Book review: Echo, by Jack McDevitt

24 09 2016

There are a great many SF writers whose work I enjoy, across subgenres encompassing hard SF, space opera, and so on. Among living writers of ‘sense-of-wonder’ SF, I don’t think there’s anyone whose writing I admire quite so much as that of Jack McDevitt. I first encountered his The Engines of God about twenty years ago, and I’ve been a fan ever since.

McDevitt’s books may lack the dizzying, detailed inventiveness of worldbuilding of, say, Iain M Banks’s Culture novels, or the busy sparkle of character interplay that helps propel Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan saga. But I’m not aware of any other SF writer who quite has McDevitt’s mastery of story. Particular favourites of mine are Slow Lightning (which, in the US, is titled Infinity Beach), Ancient Shores, and, latterly, the Alex Benedict series.

Alex Benedict is a dealer in antiquities, in a time far enough in the future for ‘antiquity’ to encompass not only our own present day but also several thousands of years of interstellar spaceflight. The novels are narrated by his resourceful assistant Chase Kolpath. I haven’t been reading the books in sequence: I have a recollection of having read the first book, A Talent for War, many years ago, and I’ve since read the most recent titles, Seeker, Firebird, and Coming Home. But I’ve skipped the intervening titles, and have only now turned my attention to Echo. (The lack of adherence to sequence doesn’t, I think, matter: each book is largely self-contained, although it would be a pity, I think, to read Coming Home before Firebird.)

echo-cover-art

In Echo, Alex learns of the availability of a stone tablet covered in indecipherable hieroglyphs. The tablet is particularly intriguing because the woman offering it is the owner of a house formerly belonging to the late researcher / explorer Somerset (‘Sunset’) Tuttle, whose life’s quest was to find any signs of alien intelligence scattered among the Milky Way’s vastness. Conventional wisdom holds that, had Tuttle’s search proven successful, he would certainly have shouted it from the rooftops; instead, his legagy is seen as one of futility and failure. And yet the tablet’s markings don’t match those of any known human language, nor do they seem to be of (the sole, long-known species of sentient alien) Ashiyyur origin: so did Tuttle, counterintuitively, discover a new race of extraterrestrials, and keep the fact a secret? It seems likely that the tablet holds the answer, but when Chase goes to collect it from the homeowner, she’s informed that it has been given away to another party. Alex tells the gazumpers that he’s prepared to pay handsomely for an artefact which he was, initially, expecting to receive gratis—the homeowner just wanted the thing off her lawn—but he’s met with misdirection, with threats of violence, and, finally, with the news that the tablet has been irretrievably dumped at sea. Just what does the tablet signify, and why has it become, for several people, a matter of life and death?

McDevitt’s ‘Alex Benedict’ novels have a tendency to define, from the outset, the parameters of the unfolding story, and then to subvert those parameters in ways that can, in some instances, leave the author breathless. (Firebird is probably the archetypal example of this, but Echo also does it very well.) My main criticism of the series is that it seems to involve the reasonably straightforward extrapolation of a kind of liberal midwestern US society to the interstellar civilisation of several millenia hence, something which, to me, appears too simplistic to be plausible; but that said, McDevitt’s characters are well-drawn and intriguing, his worlds are impressively busy, his pacing is excellent, and he’s a mastery of SF immersion through such offhand techniques as Heinlein’s ‘the door dilated’: in Echo, for example, when Chase has finished reading a magazine, she turns it off, and when it’s cold outside she turns up the heating on her jacket. (My other criticism would be that, damn him, it’s almost impossible to read McDevitt’s best stuff slowly: he has an enviable knack for producing pageturners.)

I’ve purposely refrained from sketching out too much of the book’s plot, because the Benedict books are constructed, primarily, as big-picture-SF mysteries, and it certainly wouldn’t be fair to give away crucial details. This leaves me rather constrained with how best to sum Echo up, but I can say that I was wholeheartedly impressed by how McDevitt put it all together, I was thoroughly swept up in the story’s slipstream, and I’m glad, on reflection, that it didn’t end up the way I thought it was going to. If you haven’t read McDevitt’s stuff, you’re missing something good.





