Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Daughter of Elysium

The first time I read Daughter of Elysium, when the author's children were young and mine were not yet born, I found it to be an optimistic story focusing on a young family at the eye of a fictional storm. The last time, however, as an observer of a few of the struggles faced by the author's children and the mother of my own teenagers, I found it a little less optimistic. The title itself is not as optimistic as you might imagine if you picked it up off a shelf without knowing anything about it. The phrase "daughter of Elysium" occurs in the text as a reference to a small robot creature who has joined a movement to fight for its rights as a sentient being. The women of Shora, the planet where "Elysium" is located and for whom all creatures are female, first recognize the robot as a "daughter of Elysium." So there's trouble in paradise.

But the troubles are subtle, and build slowly. The pace of the novel is broken up by shifts in perspective from one race to the next, not all of them recognized as "sentient" by the folks who think they make the rules in this universe. The Shorans, decendants of the heroines in Slonczewski's earlier novel A Door Into Ocean, debate the ethics of the rules that govern their lives and the lives of those who share their planet, the "immortal" Elysians. Various people who are visiting the planet and trying to understand it read the Shoran philosophy of how life can best be lived, presented within the narrative and entitled "The Web." One of the main characters, Raincloud, has been brought to Elysium because of her linguistic abilities, and her diplomatic translations help to prevent war in this universe.

The science, as always in Slonczewski's SF novels, is biology, and Windcloud's mate and father of her children, Blackbear, is a doctor who has come to Elysium to do research on fertility and longetivity. One of the things he discovers is that "immortal" doesn't mean the Elysians can actually live forever, but that their lifespan is continually being extended by the discoveries and improvements they make, sometimes at the expense of other beings that are arguably sentient.

This novel, originally published in 1993, will be newly available the first week of September 2009. If you're a SF fan and you haven't read it yet, you'll be fascinated by the biology of "nanoplast" and the treatment of standard topics like sentient robots. Even if you have read it, as I just discovered, it's a novel that rewards rereading, partly because the topics it addresses are not outdated enough. We haven't yet solved all the kinds of problems in our own world that cause trouble for the characters in this fictional "Elysium."

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