Wednesday, October 21, 2009

The Children Star

Joan Slonczewski is a friend of mine and has been for almost twenty years now, so my copy of her SF novel that is dedicated to me and Ron, The Children Star, was a gift from her in 1998. I reread it recently during the process of getting it ready to be re-issued as a print-on-demand book, and marveled again at the strangeness of the aliens.

At first the characters, some of them familiar from previous novels, don't even recognize the aliens as sentient life-forms. They don't realize the aliens are trying to speak to them. They don't understand the mechanism by which the life-forms control the weather on their planet. They don't even see them. They are as likely to kill millions of aliens as they are to swat a bug.

These strange aliens are from a planet called Prokaryon where everything is round and poisonous. Humans have to be "life-shaped" to live there:
"merely inhaling Prokaryan air would expose their unprepared lungs to poison; for the native life-forms had evolved all sorts of things that the ordinary human body was not designed to encounter, much less digest for food. Their triplex chromosomes were mutagenic, their "proteins" contained indigestible amino acids, and their membranes were full of arsenic."

The few human settlers on the planet contend with "wheelgrass" and "loopleaves" when trying to walk, and with "a whirr-clouded tumbleround" stopping outside their window, which "generally rooted and grew in one spot for a long while; but under certain conditions, perhaps nitrogen deficiency, some of its vines would root themselves in the ground at one edge, then contract, pulling the organism to tumble it over slightly. More vines then rooted down, and so forth; once the tumbleround got going, it could travel several meters per day, trampling and digesting whatever vegetation crossed its path. Scientists disputed whether they were more animal or plant, zooid or phycoid."

The scientists at first think that "singing-trees are the real intelligence controlling this planet" because they see bursts of light and correctly interpret them as language. "We did try to respond," one says, "but never caught on in time, and the natives gave up." Why they gave up becomes apparent when the "natives" of the planet begin corresponding with some of the main characters from inside their own bodies. The aliens turn out to be microzooids, capable of taking over the human nervous system and bestowing reward or punishment. Eventually they also turn out to be capable of "life-forming" a human to be able to live on their home planet, and what they want in exchange is space travel, undertaken over generations of microzooid lives and within human ones.

The children star, a myth told to a child before she is rescued from her dying home planet and taken to Prokaryon, turns out to be a world full of sentient microorganisms for whom time passes so quickly that within a few months, entire generations of their "children" have created unique cultures inside each human brave enough to accept a colony.

I'm amazed to claim as a friend a person who seemingly has such an easy time bypassing one of the traditional problems of science fiction, namely how to create an alien who will seem really alien, rather than just another form of a bug-eyed monster. And along the way, she makes suggestions on how to "confront the mutants before they destroy the earth" or any other planet, which gives this novel an exciting plot that makes the details of biology seem almost incidental, like the elven languages in The Lord of the Rings or the map of the world in Eragon.

Do you also like to read fantasy or science fiction based on a world so detailed that only a small part of the backstory makes it into the actual story, or that requires two or more sequels to explore the relationships between some of the most important details?


Amanda said...

I don't normally read hard sci-fi or high fantasy at all. It's just not my thing. But I like dystopian worlds where I can come to see what the world looks like over time.

Alison said...

I am similarly impressed with her ability to create truly alien aliens. It's one of the ways, televised and filmed science-fiction tends to fall short, although every now and then they hit one out of the park. The one that struck me recently was the 456, the aliens of the most recent series of Torchwood. This was an alien who was *so* alien, that we never even saw it in its entirety - only glimpses of bits and pieces.

Kim (Sophisticated Dorkiness) said...

I haven't read this book, but it sounds interesting! When i took a science fiction class a couple years ago, we tended to look at what the conception of an alien or the future could tell us about the time the author was writing in. I don't think we read anything where the "other" was so drastically different we couldn't compare them to our own experience in some way. It'd be interesting to read something where that wasn't the case.

lemming said...

I'd echo Alison on Torchwood - raises all sorts of ideas for me about alien beings.

Your question is, to my mind, picking up on the R & G Are dead Wide Sargasso Sea question though - yes, if it's well done, I love it

kittiesx3 said...

Jeanne, I do read science fiction and prefer the authors who don’t spoon feed their entire world/scenario to me in the first chapter. Let me figure it out, if you’ve created an alternative world, I want the chance to explore it myself—don’t give it to me in a PowerPoint. Ian Banks is one of my favorite authors because he explains very little about his Culture society. When I read another book in his sci-fi line, I always come away with a little more understanding of his world.

One of my favorite classes ever was a science fiction/fantasy institute that Jim Gunn taught at KU. We had to read 25 books before the two-week long session started and we met every day for eight hours a day—VERY intense but really quite interesting. His discussion on the difference between science fiction and fantasy helped me better able understand why it was I preferred sci-fi. I’ll read some fantasy but as I’ve said before, it’s not my favorite.

Your friend’s book sounds very intriguing. I need to see if the library has it.

Jeanne said...

Amanda, the whole series (now called The Elysium Cycle) covers thousands of years, and the Elysiums live that long, so they give it some continuity.

Alison, Torchwood sounds like it's using a bit of Hitchcock's technique for making the monster scary--or in this case, alien.

Kim, there are ways the aliens are like us. Mostly this has to do with the separate colonies. Some colonies are easier to live with (properly, to harbor) than others.

Lemming, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead and Wide Sargasso Sea are by other people, whereas these detailed worlds (Slonczewski, Tolkein, Paolini) require more than one book by the same author to show various facets of the created world. Kind of like the difference between a stage set--a "flat," and an actual three-dimensional room that won't reveal anything fake-looking no matter how much you turn it.

Elizabeth, I'd agree that most good SF authors let you explore their worlds, rather than turning your head for you so you look at only what they want you to see.