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The Children Star, Joan Slonczewski, TOR, 1998, 349 pp.
Joan Slonczewski has only written five novels in the last twenty years or so, and each one has benefited from attention and reflection. Of course, she is a biology professor in addition to being a writer, which might also explain the slow pace of output. And even though we see some elements of her previous books here, The Children Star is a completely new book, with its own dilemmas and disasters, and an impressive amount of world-building. A Door into Ocean first told of the Sharers and the worlds of Shora and Valedon, and Daughter of Elysium took place a thousand years later, when the Free Fold had formed its government on Sharer principles. Set in the same future universe, The Children Star leaps ahead far enough to differentiate itself. All three books share the same deep concerns about power and compassion, about life and death and cruelty; in short, all the aspects of humanity. But The Children Star's variation on the theme has just as much impact as Slonczewski's grand A Door into Ocean.
The book opens with a visit to the planet of L'li by Brother Rod, a Spirit Caller on a mission to save some dying children. Brother Rod lives on a colony on the planet Prokaryon, where, by decree of the Free Fold, only those who have been "life-shaped" can live. Terraforming is considered eco-cide, but few can afford or want to undergo the arduous process of life-shaping (more arduous for adults). So Brother Rod rescues young L'liite infants on the brink of death, but, on this particular mission, has compassion on an older child, 'jum. 'jum has an amazing facility to understand numbers and patterns, which becomes important to the plot later on. Rod returns to Prokaryon, where he wants to resume normal life in his small colony, with the other Spirit Callers and their young charges. But political events intervene, like a titanic scheme to boil all indigenous life off of Prokaryon, and personal events intervene as well -- Rod falls in love with a scientist, Khral, despite his vows as a Spirit Caller. I like how Slonczewski makes the plot hinge on the actions of Verid and Iras, two near-immortal Elysian characters who we met in Daughter of Elysium. And the nature of the intelligence on Prokaryon forms the heart of the novel, but I don't want to say much more than that. Slonczewski has a knack for writing credible alien lifeforms, which she demonstrated right from her debut, Still Forms on Foxfield, and that skill has only grown more impressive over the years. The nature of the aliens might echo other works in the genre (the specific works I'm thinking of are Greg Bear's Blood Music and Ray Vukcevich's "Mom's Little Friends"), but Slonczewski makes interaction with this race of aliens interesting and definitively her own.
The Children Star has a strong centre in the form of its main character, Brother Rod. Rod's choice to become a Spirit Caller is not blind and unthinking -- he has a history of his own that led him to this choice. Slonczewski also writes Rod's love story with respect and delicacy -- Khral is her own person, as is Rod, and the meeting of minds is matched by the other aspects of their attraction. Rod might seem a little orthodox at times, but his religion has a number of incredibly appealing flexibilities. For example, Slonczewski uses the whole business of Calling to great effect: each Spirit Caller has the right to their own interpretation of the correct course of action. Two of the older children decide that their conscience will not let them accept the political decisions about their colony, and Rod replies: "'You have grown into adults, speaking adult words. When Reverend Mother returns, you may tell her your calling'" (179). Instead of passively supporting the political system or the worldly status quo, the religious mindset of these characters lets them act. Which had me cheering, of course. Slonczewski's minor characters all resist the easy stereotypes, like Sarai the grieving Sharer or Mother Artemis the sentient nanny or 'jum the troubled yet gifted child -- each person acts in a way to transcend their pigeonhole. I also liked the characterization of the indigenous Prokaryon life-forms and the various "scientific" attempts to make contact with them.
Slonczewski's writing has always been an invigorating fusion of hard science and a social justice sensibility. In this novel, Slonczewski makes a virtuoso display of her biological speculation -- the scientific detail here is certainly impressive, if a bit beyond my field. But, more excitingly, she puts this rather straightforward hard science fiction in the context of ethics, putting the consequences of science in the same framework as the consequences of the personal and political events. Rod is thinking about his own love life, and concludes, somewhat reluctantly: "Truth brought peace, if nothing else" (339). The implications of this personal statement resonate cleverly through the various layers of the book, political, scientific, religious, and so on. What price peace, whether it be for the person or the political system? The Children Star does not back down showing the price, nor the rewards, making both the main action of the novel and its closure satisfying. An excellent novel.
Last modified: October 15, 1998
Copyright © 1998 by James Schellenberg (email@example.com)
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