Book review(s): two Swedish crime novels

19 09 2016

Two more Swedish crime books. The common ground in these stories is their setting, on the large islands (Öland, connected to the mainland by a six-kilometre bridge, and Gotland, whose eastern shore is almost as close to Latvia as it is to the Swedish mainland) off Sweden’s south-east coast. These are, nonetheless, contrasting stories, both in theme and tone: one is concerned with the desperate hunt to identify and detain a mysterious serial killer, in the build-up to the height of the summer tourist season; the other tangles with the ghosts of the past, while a gang of thieves and vandals lay waste to the holiday homes of wealthy mainlanders as autumn segues into a bitter winter.

Mari Jungstedt is a journalist and writer who has written around a dozen crime novels, including a series featuring the detectives Anders Knutas and Karin Jacobsson and the TV reporter Johan Berg. Her work has been televised on Swedish and German TV. Unseen (Den du inte ser, 2003, translated by Tiina Nunnally) is her first novel, and the first in the Knutas / Jacobsson / Berg series.

unseen_mari_jungstedt

Following a disastrous party which terminates in a drunken altercation between her partner and her old schoolfriend, Helena Hillerström takes the dog for an early-morning walk along the west Gotland beach near the cabin she shares with Per Berglund. But neither Helena nor the dog gets to return to the cabin: they are ambushed and slain by an axe-wielding killer on the deserted beach. Suspicion initally falls on her boyfriend Per, and on Kristian, the other participant in the party’s fight, who has already left the country when the police begin their investigation. But a second murder, of Frida Lindh, a hairdresser recently arrived from Stockholm, occurs late at night a week later, while Per is still in custody and Kristian is in Copenhagen. Though the means of death are shockingly similar, there seems nothing which connects Helena and Frida other than their age and the coincidence that both have moved from Stockholm to Gotland within the past year. Knutas and Jacobsson must try to find the killer before any more violent deaths can occur.

Unseen is wonderfully written, in clear compelling prose, with a taut, multiply-stranded plot, a profusion of tantalising items of evidence, and a multiplicity of character viewpoints that lifts it out of the ‘police procedural’ category. Jungstedt’s background in TV journalism shows, too, in the strand exploring Berg’s efforts to elucidate information on the crimes that the police are not yet ready to divulge. It’s a very well-crafted piece of fiction, and serves as an excellent introduction to what would seem to be a highly promising murder mystery series. The cover blurb compares Jungstedt to Henning Mankell; I feel a more apt comparison would be the work of Åsa Larsson, whose The Savage Altar (another highly polished debut) I reviewed some months ago. There’s also some common ground with Camilla Läckberg’s Fjällbacka series, with Jungstedt’s incisive handling of a romantic sub-plot that, as it happens, heightens rather than distracts from the unfolding tension.

Johan Theorin, another journalist / novelist, is the author of several books, including the ‘Öland Quartet’, a set of four loosely-connected  books which blend crime with a hint of the supernatural. The Darkest Room (Nattfåk, 2008, translated by Marlaine Delargy) is the second in the Quartet, and has won Swedish and international crime writing awards.

the-darkest-room

Joakim and Katrine Westin and their two young children have recently moved from Stockholm to the ‘manor house’, a renovators’ dream at Eel Point on eastern Öland. The house is steeped in history and atmosphere, and they have no regrets at having left the big city far behind them. But tragedy strikes when Joakim is away picking up the last of their belongings from their old Stockholm apartment, and he drives back to the island having learnt that Livia, his young daughter, has drowned in mysterious circumstances. He has heard this terrible news from a young policewoman, Tilda Davidsson, who has begun to investigate a series of increasingly audacious and violent break-ins on the island. There is nothing connecting the Westins to these break-ins, until the thieves elect to turn their attention to Eel Point. But it begins to appear that the living may not be the only unwanted guests about to descend upon the manor house …

