City of Pearl
by Karen Traviss
Eos, 2004, ISBN 0-06-054169-5
A book review by Elisabeth Carey
This is a first novel by a British writer who has had short stories published in Asimov's, Realms of Fantasy, and other markets. It's the first of a trilogy, with the second volume due out in November 2004 and the third sometime in 2005.
In 2299, governments have grown larger in a mostly-futile attempt to keep up with the growth of corporations. Shan Frankland is an Environment Hazard Enforcement officer for the Federal European Union, on what will probably be her last enforcement action before retirement. Just after she and her team have seized control of a space station, and before they can begin any s erious investigation, she receives a visit from the FEU's foreign minister, Eugenie Perault, wanting to recruit her for a special job--one involving a trip to what's believed to be a human-habitable world, the second planet of Cavanaugh's Star. With relativistic travel, a round trip will take one hundred and fifty years, Earth time. She, the small detachment of Marines she'll have, and the scientists sent by various corporations will spend their travel time in cold sleep.
What's the mission? We don't really know, at first, and Frankland doesn't know, either. She gets a Suppressed Briefing--she hears all the information, and makes the go/no go decision on the basis of it, but then she has no conscious access to the information until the circumstances of the mis sion itself bring the information back to the surface. All she really knows is that there may be a surviving human colony on the planet, and that there are hints of possible alien contact.
On arrival, she learns, through a combination of the Suppressed Briefing and contact with the colony, that the colonists are "religious fanatics"--probably Catholics or Episcopalians, from the few details and the terminology they use--who wanted to grow crops in an environmentally friendly way, and without having to buy seed every single year from major corporations because the crop plants have been genetically engineered not to produce live seed. (Seed for major crops is already being sold with contract provisions forbidding the collection of seed from the plants, to protect the corporation's intellectual property, not to mention their market.) The colonists left Earth with an array of genetic material from plants and animals that were still "original stock," or close enough to it, and not the intellectual property of any c orporation. These varieties are now extinct on Earth; all commercial species are now the intellectual property of some biotech corporation or another. The ultimate intention was to preserve those species until the madness of their own time was ended, and then go home and re-terraform Earth. The gene bank the colonists brought with them, if it still exists, would be fanatastically valuable. Shan's mission is to recover that gene bank, if possible, and deliver it to the FEU, keeping it out of the hands of the corporations.
What Shan finds is a surviving and apparently thriving human colony, not one but three intelligent alien species, and a war zone. The bezeri are aquatic, the native species of the planet, with a complex culture, but without the technology t o defend their planet against invaders who keep to the land. The isenj are a rapidly breeding, aggressively expansionist species from a nearby world, who colonized the bezeri world with a happy disregard for the ecological consequences for the natives of world-spanning cities that drain their wastes into the sea. The bezeri were nearly driven to extinction by the isenj colonization. And the wess'har are a star-traveling species that take ecological stewardship really seriously--when they received the bezeri call for help, they came, drove the isenj off the planet, and erased their city.
The isenj haven't accepted the loss of their colony world. The bezeri population hasn't recovered past the point of danger yet. The human colony, arriving a couple of hundred years after the heavy fighting, is living in what is essentially a reservation, permitted and even encouraged because of the limited and benign nature of their intentions, but under wess'har influence they have become completely vegan. The status of the human colony is precarious, though, as it is clearly an intrusion in the local ecology, and there's something on this world that the wess'har really, really don't want going anyplace else.
With all this, and her slow recovery of the information in the Suppressed Briefing, Shan also has to deal with the scientists, who do not like the restrictions on their activities that she has agreed to--no samples of anything alive, passive scans only of all flora and fauna, no samples of anything without a colonist there to approve it, no venturing outside the encampment without a Marine or colonist as escort. That she has also negotiated full access to the extensive database on the local flora and fauna that the colonists have impresses them not one whit; they're scientists from the most powerful corporations on Earth, and they have the right to pursue whatever studies they want in whatever way they think is most likely to boost their careers.
Shan's extensive experience in Environmental Hazard Enforcement, and before th at in anti-terrorism, has not prepared for first contact with three species, negotiating for possession of a valuable genebank, or management of cranky scientists whom she's in no position to either fire or arrest. Circumstances deteriorate rapidly when one of the scientists manages to sneak a "sample" that turns out to be a stranded bezeri child that would have survived but for her interference. When an isenj force and a newer, faster Earth ship that left home fifty years after Shan's group arrive, things spiral out of control, and the wess'har start thinking seriously about solving their problem by eliminating all of the humans in the system, as well as the newly-arrived isenj.
This is a story with a great potential to wander off into unproductive and tiresome rants on present-day politics. It doesn't do that. The problems Shan is struggling with, while involving some familiar issues, are convincingly real problems of her time, not ours. The wess'har have their own culture and their own agenda, which are not Peter Singer's even though he'd probably approve of them. (Whether they'd approve of him is another question.) (They do approve of St. Francis.) The plot comes to a reasonably satisfying conclusion for this book, while leaving the necessary hanging plot-threads for the next two volumes. And while the minor characters are a bit cardboard, Shan and the other major characters are strong enough to spend the time with, reading their story.
The weakest feature City of Pearl the Suppressed Briefing, which is a neat idea, but in practice delivers too little payoff for the amount of build-up it gets. The big revelations here are about Shan's past, not anything she learned from the Suppressed Briefing.
Overall, an enjoyable read. Bring it to the beach!