by Ian McDonald
Bantam Spectra, ISBN 0-553-37435-4, 1995, 355pp, US$12.95
A book review by Evelyn C. Leeper
Copyright 1995 Evelyn C. Leeper
Once again Ian McDonald has written a science fiction novel of the future (and, no, that's not redundant) which reminds us that the future is not going to be all high-tech and shiny, nor is it going to be all Euro-American. EVOLUTION'S SHORE (known as CHAGA in Britain) is set in Kenya in the early part of the 21st century. McDonald's protagonist is Gaby McAslan, a newswoman from Northern Ireland, who manages to land a job reporting on the situation in Kenya. And just what is that situation? Well, it seems that "parcels" from outer space have landed at various places around the world along the equator and a strange life form or forms has emerged--and is spreading. And this appears to be connected with strange goings-on around Saturn as well.
McDonald does a good job in depicting the strangeness of the alien life form, but he does an equally good--and perhaps more important--job of depicting the strangeness of his future Kenya society. This is not the "back-to-traditional-values Kirinyaga" that Mike Resnick writes about, but a society in touch with and affected by the rest of the world, yet also maintaining its own path and its own ways. This is not to say there is anything wrong with Resnick's construct as a plot device. But he is using the artificial "Kirinyaga" as the basic premise of his story, while McDonald is using 21st century Kenya as the background of his extra-terrestrial science fiction premise. As such, his Kenya must be more believable as a real extrapolation of today's Kenya, and I believe it succeeds in this. In fact, the irony is that (for me at least) McDonald's background is more interesting than his core premise.
Like many readers I suppose I started reading science fiction because it portrayed a world different than the one I knew. Maybe it was that the world was in the far future, when people had paranormal powers, or maybe it was on a distant planet with a fight for survival against dangerous animals and harsh conditions. As I grew older, I discovered that there were places just as strange and just as interesting here on Earth (as Lawrence Watt-Evans noted so well in "Why I Left Harry's All-Night Hamburgers"). And I started to look for authors who had realized this--who figured out that they could set a story in a society other than their own. Various "cyberpunk authors" do it in various degrees. George Alec Effinger does it in his "Marid" trilogy. Maureen McHugh does it in CHINA MOUNTAIN ZHANG. Gwyneth Jones does it in WHITE QUEEN. And Ian McDonald does it, here and in many of his earlier short stories.
Given all this, I think having a Euro protagonist is the right choice. One might ask if this isn't just a copy of Hollywood always having an Anglo-Saxon protagonist even in a movie set in Peru or China, but I don't think it is. When you watch a movie you see not what the main character sees, but what the director and cinematographer films. But when you read a book not written by an omniscient narrator, you see things through the main character's eyes, and from the main character's viewpoint. So having that viewpoint the same as the majority of the readers makes sense (as anyone who's ever tried to read a book written for people with a different cultural background will agree).
My only objection might be that the space mission pieces don't seem to match the rest of the story. (Then again, how much do today's shuttle missions "match up" with life in Kenya today?) There may be a few too many science fictional references, especially towards the end, but this seems to have been intentional overload, as the "postface" is a line from Samuel Delany's TRITON: "In science fiction, everything should be mentioned at least twice ... with the possible exception of science fiction." But these are minor quibbles in an otherwise excellent and fascinating novel. This one is making my Hugo nomination ballot.
[In Britain, this novel is called CHAGA. One may only speculate on why the publisher thought it necessary to change the name for an American audience. Or why it appears to be missing from the publisher's list of upcoming books on their Web page.]
%T Evolution's Shore %A Ian McDonald %C New York %D November 1995 %I Bantam Spectra %O trade paperback, US$12.95 %G ISBN 0-553-37435-4 %P 355pp
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