The Darkest Room is a seriously spooky book, which I’d recommend not be read while you’re the only one in the house, particularly if you happen to live near a derelict lighthouse. (The closest parallel among other Scandicrime books I’ve read would probably be Yrsa Sigurðardóttir’s The Silence of the Sea, which is also disconcertingly atmospheric.) I’m not normally a fan of ‘ghost stories’, and The Darkest Room certainly has the flavour of phantoms about it, but it’s also a subtle and well-framed story that takes its time to reveal its true nature, underpinned by an exceptionally well-concealed crime. Like Unseen, it employs a multiplicity of character viewpoints: this, and the lack of an obvious overarching criminal act, makes the story slow to become immersive, but it does reward the reader’s patience. The book’s third act is painfully suspenseful: Theorin uses his multiple-viewpoint approach here to maximum effect, as the story’s various players converge on Eel Point while an approaching blizzard threatens mayhem of its own.

Theorin also does a very good job of exploring his setting, including a treatment of the forces of nature that vividly highlights the power and the danger associated with the midwinter storms; arguably, the island is as much a character within the book as its human participants. Of those humans, the reactions of the Westin family to their tragedy are detailed, idiosyncratic, and plausible, while Tilda Davidsson is an intriguing and realistically flawed detective figure (though I’m not sure if she features in the other books of the Quartet).

It’s interesting to note that, while Unseen has the more overtly vicious sequence of crimes, The Darkest Room has the more distinctly sinister narrative. I enjoyed Jungstedt’s writing from the outset; Theorin’s needed to win me over. Ultimately, though, they both work well.





Book review: Heaven Chronicles, by Joan D Vinge

12 09 2016

Joan D Vinge is an American SF author who has won the Hugo for her novel The Snow Queen; she has also written the novelisations for several movies, including Mad Max: Beyond ThunderdomeLost in Space and Cowboys and Aliens.

heavenchronicles

Vinge’s asteroid-colony book Heaven Chronicles is novel-length, but it’s not a single novel: instead it combines the works Legacy (which I judge to be on the awkward cusp, in length, between a novella and a short novel) and the short(ish) novel The Outcasts of Heaven Belt. To complicate matters slightly, Legacy is itself a combination of two short novellas Media Man and Fool’s Gold. Two of the three component stories (Media Man and Outcasts) first appeared in Analog magazine, respectively in 1976 and 1978; Fool’s Gold was first published in Galileo magazine in 1980. Media Man, Legacy, and The Outcasts of Heaven Belt have also all been published separately as paperbacks. Additionally, Vinge has apparently revised all of this material, in a book entitled Heaven Belt which, to the best of my knowledge, has not yet seen release. The edition of Heaven Chronicles I read dates from 1991.

The tales within Heaven Chronicles all concern the unfolding, and downward-spiralling, history of the colonised asteroid belt orbiting the star Heaven, in a system rich in planetoidal resources but lacking any habitable planets. The two stories comprising Legacy explore the adventures of prospector-turned-media-reporter Chaim Dartagnan and pilot Mythili Fukinuki, who meet as participants in an ill-fated mission to rescue the wealthy occupant of a spacecraft marooned on the frozen, inhospitable Planet Two. Outcasts deals with the events that unfold following the arrival in Heaven system of Ranger, a well-resourced and technologically advanced starship piloted by Betha Torgussen who, after the ship comes under attack from an overzealous colony defence force, is one of only two survivors from an original complement of seven.

