hard to portray something better, and has brought us something – there’s no other word for it – more feminine.
Part of the back-story is that humankind has managed to completely ruin the earth, and yet somehow be technically able to escape to the stars and thus be rescued, as refugees escaping from a desolation, by compassionate star-faring aliens. There’s a strong theme of pacifism in here; the captain of the ship, an otherwise sensible and upright fellow, has pacifist leanings. The “Exodans” – the humans who have escaped from the dying earth, have learned lessons in that escape, ostensibly, about peace and war, about the importance of co-operation versus competition. These are, perhaps, important lessons. It is an interesting position to take, but it is a feminine position. It’s not a position I wholly share. I think aggression, chutzpah, arrogance, risk-taking, curiosity, and immense energy are some of the fundamental qualities that have brought humankind out of the dust. The meek will inherit the earth, as R. A Heinlein’s character Lazarus Long notes, “but only in plots about six foot by three foot”.
In the end, if the author is weak on engineering and logic, she is strong on relationship, on friendship, and on compassion. I’m happy for faster-than-light travel to be illogical or inadequately explained, in exchange for a series of sketches of broken people moving toward healing, towards a kind of very secular redemption. It works, as far as it goes. As a man I’m afraid my suspension of disbelief did fail in places. Humans are nasty as well as good, and the balance is a little too much in favour of the good here. No-one is that nice in reality. But well worthwhile and thought-provoking reading.