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.


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.




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