There’s a decidedly old-fashioned and pulpy feel to Heaven Chronicles. (I offer this as an attempt at classification rather than any implied criticism.) There’s a lot of argument, a lot of tension, some well-telegraphed action and a kind of rough simplicity to the characterisation, moreso in the space-operatic Outcasts than in Legacy. The most obvious overarching characteristics of the stories are, however, an evidently thoroughgoing respect for the laws of physics and an interest in the exploration of gender politics. It’s probably relevant also to note the book’s thoroughgoing use of ‘metric time’—i.e. seconds, kiloseconds, megaseconds, gigaseconds—rather than the ‘imperial time’ (hours / days / years etc.) to which readers are presumably accustomed. The use of unconventional time units is initially disruptive—the conversion to familiar units has to be thought through, the first few times—but does, I think, encourage a degree of immersion in the story that might otherwise be absent.

I found Legacy to be the more rewarding of the assembled components: while neither Dartagnan nor Fukinuki is a particularly compelling viewpoint character, the interaction between them is fascinating, and I appreciated the story’s ultimate (rather elliptical) denouement. Outcasts suffered slightly by comparison: the story seemed overlong and meandering in places. Overall, while I found the book enjoyable, I suspect its ‘bitsy-ness’ might irk some readers, since, despite the presence of common characters, the three stories don’t really mesh together to form a complete whole. On the other hand, it would probably hold a strong appeal to devotees of 1950s and 1960s space-based SF.

(This is the tenth in my ‘XX Hard SF’ series of reviews, on women writers of hard SF. For the purpose behind the series of reviews, see my posts here and here; for a listing of the books reviewed in this project, refer here.)





Blurbing the line between truth and fiction

8 09 2016

In 1999, I read a book. (To clarify: if memory serves, I read several books that year, and have read others since. But I speak, here, of one particular book.)

earth-made-of-glass

John Barnes’ Earth Made of Glass is the second in his ‘Thousand Cultures’ series, which centres on the exploits of cultural agent Giraut Leones. The series posits an interstellar human diaspora, colonising dozens of planets around other star systems, then falling prey to a ‘dark age’ which sees the capability for interstellar spaceflight lost, for a couple of millenia. The series explored the difficulties in re-establishing contact, and then trade relations, with a disparate group of cultures that have been, for as long as their own histories record, alone in the universe. It’s an interesting concept, and Barnes wasn’t the first to explore such a theme, but he handled it well. The first book in the series, A Million Open Doors, is one of my favourite SF novels; its followup, Earth Made of Glass, is also an exceptional novel—I enjoyed it too, though it’s a much darker book than AMOD. (There are two further titles in the series: I’ve read the third, but haven’t yet tackled the fourth.)

But it’s not so much the series I wish to highlight here, but a blurb, the blurb for the UK-published hardback edition of Earth Made Of Glass. I’ll reproduce it here, in toto:

At the furthest reaches of the galaxy exist the Thousand Cultures, societies scattered across 31 inhabited worlds in 25 star systems. The inner complex—which includes Earth—has been able to exert control over the Thousand Cultures because it contains 90% of all human population and because all traffic must pass through it. But humanity is expanding and the complexes are beginning to fight over access to the frontier worlds. At the frontline—Quidde, base of Chaka Home: a culture based on a Millenialist black American sect claiming spiritual descent from Chaka Zulu’s army—Giraut and Margaret must prevent the outbreak of a repeat of ancient history: a war of hatred as three cultural factions threaten a struggle with echoes of the bloodiest genocides of the 20th century.

I’ve emboldened the final, rather lengthy sentence, because that’s the one I’d like to draw your attention to. It’s quite a specific sentence, and having read it, one might imagine oneself to be somewhat better prepared for the contents of the book within the dust jacket. There are numerous details referenced, after all. And yet (spoiler alert) almost every component of that final sentence bears no relation to the book itself. Earth Made of Glass does, I’ll concede, feature Giraut and his wife Margaret, there is indeed a war of hatred threatened, but the rest of it: Quidde, Chaka Home, a Millenialist black American sect, Chaka Zulu … never mentioned. Not one reference in the entire book. The planet central to the book’s setting is Briand, not Quidde, and there are two cultural factions—derived from the Tamil and Mayan cultures—not the three the blurb mentions. It’s kinda like the back cover to Alien casually mentioning that the movie is about a mining crew that lands on a desolate planet and finds a werewolf, or the summary of Fahrenheit 451 letting slip that the book is set in a society where ambulance drivers steal paintings. (Wouldn’t you be like ‘That ambulance driver better show up soon, or I’m shelving this‘? Or ‘Where’s the werewolf? Dad, you promised this movie had a werewolf! Let’s just switch—oh, yuck, that’s gross. I’m never eating breakfast again.‘) And this blurb also appears frequently on Amazon and Abebooks and elsewhere, so it’s not merely restricted to an out-of-print hardback edition.

