by James Alan Gardner
Avon, 1997, ISBN 1-56865-378-6
A book review by Elisabeth Carey
Some five hundred years in the future, humans are part of the League of Peoples, and exploring space in ftl ships. The Admiralty discovered some while back that the deaths of Explorers during planetary explorations caused an unacceptable amount of damage to ship morale, and found a way to avoid the problem. Now, all Explorer Corps members are to varying degrees deformed--not drastically, not enough that their effectiveness is impaired, but enough so that other crew members will view them as imperfect and won't identify with them. They're expendable. (All of their deformities and imperfections are quite fixable with 25th century technology; people whose deformities and imperfections are bad enough that they aren't potential Explorers get their problems completely fixed, up to normal 25th century standards of perfection. None of these techniques are available to people whose imperfections fall in the range that leaves them useful as Explorers.)
Expendability in the eyes of their fellow crew members is important because nearly all Explorers eventually die, or at least disappear, during Landings on new worlds.
The narrator and heroine of this story is Festina Ramos, whose deformity consists of a large birthmark on her face. She and her partner, Yarrun Derigha (who has a missing jawbone), are assigned to escort an admiral on an exploration of Melaquin, a planet from which no one has ever returned in forty years of attempts at exploration. The admiral, it seems, is also expendable.
What follows is an interesting adventure of no very great depth. The mystery of why no one has ever come back from Melaquin is solved within a couple of paragraphs of the party setting foot on the planet, and the mystery of the planet itself takes not much longer. That leaves only the question of what Festina's going to do about it. An enjoyable book, but I'm discouraged rather than encouraged by the fact that there are apparently now several sequels to it.