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Still Forms on Foxfield, Joan Slonczewski, Avon, 1988, 214 pp. (originally published in 1980)
Still Forms on Foxfield is a deceptively quick read at only 214 pages. The book packs a thematic punch, and despite a few indications here and there that it is indeed a first novel, it is also a highly enjoyable story. For a first time author, Slonczewski had a diverse background to draw on. She received a PhD from Yale in molecular biophysics and now teaches biology; she is also a Quaker, and uses this part of her background as much as her scientific knowledge. The resulting blend is unique in the science fiction field, and gives her fiction an extra philosophical and intellectual edge over other books in the genre. Still Forms on Foxfield exemplifies her writing powers and her firm grasp of a widely varying field of ideas.
A group of Quakers have been living on the planet Foxfield for a century, believing Earth destroyed in World War III. This is not a post-collapse story, thankfully, as Slonczewski has more interesting developments in mind. As the book begins, a new Earth government contacts the residents of Foxfield, claiming authority over them. This would not be a straightforward claim in any case, considering the independence of the inhabitants of Foxfield, but the issues are further complicated by the presence of alien Commensals, living in cooperation with the Quakers. I do not want to give away more of her premise or plot than that -- Slonczewski takes it from there with a sure hand.
Allison Thorne is the main character, a technician, and an immediately sympathetic person -- our interest is grabbed right off. Slonczewski fascinates us by showing how these people deal with (what is to them) everyday stuff like relating to alien creatures and fending off power hungry interstellar governments. Slonczewski's characters always seem most comfortable discussing Quaker dilemmas or the dilemmas of science. This is a flaw, but Slonczewski compensates for it deftly: those two categories make up a good portion of the book, and those particular portions are well-presented and credible. Another minor problem is the skimpy treatment of many of the other characters in Allison Thorne's community. As Orson Scott Card said of his various attempts at writing Speaker for the Dead, creating a completely credible large family is almost impossibly difficult. The characters have to be differentiated in the reader's mind, and here is where Slonczewski has to rely on a few stereotypes -- the matriarch, the kneejerk critic, the schoolmaster -- to fill in the background of people in the Quaker community. She has enough interesting material sketched in here, and sufficient personality conflicts, to expand the book to two or three times its present length, and should have done so in order to do justice to the community dynamics. As it stands, the length of the book reminds me too much of Ursula K. Le Guin's Eye of the Heron (a book which seemed abruptly truncated to me).
Enough of criticism. Slonczewski's alien life forms are science-fictional speculation in the purest sense of the phrase. The extrapolation of alien physiology into sociological consequences was fascinating and very convincing. And perhaps more importantly, understanding the nature of the Commensals was necessary for the progress of the plot. The inclusion of Quaker concerns lifts Slonczewski's story above run-of-the-mill science fiction, and gives it an extra depth that the typical sf plots do not have. Midway through the book, a character named Martha discusses Allison's faith in the outer universe, and she makes a conclusion there that I have seldom if ever come across in any other book in the genre: "'Even the smallest amount of this kind of faith is a miracle,' she whispered. 'At times in my life I have wished that I could know even a fraction of the faith you hold in your outer universe'" (121). That kind of connection-making is the reason I read science fiction, and Slonczewski's bold incorporation of her own concerns makes her work so worthwhile. The method of resolving conflict in this novel is perhaps a test of how well you resonate with Slonczewski -- the first time through this book, I completely missed the point at which things were settled. Alerted to her subtlety of thought, I had a better apprehension of her aims the second time around. Dan Simmons provides a variation on the same idea in his most recent book, Endymion, where the AIs become part of the wholistic evolution of the universe in spite of their desire to separate themselves. Le Guin's The Dispossessed also resonates with Still Forms on Foxfield, and that is perhaps as high a compliment as could be given.
I'd like to comment on two of the blurbs on the back cover of my edition. One blurb has incredible insight, the other is incredibly insulting. What exactly is this supposed to mean: "This woman's prose juggles quantum mechanics with the best of the 'hard' lot!" How astonishing that a woman could understand quantum mechanics and also write prose. Out of politeness, I won't give the source for that blurb. The other blurb has given me something to think about in almost the same way as Slonczewski's book has left me a number of intellectual gifts. Locus has this to say: "Slonczewski resolves the central conflict beautifully, giving us what science fiction is supposed to provide: a new way of looking at things." I couldn't agree more, thank you Locus. An accurate insight into the book, as well as the science fiction field.
To conclude, Slonczewski gives us an excellent novel, with a few flaws as noted above. I am quite happy that she has continued writing and polishing her story-telling skills, and I'm always on the lookout for new books from such an interesting writer.
First posted: February 2, 1998; Last modified: February 18, 2004
Copyright © 1998-2004 by James Schellenberg (firstname.lastname@example.org)
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