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A Paradigm of Earth, Candas Jane Dorsey, TOR, 2001, 366 pp.

A Paradigm of Earth is an ambiguously great book. Dorsey manages to produce a fresh approach to a story of first contact, mainly through the strength of the characterization. And her strength of observation is as keen as ever in this book. It's the prose that worries me. Dorsey's previous novel, Black Wine, was a masterpiece of writing; that particular book fused the ornate and the vernacular in a marvellous way not usually found in the genre. A Paradigm of Earth is not so easy to praise. The concepts of the story were lucidly conveyed as a whole, but it seemed to me that Dorsey was having problems with exposition of the smaller details. Science fiction is a genre that tends to suffer from information overload, as the reader is bombarded with "facts" about scientific progress, contact with aliens, and so forth. Some authors forget about cultural change; even ten years from now, people might be living in an entirely different cultural milieu, with their own struggles, artistic achievements, and ways of healing or harming their own psyches. Dorsey does not forget, and as such she joins the ranks of noble exceptions like Alexander Jablokov and Ursula K. Le Guin. However, I found the exposition in A Paradigm of Earth clumsy and offputting, which is a shame considering the other strengths of the book.

Let me describe the good stuff first. In the first chapter of A Paradigm of Earth, a woman named Morgan loses her job, her girlfriend, and both of her parents die. She is traumatized by grief, unsure of direction in her life, and more than a little alienated by the increasing repressiveness and conservatism of society. Still feeling dazed, Morgan moves into a big old house she has inherited, and subsequently applies for a new job, in child care. This turns out to be the strangest job interview, as Morgan encounters a childlike being in a full-grown body, a body which is entirely blue -- this is one of the group of a dozen or so recently arrived aliens. Morgan gets the job because the now-christened Blue has responded to her and no one else. Blue begins with the mental functions of small child, and with the mission to learn as much about Earth as possible and report back. At first, Morgan goes in to work with Blue at a government facility, but things change dramatically once Blue gets more of an idea of personal volition. Meanwhile, Morgan has been accumulating housemates for her new house, and fortunately most of them take it in stride when Blue decides to move in as well. The main portion of the book follows the relationship between Morgan and Blue, and the ongoing story of all of the housemates. There is also political maneuvering, good cops and bad cops, and a series of murders that gets closer and closer to Morgan and Blue.

A Paradigm of Earth focuses to great effect on Morgan and her internal life. The book is mainly from her point of view and we get excerpts from her personal journal in almost every chapter, and the cumulative effect is one of intense sympathy. During the early parts of the book, Morgan's emotions are virtually nonfunctional -- the image in my mind is of a bombed out city, trying to rebuild but still damaged and shell shocked. She manages to keep an even keel, but the toll shows to some, especially to Blue as Blue gets to know her better. All of this is miles away from the typical first contact story, in which a stoic scientist type meets the aliens, or in which a square-jawed hero engages in fisticuffs with a drooling tentacle-beast in order to save Earth's women. At one point, Morgan's housemates discuss how their attempts to understand Blue have been hampered by the limitations of first contact stories in existence: "'Too much old-fashioned sci-fi TV,' said Delany. 'Makes for right-wing ideology, bad sociology, and wrong science'" (231-232). Morgan's approach is counter to these things, but it's not really a conscious approach at all but rather an outgrowth of who she is and her current struggles. The main character arc of A Paradigm of Earth is Morgan's, as she regains her perspective and learns to love again. By the end of the book, she is devastated by Blue's departure but is able to continue with her life. Blue's story as a person gives us the title of the book, as Blue learns enough about Earth to become a living paradigm of humanity. Blue's tragedy is a forced departure once human traits like love are learned, and also that it may have all been in vain. Blue and Morgan discuss the problem of communication, and Morgan understands Blue's dilemma immediately: "'So the ones who made you will not understand you any better than they would have understood us if they had done this directly'" (316). Blue is a success as a human, and so no longer an alien at all.

The story of Morgan's recovery and Blue's gained humanity is fascinating from beginning to end. Too bad then that the book gets off to a rocky start exposition-wise. Perhaps too many terrible things happen to Morgan in the first chapter. Dorsey spends sufficient time dealing with the consequences, but this made the balance between one chapter at the beginning and everything after somewhat awkward. The first introduction of some of the cultural changes, like greater intolerance, was also awkward; the lived experience of intolerance of the characters felt real, so perhaps Dorsey should have removed some of the overtly-stated information near the beginning and relied on day-to-day experience to convey what was needed. As a side note on the issue of the flow of information in the book, I should add that as a murder mystery, A Paradigm of Earth has similar problems. I felt that the identity of the murderer bent the book out of shape, due to a strange equation between relatively small intolerance and psychopathic irrationality. That complaint is more as a science fiction fan than as a mystery fan, however. I'll close by saying that fans of both genres, science fiction and mystery, are notably picky about details, and Dorsey satisfies far more than she disappoints. A Paradigm of Earth is an interesting and unique first contact story, which is a noteworthy achievement.

Last modified: November 13, 2001

Copyright © 2001 by James Schellenberg (

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