I don’t know that I’ve ever said this, but what this story needs is more words.
You read that right.
Sara, an exoethnologist, has just returned to her home world of Capella. Things have changed quite a bit since she was last here, most significantly, a former mentor is now a government power-player and wants her to take a position on a first-contact mission. Unofficially, he’s also like her to keep tabs on a disgraced member of his clan. She readily agrees, and shortly after she and the contact team are beamed fifty-eight light years away to the first contact ship orbiting above the inhabited planet. And that is when things really get strange.
Sara is an easy character to relate to; a natural skeptic, independent, mischievous–a narrative centering on her was an easy way to be introduced to concepts of traveling between planets and the resulting challenges of time-line management. Before long, Gilman added the journal entries of Thora, the woman Sara is monitoring. Initially, I treated the journal entries as a secondary voice, but eventually they consumed the narrative and became one of the driving story-lines, not mere background device. The result is–in my immediate opinion–a bit of a scramble. Third person, first person historical, second person, dream states, first person. More words might have smoothed some of this out.
Then there’s a plot. The beginning creates the assumption that Thora is in need of a minder, and Sara seems to fit the part. However, Sara’s given almost no information about Thora (nor time to find it out, apparently). Not long after the group is established on the ship, a guard is murdered. Strangely, it becomes an event that is quickly forgotten. Other significant events happen and are equally quickly set aside. Given the character development, it left me puzzled that any of our characters could be so sidetracked.
I was reminded of a recent Ilona Andrews post where she advised on the use of flashbacks and whether they take a reader out of the narrative. The parallel here is that the many plot lines treated with virtually equal importance took me out of whatever plot I was following at the time. Gilman should have decided which was more important–the protection/Sara/Thora mystery, the events of discovery and first-contact, the exploration of metaphysical consciousness. They don’t quite gestalt at the end, leaving me confused at what I was supposed to be reading.
What kept me going was excellent characterization and a clear strength of the story. The self-discovery of two of the characters felt quite genuine. It more than passes the Bechdel test with a variety of primary and secondary female characters interacting in many different capacities. There are a multitude of planets and cultural groups, so it is also pleasant to have a vague but present idea of future multi-culturalism, much like Star Trek: Next Generation. (Also like Star Trek, there are apparently ‘good’ cultures and ‘bad’ cultures).
I also enjoyed the metaphysics of the story, although they didn’t really evolve until mid-book. The science, however, was strictly for people that can accept a number of devices and not sweat the details. It reminded me of LeGuin and her device the ‘ansible’ that allowed instantaneous communication; there’s a bit more psuedo-science than I suspect hard-core sci-fi fans might like. But it contains a bunch of interesting concepts to play around with.
Ursula LeGuin blurbed this–not an everyday occurrence–so I was expecting something quite great. However–and I mean this in the kindest way possible–this is LeGuin Lite. It will suit readers who don’t have the patience for her slow and weighty building (a group in which I can sometimes be counted). There are Big Ideas here, but I don’t think Gilman knows exactly the story she wants to tell. An author to look out for, certainly, but not one for my shelves.