Joan Slonczewski,
The Children Star
(Tor, 1999)

Joan Slonczewski, in the The Children Star, has written a hard SF novel set far in the future, when humans are practically immortal. (The highest political official of the civilization, Verid Anaeashon, has lived, and has had the same lover, for more than a millennium.) Human/ape hybrids ("simians") and sentient machines are commonplace. However, while good science-fictional ideas abound, there remains to the novel an overall emotional and intellectual flatness.

One of the main protagonists is a religious monk, Rod, who, as part of his dedication to the call of the Spirit, embraces the traditional vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. Rod aspires to live a moral and ethical life amid a society that struggles (like all societies) to balance the power and aggrandisement of the few against the freedom and dignity of the many. This balance has swung in favour of the few in the case of "sentients" -- factory-made machines that have achieved consciousness.

The novel describes the similar political/legal battle that must now be fought in establishing the ethical basis of society's responsibility towards alien ecologies. The battleground is a planet, Prokaryon, the planet upon which Rod and co-religionists struggle to maintain an orphanage.

A characteristic of genre SF, and one for which it is often criticised, is the lack of strong emphasis on character. Original ideas, both societal and technological, are often intrinsic to the plot of SF novels. In this genre ideas are important, and the phrase "Idea as Hero" is often used to describe (and justify) the sometimes almost complete overshadowing of character by context or story backdrop.

However, such an overshadowing is not the problem in the case of The Children Star. Rod falls in love with (and wishes to marry) a simian -- a female hybrid with gorilla-like facial features, a stooping gait and hairy body. The author does indeed use this event in Rod's life to explore his character, however, sadly in doing so she exploits only the very mundane "celibate-monk-tempted-by-the-flesh" scenario, ignoring the more interesting, highly charged and science-fictional "human-loves-simian-hybrid" subject matter. Again, in relation to Verid Anaeashon, what sort of person does one become after living for this length of time, and what sort of relationship is it that survives 1,000 years? Alas, the novel suggests only that everyone will be somewhat like people today, with some technology added. Can the future really be this dull?

The planet Prokaryon has, along with a unique and unusual biology, an overall ecology in which order is so strongly manifest that "secret masters" are suspected to be present somewhere on the planet controlling everything. This is the urgent puzzle that confronts those attempting to preserve the planet's diverse life forms from imminent destruction -- the demonstration of intelligent life would prevent the planned destruction and subsequent terraforming of the biosphere.

A search for such "secret masters" did in fact, historically play an important part in the study of life on Earth. The argument for their existence was articulated most notably by the 19th-century Rev. William Palay (who termed them "God") and refuted for the first time by Charles Darwin. Palay's argument was that if one found a pocketwatch while out walking, its design and intricate mechanism would force the conclusion that it had been designed and fashioned by an intelligent designer (God). He argued that for "watch" one could substitute "living creature." Darwin showed how order and apparent design could be the product of random, natural forces.

Now, without paraphrasing (and spoiling) the novel's plot, let me say that Prokaryon's life-forms and ecology are both ingenious and well described in the tradition of "hard" SF, but the radical nature of their existence in the universe at all (a fact which would have confounded Darwin if he had come across it, and delighted Palay) is ignored. This absence, this ignoring of something that is after all essential to any extrapolation, namely historicity, impoverishes the novel. Prokaryon is presented as existing in time separated from human history and thought. It is as if the author were inviting the reader to a fantasy world, where things just are, and it is not necessary to ask, or to be told, anything further. But the novel is clearly not intended as a fantasy.

Within The Children Star lie ideas, and indeed these, as opposed to characters, could be said to be at the very heart of it. Writers of such novels take as their axiom the notion that narrative has the power to convey ideas. But this novel stubbornly refuses to engage with its inherent ideas so that they lie within it like uncut diamonds, present certainly, but dull and unsparkling, awaiting the hand of the craftsman.

[ by Conor O'Connor ]



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