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The Children Star by Joan Slonczewski

Tor, 1999, 347 p.

The Children Star cover

This is another of the author’s tales of the Fold, an interstellar polity which we have met before in A Door Into Ocean and Daughter of Elysium.

Here, a prion plague known as the creeping is devastationg the human population of the planet L’li. A L’iite child called ’jum G’hana is rescued by Brother Rhodonite and taken to Prokaryon, a planet where the living things all contain ring-shaped structures in their body plans and chromosomes. Zoöids are animal-like, phycoöids resemble plants, phycozoöids display plant and animal traits, while the microzoöids are microbes. The planet is also rich in arsenic. Humans need to be life-shaped to survive there, a process which works better the younger you are. Adults have almost insuperable difficulties in being adapted. ’jum G’hana is on the cusp. She does, however, have a facility for numbers, especially primes which she calls ‘orphans.’ Sarai, a Sharer lifeshaper working on Prokaryon, connects the tale more directly to Slonzcewski’s previous novels of the fold, which were both set on the Sharer’s home planet of Elysium. Sarai’s adoption of ’jum G’hana as a co-worker has ramifications later in the book in whose initial stages the narrative flow is cramped somewhat by the intrusiveness of the author’s information dumping.

While there is a diversion into interstellar politics Slonzcewski’s interest in The Children Star is on the biology of Prokaryon. Tumblerounds have a triplex DNA and reproduce by splitting three ways down the middle. Microzoöids contain a brain’s worth of data in a single cell and are capable of ‘infecting’ humans. This is the main engine of the plot and an explicit threat to Prokaryon. The Fold’s authority debates whether or not to destroy Prokaryon’s indigenous life-forms (by a process known as boiling.) That at least some of these turn out to be intelligent would be their saving.

It’s all readable enough – and more so than Daughter of Elysium. To have such a focus on biology at the microscopic level is an unusual trope in SF, but Slonzcewski is herself a biologist so that isn’t too surprising. The characters tend a bit to the stereotypical, however.

Pedant’s corner:- Sari (elsewhere Sarai,) clear (used as equivalent to colourless. Clear does not mean this, it means transparent. Objects can be both clear and coloured.) “Rod would never has asked” (never have asked.) “Patella came because is a Spirit Caller,” (because he’s a.) “Khral’s voices was softened” (Khral’s voice was softened,) ’jum Ghana (elsewhere always ’jum G’hana,) “or she would not have designed to come” (deigned to come makes more sense,) “he picked her up and folded her in her arms” (in his arms,) kidnaped (kidnapped,) “ten thousand-odd items priorities by her nanoservos” (prioritised makes more sense,) “only a few last long enough to secret toxins” (to secrete toxins,) odiferous (usually spelled odoriferous,) “others such correlations” (other such correlations.) “There … were a group of tumblerounds” (there … was a group.) “And what would the Fold do when they found out?” (And what would the Fold do when it found out?,) “all-to-familiar” (all-too-familiar,) “knew them better, perhaps, even then they knew themselves” (even than they knew themselves,) descendent (descendant.) In the Appendix (a description of the life-forms of Prokaryon): “Rotate as they swims through the water.” (Rotate as they swim through.)

Daughter of Elysium by Joan Slonczewski

Avonova, 1994, 525 p.

 Daughter of Elysium cover

Raincloud Windclan is from the planet of Bronze Sky where women are called goddesses, and have the dominant role in society. She has come to Elysium with her family to avert a confrontation between its inhabitants and the apparently aggressive planet of Urulan. Elysium is a city established on the water-world of Shora but separate from the raft dwellers of that world familiar from Slonczewski’s previous novel A Door into Ocean. Raincloud’s husband Blackbear is a scientist set to investigate the possibilities of restoring fertility to Elysians, whose “children” – known as shonlings from the crèche-like shons where they are brought up – are artificially generated since Elysians’ longevity treatment has modified their chromosomal DNA and conferred sterility. By treaty with the Shorans, though, the numbers of Elysians are meant to be kept steady.