I’ve always wondered: how does this happen? How can a blurb be this precisely, this meticulously wrong about the book it describes? I’m accustomed to blurbs sometimes missing the point, or saying (for example, in this instance) ‘at the furthest reaches of the galaxy’ where they mean ‘maybe fifty light years, at most, from Earth’, or suggesting the story pivots around a particular plot point which really turns out to be a quite minor detail in the unfolding storyline. Such things are all grist for the mill, and I doubt that any reader does more than bat an eyelid or three if they notice the blurb proclaims ‘intergalactic’ where ‘interplanetary’ is indicated; but in EMoG‘s case, the final sentence of the blurb, where it gets down to brass tacks, is is clearly something different. Here there are at least five specific, significant interlocking plot details (Quidde / Chaka Home / Millenialist black American sect / Chaka Zulu’s army / three cultural factions) which are comprehensively incorrect.

It’s difficult to see how this occurs. Did the blurb writer have too much on his or her plate, and mixed up the content of two books for which she or he was simultaneously drafting back-cover summaries? (Except I can’t find any trace on the internet of books other than EMoG which reference ‘Quidde’ and ‘Chaka Home’, so this appears unlikely.) Or does the blurb accurately reflect the content of an earlier version of the manuscript, accepted by the publisher, blurbed, and then very drastically revised at an advanced stage of the publication process, perhaps to avert controversy arising from the story’s original content? (In which case, didn’t anyone notice that the blurb no longer fitted the drastically-revised story?)

I’m all for mysteries in fiction, but I’d prefer them not to reside in the liner notes.





Book review(s): two Scandinavian murder mysteries

8 09 2016

Another doubled-up Scandicrime book review. This time the authors are of different nationalities (Norwegian versus Swedish), but there’s more than just a coincidence of name that they share: both books are concerned with astute, unconventional women who prefer, one way or another, to live on the margins. And with brutal acts of bloody murder. (And, tangentially, with ponytailed men: what’s with that?)

InTheDarkness

Karin Fossum, who won the (Nordic crime) Glass Key Award in 1996, is a Norwegian crime fiction writer and poet who has also worked in healthcare and drug rehabilitation. She’s probably best known for her ‘Inspector Sejer’ series of novels.

In the Darkness (Evas Øye, ‘Eva’s Eye’, 1995, translated by James Anderson) is Fossum’s debut novel—though it followed several volumes of poetry—and the first of the ‘Inspector Sejer’ series. Sejer seems a distinctly more kindly and inherently approachable person than other notable Scandinavian sleuths such as Wallander and Erlendur (he has more in common, I think, with Patrik Hedström from Camilla Läckberg’s ‘Fjällbacka’ series), but he’s arguably not the principal character in Darkness, which focusses on the predicament, and indeed the mental state, of the bohemian artist Eva Magnus, who on discovering, with her daughter Emma, the waterlogged and badly decomposing body of a man being carried by spring melt down the town’s river, elects to phone not the police (as she tells her daughter) but rather her elderly father. It transpires that the corpse (once the police have been notified of it by some more civic-minded, less unorthodox citizen) is that of brewery worker Egil Einarsson, first reported missing six months previously and now revealed to have been brutally murdered. It transpires also that Einarsson was last seen alive just three days after the death by suffocation of call-girl (and Eva’s childhood friend) Maja Durban, the town’s only other notable unsolved homicide. Could the two deaths be connected in some manner? And what kind of danger has Eva found herself in?

