by Elizabeth Moon
Baen, 1997 , ISBN 0-671-87769-0
A book review by Elisabeth Carey
A failing colony is removed from an alien world by the company that owns it, but one old woman, tired of having others run her life, hides in the forest until everyone is safely gone. The abandoned equipment and supplies enable her to survive, and she settles into a routine. Months later, on the communications equipment in the colony Center, she listens to the landing of another colony on another part of the planet - and its immediate destruction by natives whose presence no one had suspected. The natives decide to send an expedition to check out the distant other site where the Monsters may have landed; the company that had bought the planet from its previous owners sends a scientific expedition to check out the possibly-sapient animals that had killed their colonists. The old woman, Ofelia, first has to establish communication with the stone-age natives, then with members of her own species. The natives, at least, are willing to believe she's an intelligent being.
The natives are interesting, Ofelia's an engaging character - unfortunately, this is an idiot plot, utterly dependent on both Ofelia's complete lack of education and the idiocy of the scientists sent to investigate. The most intelligent, most open-minded, most reasonable member of the expedition is a cultural anthropologist; he identifies a "singer" in the natives' non-literate culture as an "entertainer," nobody important. Why would the company send such incompetents if they spent the money on a scientific expedition at all? They wouldn't, of course.
There are numerous similar idiocies throughout the book. For instance, why is Ofelia, the product of a very prosperous, high-tech culture, uneducated to the point of almost complete illiteracy? Why, because education is a privilege, not a requirement, of course. Ofelia's from a large underclass kept intentionally uneducated. That this makes no sense in a prosperous, high-tech culture, that it is completely incompatible with maintaining a prosperous, high-tech culture beyond a generation or two, matters not. (I feel a need to be absolutely clear about this: this star-spanning civilization is intentionally creating and maintaining a large, profoundly uneducated underclass that can't even do the most basic gruntwork in this culture--that would challenged by the basic gruntwork necessary in early 21st-century America or Europe.) The plot requires it, and that's the end of the matter. Ofelia's one of the very bright young children, identified by her teachers for a scholarship to continue her education beyond the basic primary level. Her parents, preferring her sister to Ofelia for reasons never even touched upon, much less explained, send the sister for that extended education instead of Ofelia. Somehow, this controlling, bureaucratic, records-obsessed culture has no means of distinguishing between one underclass child, specifically identified for continued education, and her sister, at least a year different in age, specifically not selected for continued education. Furthermore, and I say this as someone happy to attribute all sorts of evil and malevolence to giant corporations, the corporations that control this society are malevolent in unbelievable ways, ways that are directly contrary to even their most obvious, short-term interests. It all makes for a book that's extremely irritating if you think at all about what you're reading. But if you can turn your brain off, it's kind of fun.