James Alan Gardner
ISBN: 0-380-80208-2 Order from: Amazon.com
This novel turns morbidly humorous and wryly sarcastic, features a fast plot and excellent characters, and is slightly plagued by improbable science.
Reviewed by David on March 28, 1999
Genre: Science Fiction (Epidemic)
Synopsis: Faye Smallwood was a wild rural teenager on the planet Demoth, when the graceful Ooloms, the original inhabitants of the planet, were striken by a deadly plague. Almost every human on Demoth had been scarred by the experience, and Faye, who as a doctor's daughter helped nurse hundreds of dying neighbors, more than most.
Years later, Faye is finally laying old nighmares to rest, when a string of murders lead to alien plots and super-human technology, and worse of all, to the possibility of a new plague, this time not limited to the Ooloms.
Full Review: The author of blackly humorous Expendable and gender-exploring Commitment Hour has produced his most polished novel so far. This book takes place in the universe of Expendable. The loose association of civilizations, including human, are constrained by the elusive but powerful founding alien members, who place an absolute ban on killers, actual or potential, traveling in space. While virtually eliminating war, it does little to stop either homocidal murderers, or callous governments whose actions put their citizens at risk.
The Ooloms, a genetically engineered race, are quite likable, if a bit implausibly human-like. This, however, is partly explained in the book, as apparently all aliens have noted the remarkable similarity between the two races. While built, like flying squirrels, for gliding, on the whole, communing with Ooloms is more like "meeting an exotic foreigner from another country" than an alien species. Even sex between the two races is possible, if a bit perverse.
The shock to the small human population, including Faye, when their hosts start dying from the Oolom-specific, long-incubation-period, highly contagious, and invariably fatal illness, is described with power but without melodrama. After seeing so many graceful beings dye, Faye and her teenage friends alternated between raw pain and callous, insanity-tinged humor, while the frantic doctors tried using random chemicals and possibly toxic human food in search of the cure. Afterwards, survivors' guilt struck nearly every human who lived through the disaster which affected only the Ooloms.
After the years of self-destructive wildness, Faye becomes a Vigilant, a member of an independent oversight organization overseeing the government and its various operations on Demoth. The Vigilants are brain-linked to the planetery computer, which allows accuracy and dispassion in their work, while putting them in risk of accidental and deadly data overloads.
Faye gets involved in a new mystery which features archeological remains of a possibly superior ancient civilization, a murderous plot to kill Vigilants, paranoid suspicions of the human Admiralty, and a possible recurrance of the deadly plague. She meets Festina Ramos (the hero of Expendable), finds lovers, friends and enemies, and makes peace with her family.
While still suffering from an implausible technology and rather artificial alien ban on interplanetary hostility, this book offers appealing, intelligent and emotionally fragile heroine in Faye Smallwood. In particular, her relationships with her group marriage (subtly but ironically portrayed as the old-fashioned religious tradition) partners, her banter with her Oolom colleages, and her affection for Festina, are quite touching.
On the negative side, this mostly serious plot is jarred by the slapstick comedy of the Admiralty agents, seeming escapees from Gardner's first, less consistent novel. The scientific inventions, including the League constraints and computer-infesting sperm-tails are rather weak. One particularly flawed concept is the "data tumor" induced by the brain implant. While insanity or instability induced by a device which interfaces to so many brain cells is perfectly believable, the actual mechanism of the "data tumor" is not. The idea that the technology which allows self-directed brain interface could not limit the power dissipation to prevent Scanner-like brain explosions, or simple burst throttling (to avoid unlimited downloads), seems ludicrous.
The resolution of the plot, with its rather strained villains, seemed weaker than the exciting build-up.
Nevertheless, this is a sympathetic, exciting and at times moving novel, that shows the best parts of a science fictional adventure without leaving the rather quaint and charming rural planet.
Overall: 6; Plot: 5; Characters: 6.5; Style: 6; World-building: 4; Originality: 5;
Copyright date 1999, Avon Books (Avon Eos), March 1999, Mass market paperback
ISBN: 0-380-80208-2 Order from: Amazon.com