Fossum’s prose is a pleasure to read—the long(ish) description that opens the book’s second chapter, an unhurried river’s-eye-view of the town central to the novel’s unravelling, is exquisite—and the ensemble cast, headed up by Eva and Sejer, is well fleshed out. This is a very accomplished first novel, and seems a logical starting point from which to explore the Inspector Sejer series. The central crime is fully explored and resolved within the book’s pages, but two or three significant background strands of plot (which, in order to avoid spoilishness, I won’t enumerate further) are left largely hanging, which detracted from my enjoyment of the ending. Of course, in life not all details will be tidied away with decorous expedience, but one is, I think, entitled to some untidiness in life which cannot generally be extended to fiction, nor specifically to a murder mystery novel. Notwithstanding this sense of frayed edges, In the Darkness is a compelling book, elegantly expressed, and Sejer is a promising focal figure for a series of this type.

Missing

Karin Alvtegen is a Swedish crime fiction writer, teleplay writer, and grandniece of Astrid Lindgren. Her Glass-Key-award-winning book Missing (Saknad, 2000, translated by Anna Paterson) is her second novel, though it appears to have been the first translated into English.

Sibylla Forsenström, the banished only daughter from a wealthy but psychologically damaging family, is, as the book opens, a high-functioning homeless woman, accustomed to living off her wits on the streets of Stockholm, and doing rather well by it. But she has the misfortune to choose as her mark, one evening at Stockholm’s Grand Hotel, the same middle-aged businessman whom an obsessive and brutal serial killer has selected for butchery. She is the last person to have been witnessed in the doomed businessman’s company, her prints are on his room key, and she is completely without alibi: thus, on the run, she becomes not merely the prime suspect but the only suspect. Her sole imperative is to stay hidden—something for which, after fifteen years of practice, she has a natural aptitude—until the police can find a killer they are not searching for. But there is only so long that she can hope to remain at large before her luck runs out …

Missing is, ultimately, a murder mystery, but for much of its span it’s a tale of simple (or not-so-simple) survival, told partly as Sibylla is on the run, seeking refuge in those of her old haults that she considers safe, alone or with those of her outsider colleagues in whom she feels she can place some minimal trust, and partly in flashback as Sibylla experiences an adolescence that is alternately pampered and bruising. She’s an engaging, sympathetically flawed character whose strengths may not suffice to keep her from the arms of the police, or of someone yet worse. Alvtegen’s insights into the lives of the homeless feel credible and detailed, and most of the book’s twists and turns devolve naturally from Sibylla’s need to stay one step ahead of the police. And the somewhat unorthodox focus on flight, rather than on deduction, gives the story a sense of freshness. It’s well told, and emotionally satisfying, though (in some contrast to In the Darkness) I did feel that it was tied up a little too neatly at the end. (To clarify my respective niggles on this score, and without wanting to be overly prescriptive on these matters, I would expect that a murder mystery novel should reasonably resolve every significant plot point of relevance to the central crimes, while closing with the suggestion that the protagonists’ lives remain complicated. Both of these novels tested this expectation in ways I wouldn’t, as it were, expect.)

While I haven’t (yet) read any other books by either author, I have the strong suspicion that neither Eva nor Sibylla gets a return visit in later works. Which on one level is a pity, because they’re both strongly memorable characters.





Probably should have mentioned this earlier

7 09 2016

Yesterday was apparently ‘Fight Procrastination Day’.





Book review: The Color of Distance, by Amy Thomson

28 08 2016

Amy Thomson is an American SF writer whose work has won the John W Campbell Award. The Color of Distance, her second novel, was published in 1995 and was nominated for the Philip K Dick Award.

color_of_distance

I decided to read this book with the expectation that it might be classifiable as hard SF. I don’t believe it does qualify fully on that score, for a couple of reasons. Nonetheless, it does many of the things I look for in a SF novel: detailed and self-consistent worldbuilding, effective character interplay, and a solid sense-of-wonder. I enjoyed it tremendously.