Elysian society is attended to by genetically modified creatures known as sims, and artificially intelligent servants much given to intoning, “Please refer any fault to…”

There are, then, several conflicts built into this scenario as well as, in the persons of the Blue Skyans, a contrast with the gender norms of the time when Slonczewski was writing. Raincloud is an adept practitioner of martial arts, which gives her honorary male status in the eyes of the Urulite Ambassador to Elysium. Later, on Urulan itself, subjected to an attempt to murder her companions she muses, “Men were supposed to be wholesome nurturing creatures, not predators.”

While it is gratifying to a Chemistry graduate like myself to read of acetyl and methyl groups and glucosamine in an SF novel and there is a concentration on domestic life usually absent in such genre works this one is marred by excessive information dumping. Another flaw is that we don’t meet the indigenous inhabitants of Shora till well through the book. The enmeshing of all the elements of the set-up into the plot and its resolution is well-done though.

Pedant’s corner:- dumfounded (dumbfounded.) “Did not ‘death’ equate ‘shame’ in the Urulite tongue?” (equate with,) unsubstantially (insubstantially.) “Her breasts peeped out cheerfully beyond her bare back and shoulders,” (is some anatomical feat,) nanomanipulaters (nanomanipulators.) “What would Public Safety think, he wondered” (needs a question mark,) “either she was growing up – or just saving her spit” (??? Is this a USian phrase?) syllabi (I prefer syllabuses, it’s not originally from Latin.) “His chest was crossed with ropes of milky gems set in good Blackbear stared” (???? ‘… set in gold’ and a missing full stop?) “A number of long-necked reporter servos were on hand” (a number … was on hand,) “until the Gathering sent their messengers” (until the Gathering sent its messengers.) “Raincloud though it very likely” (thought it,) “took things in stride” (in her stride, please,) “‘except prone’” (the context demanded ‘supine’, not ‘prone’,) “who had woken at last and began to wail” (the ‘had’ carries over, so ‘who had woken at last and begun to wail’,) “‘none of the worlds we deal with are as safe as Elysium’” (none is as safe.) “None of the Guardians were allowed to leave” (none of the Guardians was allowed to leave.) “None significant were found.” (None significant was found.)

A Door Into Ocean by Joan Slonczewski

Women’s Press, 1987, 410 p.

The novel starts off on the planet Valedon but is mostly set on its aquatic satellite, Shora, inhabited for centuries solely by women. They wear no clothes since they spend a lot of time in the moon-spanning ocean and have a bluish tinge due to microbes which, in the aquatic environment, help them to maintain breath. In contrast to Valedon – a world where the usual vices of political power are prevalent and which seems to be a militarily directed society – life on Shora is peaceable, its values based on sharing learning, and where the highest form of punishment is Unspeaking (that is, sending someone to Coventry.) They are also capable of a state known as whitetrance, a type of withdrawal where their hearts slow almost to death. The Shorans live on rafts of plant material floating on the water’s surface and have an appreciation of the interactions between all the life-forms – beneficial or seemingly inimical – that make up Shora’s web of life. They also have a deep knowledge of biology and genetics and a plant-based means of expressing new organisms quickly.

Traders from Valedon – sometimes known pejoratively as malefreaks – have been present on Shora for years and Berenice Hyalite – known on Shora as Nisi – has come to a deep understanding of its way of life. Her father set up the trading post but she reports back to the rulers of Valedon. There is some interplay between Valans and Shorans on whether the others are really human with respect to each other but all the characters present as recognisably so to the reader. Berenice’s fiancé Realgar is a military man, and he is given the command of the Valedon forces sent to Shora to bring it fully under control.

The novel is thus set up to explore the mutual incomprehension of the military mindset and the habitual, instinctive, non-violence of the Shorans. It can therefore be read as a feminist work but is equally parsable as a Science Fictional exploration of a different approach to life’s challenges. In A Door Into Ocean Slonczewski is exploring an alternative way of being human. This is partly territory pioneered by the late lamented Ursula Le Guin. Slonczewski is no Le Guin but is good enough to be going on with.

