by Nancy Kress
Tor, 2003, ISBN 0-765-30467-8
A book review by Elisabeth Carey
In the not too distant future (not next Tuesday, but probably not a thousand years from now, either), Earth has established a few extrasolar colonies on Earth-like worlds. The Mira Corporation is launching the first privately-funded colonization effort, six thousand colonists in total, comprising a number of groups with quite different goals: the New Quakers, the deposed Saudi royal family and their foll owers, a large extended family of scientists and technologists who believe Earth is on the verge of environmental collapse and want to get out first, a group of "Cheyenne" (of rather mixed actual ancestry) who want to recreate the tribe's traditional way of life, a small group of internationally funded scientists, and a small group of Swiss mercenaries who are the officers and crew of the ship en route, and the police force of the new colony on arrival. The organizing force behind this mixed bag of colonists is Jake Holman, who has his own reasons for wanting to get seventy light-years from Earth. His principle business partner is Gail Cutler, the only business person in the aforementioned family of scientists and technologists. Other significant characters include Faisal bin Saud, the New Quaker representative Dr. Willaim Shipley, Shipley's difficult daughter Naomi (Nan) Frayne, and some of the scientists and mercenaries.
The technological background is relativistic travel with instantaneous communication by queelink. The small number of colonists who remain awake for the entire voyage experience a trip of six years; over seventy years pass on Earth.
On arrival, they find Greentrees even better than hoped, a truly hospitable, Earth-like world. Life is DNA-ba sed, as has been true of all life yet found in the tiny portion of the galaxy yet explored. Some of the native flora and fauna will be useful, and their own plants will grow. Allowing for predictable minor conflicts amongst groups and individuals, the col ony gets off to a smooth start.
And then they find the villages.
The people in the villages are bipedal, fur-covered, have long snouts with big teeth, and have large, counter-balancing tails. On page 55, they're described as being four feet tall; elsewher e they seem to be taller than the humans, but why be picky?
(It's at this point that we and the colonists get a reminder of how cut off from Earth they are, despite the quee. They include news of this first discovery of intelligent non-humans ever in their next transmission. The reply they get is that Geneva is under siege, and is unable to send help against the alien invasion. As the colonists' concern at this point is that they may have accidentally colonized a world that already has natives--that they may be the alien invaders--their reaction to this is, understandably, huh? A subsequent message informs them that the World Life Alliance is now in control, and will send a scientific expedition. This is somewhat more responsive to their original message, but they have no idea what the World Life Alliance is, either.)
The presence of these people, dubbed the Furs, is rather a puzzle. There's no fossil evidence, in the area the colonists have been able to explore, that they evolved on Greentrees, and DNA analysis also makes them too distant from other Greentrees life for that to be plausible. Yet if they came as colonists from another world, and subsequently lost their technology, there ought to be evidence of that, too. The mystery gets deeper as it becomes a pparent that there's something wrong with the Furs. The first cluster of villages they find is completely passive, not reacting in any way even to very pushy human intrusion, and gradually letting their huts and hearths decay for want of even the most basic maintenance. The next cluster they find is extremely aggressive; another group appears to be permanently intoxicated. When an accident gives them access to a dead child of the passive group, and an attack gives them a dead aggressive Fur, they find brain damage, apparently caused by a virus--most likely genetically engineered.
They're sitting in the middle of a rather nasty experiment, and they have no idea when the experimenters will return to check on the progress.
And then, of course, the alien ship arrives. These aliens turn out to be sentient plants--or, not exactly. They look like plants, they use carts to move around, and their idea of a really good time is sitting in the sun. They are, however, the first life humans have encountered that is not DNA-based. Once effective communication is established, they readily admit to being the beings behind the nasty experiment that's being conducted on Greentrees; they're trying to make less dangerous Furs. According to these aliens, whom the humans quickly dub Vines, the Furs are the aggressors in their war, and it has been impossible to negotiate with them or fight them effectively by other means. The Vines, in fact, have no technology except biotechnology, and what they've stolen from the Furs. Even the ship they arrive in is a captured Fur ship. The Vines seem so nice, so likeable, their story is a sympathetic one, they appear to be holding nothing back. Yet they're conducting this nasty experiment on intelligent beings, with the goal of genetically modifying an entire intelligent species. Then a Fur-controlled Fur ship arrives. They, at least somewhat understandably kill, all the Vines, and then also kill all the Furs on the planet--not just the modified ones, but also the village cluster of of normal, "control" Furs (those were the extremely aggressive ones.) The humans are stuck in the middle of an interstellar war, they need to decide what to do about it, and they don't know enough to do that intelligently. There's reason to be sympathetic to each side, and reason to regard each side as nasty folk they want nothing to do with. And either side could easily wipe them out, if they make a mistake.
All of this says nothing about the human personalities involved, which of course complicate the already complicated situation. Every one of the colonists was chosen solely based on individual or group ability to pay; the governing council is composed of the leaders or representatives of the componet groups. Jake Holman, the president of Mira Corporation, is a lawyer wit h a nasty secret in his past. Gail Cutler, the one business person in her extended family of scientists, is the leader of that group and the vice president of the corporation. Jake and Gail both think of themselves as calm, reasonable, practical people, an d they basically like each other, but Jake's "lawyer talk"--a practiced style of negotiating with and "handling" people--drives her bananas. Both Gail and Jake take it as a given that William Shipley's strong religious beliefs are superstitious nonsense with no relevance to the real world, but Shipley's often able to calm a tense situation down, and he's the one who makes the initial breakthrough in communicating with the Vines, and the one whose ego is least likely to get in the way. (But only "least likely"; he's neither a saint nor an angel.) Gail distrusts Faisal bin Saud because he's so smooth and polite and the Saudi women live in total seclusion and wear veils when they do come out. We never do see inside Faisal's head; he's far too controlled for that. He has to be judged by his actions. Captain Scherer and his Swiss mercenaries are stiff and formal and proper and professional, and turn out to be hiding a much nastier, and ultimately more dangerous, secret than Jake. The Cheyenne prove to be both more and less consistent than you might expect. The way they got the money to take part in this expedition, the next big thing the Indian nations did after casinos, was biotechnology. They have of course brought that with them, to help adapt their livestock to the local conditions, and the local flora and fauna to their needs. This inconsistency bothers Jake almost as much as the back-to-the-past nature of the project itself. Yet in other ways, the Cheyenne appear to be totally sincere and honest in recreating at least a version of the old lifestyle and living by it. Nan Frayne's opinionated, idealistic, intolerant of anyone who doesn't see things the "right" way, i.e., her way, especially her father--a case of emotional development stunted at the worst stage of adolescence. The only who isn't occasionally tempted to bash her skull in is her father, and that's because William Shipley is completely sincere in his commitment to nonviolence. Yet Nan becomes seriously interested in the Furs, and is the only one who manages to achieve some communication with them before the arrival of the Fur ship.
It's an interesting mix of characters, who mostly behave like intelligent adults and try to work together despite personality conflicts, and the story flows naturally out of th ese characters and the situation they find themselves in. Interesting and enjoyable.