Xenobiologist Juna Saari lies dying in an alien rainforest when she’s found by two inquisitive, amphibious, arboreal Tendu. The rainforest dwellers nurse Juna back to health, at considerable cost: two of the members of Narmolom, their tribe, die as a result of their intervention, which sees Juna body-modified so as to avert a lethal allergic reaction to this world’s pollens. And as Juna learns to communicate with the Tendu (whose silent ‘speech’ is mediated by chameleonism, explaining the novel’s title), she discovers that these creatures, on whom she is forced to depend for her survival, view her with great resentment and distrust. Nonetheless, she is able to enlist their assistance in guiding her back through the forest to her survey’s base camp … only to discover that the landing craft has already broken camp, and the mothership is unavoidably preparing to leave this system for the jump back to Earth. Juna is left stranded on an alien world, with a wait of years before the survey ship can return to rescue her. She must integrate into the Tendu society or die.

Amy Thomson excels at showing us the world through the eyes of ‘the other’. In her first novel Virtual Girl (which I read almost two decades ago), she shows us the life of a sentient and anatomically female robot, trying to find a place for herself in human society; in The Color of Distance she gives us alternating chapters through the eyes of Juna and Ani, the Tendu tribesperson who is given responsibility for watching over, and educating, Juna. The biodiverse rainforest on which the Tendu depend for their survival is beautifully elaborated as the story unfolds, and the intricacies of Tendu society are very different from the norms of human behaviour, sometimes confrontingly so. Ani’s sponsor Ilto is one of the villagers dead after the rescue of Juna, with the result that Ani and Juna start the story as enemies. But they are enemies united by a shared responsibility: to redress the structural and environmental damage that was inflicted on the rainforest by Juna and her colleagues on the visiting Earth ship in their desire to learn the local ecology’s secrets without leaving any residual taint of earthlife when they decamp.

The reasons why I believe The Color of Distance cannot properly be classed as hard SF (and why, therefore, I haven’t packaged this review as part of my occasional ‘XX Hard SF’ series) are that it invokes a lazily handwavy version of faster-than-light travel—hyperspace—and, more seriously, that it imbues the Tendu with properties of mind-directed biochemical manipulation that are difficult not to be seen as magical. Other than these lapses in scientific veracity, the book adheres fairly faithfully to what we know, or might reasonably extrapolate, about the Universe. And it had me well hooked from quite early on.

Thomson’s impressively granular description of life within and around a subsistence-level tribe perfectly adapted to an alien rainforest is presented, for the most part, in local terminology that the reader assimilates as the narrative progresses: Ani is Ilto’s bami when the story begins, but her sitik dies when the new creature, whom Ilto helped heal through the process of allu-a, is nursed back to health, so it’s understandable that Ani is resentful of the visiting enkar‘s judgment that the new creature must become her atwa. The book does include a glossary that approximately defines these and other Tendu terms, but the glossary isn’t really necessary; the vocabulary explains itself, more or less, through the directions taken by the story. This immersive detail is one of the book’s strengths, and it helps to ensure that we are every bit as engaged with local Ani’s worldview as we are with the human interloper Juna. If, like me, you look for a vividness in the alien environment in your science fiction, I suspect you’ll find a lot to like in The Color of Distance. You’ll perhaps be less enthralled by it if your demand for dramatic tension is high: although there is considerable confrontation within the book, much of this is subtle in flavour and resolved with patience and negotiation rather than physical standoff. Of its type, though, it’s a highly effective story, satisfying and emotionally fulfilling: I cannot, off the top of my head, think of any other story I’ve read which has conveyed the alien experience with such clarity.

The novel is certainly complete in itself, but Thomson has written a sequel, Through Alien Eyes (1999), which may well also merit investigation.