Pedant’s corner:- laniard (lanyard,) “Berenice like to absorb” (the rest of the paragraph was in past tense, so, Berenice liked,) maw (mouth was implied, a maw is a stomach,) sunk (sank,) shined (shone,) octopi (octopuses, or, octopodes, but since we’re on an alien planet, octopods,) sprung (sprang,) “I could take take pills” (only one take needed,) “‘You could to that?’” (do that,) brusk (brusque,) langauge (language,) “more that she let on” (than she let on,) “was kept with in raftwood” (within,) strategem (stratagem,) collander (colander,) waked up (woken up,) automatons (strictly, automata.)

The Wall Around Eden by Joan Slonczewski

Women’s Press, 1991, 288 p

The Wall Around Eden cover

It’s the little things that niggle. One of the families in this book is Quaker, of the strict variety. And they address others as “thee” (except in the possessive when they use “thy”.) This is fine, but…. Bar once, they never use the form “thou” – and in the nominative case they ought to. I found this omission intensely irritating (though I’ll admit that “thou” would require, for example, the verb form “seest” as in “thou seest” rather than the author’s “thee sees.”) Do strict Quakers in the US actually use “thee” in this way? In any case Slonczewski and her characters are clearly aware that the “thou” form exists as in that one instance Daniel Scattergood uses it in the punning phrase “an I for a thou” when he and Isabel Garcia-Chase are exchanging images with an alien artefact. It also occurs in, “She had watched it for too long not to think of it as thou” when Isabel has an apparently wounded keeper at her mercy. Very annoying.

Then too, Slonczewski has her characters reference various works of Science Fiction which, although it provides a means of explaining the topographical relationship of the alien Pylons which link various human settlements together with a central core, comes over more as her demonstrating an awareness of the genre rather than something organic to her creations.

But to the tale. It’s set in the aftermath of an atomic war in which aliens called Keepers may or may not have had some part but where most of humanity and other life failed to survive the ensuing nuclear winter. Those who did now live in domed cities created by the aliens. These have an impenetrable barrier (the wall around Eden of the title) to the outside and also a walled off Pylon at their centre, plus flying aliens (or alien artifacts) called angelbees – who see infra-red – roaming the air inside the domes. There are very few of these environments – none in Europe – the main one is in Sydney, Australia, but ours is in Gwynwood, USA. Courtesy of the aliens the domed cities are kept in touch with each other by a teleportation technology.

Sunlight can penetrate the wall around Gwynwood but snow cannot; nor can animals – the outside is littered with the bones of the dying, humans among them, attracted there by its warmth and light in the days of nuclear winter – but there is weather inside (not to mention bluejays, mice and squirrels.) Despite references to the growing of crops and fruit – and their contamination with radiation via the groundwater – Gwynwood seems rather too small to create that internal weather, and to be self-sufficient. Yes, imports come in from Sydney but these seem to be mostly technological or medical. I did wonder how even the small number who live there managed to survive. Their existence is summed up by one of them remembering Chief Seattle, on being taken to the reservation, “It is the end of living and the beginning of survival.”

No matter; the main story is of Isabel’s quest to escape Gwynwood, join the Underground and eject the aliens from Earth. Somewhere along the way it turns into a voyage of discovery about the nature of the Keepers and their purposes. Slonczewski does the discovery stuff very well and the central message – unusually for a post disaster novel – is of hope but I was left wanting more.

Pedant’s corner:- there was a “sprung” count of one (but sprang was used elsewhere,) the now very unPC, “We’ll watch the poofs at Les Girls.” “But King George (III) was a tyrant” is a very USian sentiment. We had crèche (for nativity scene,) rhinoceri (the word ending is plain wrong; its root isn’t from Latin, the English plural is rhinoceroses anyway,) calling an in unimaginable variety (in an,) polyhedrons (it’s from Greek so the plural is polyhedra,) shined (shone,) could have mowed us down (mown.)

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