Thursday, July 25, 2013
City of Pearl, by Karen Traviss
To provide a very basic plot overview Environmental Police Officer Shan Frankland has been selected to lead a one-way mission to a human colony twenty-five light years away. It will be a one-way mission for her because by the time she returns a hundred and fifty years shall have passed on earth, making it a different world. However, the mission becomes far more complicated when it turns out there are three alien species interested in the planet of Bezer'ej with the human colony on it, and there is a chance that a renewed human presence may spark an interstellar war.
WARNING! To adequately discuss this novel I shall have to delve into spoilers. If you have any interest in reading it spoiler-free run away now!
The first issue I want to talk about, and this kind of ties into the book being part of a series, is that a lot of plot threads get introduced in this novel but a lot of them go nowhere and are severely underdeveloped. Just for sake of example, it turns out the commander of the marine detachment sent along with the investigative team is pregnant. So she decides to carry the baby to term and then he's born premature and dies because they don't have adequate medical facilities. ....That's it. It's an attempt to develop Lindsay Neville's character but it just doesn't go anywhere and ends as quietly as it was introduced, remaining forever on the sidelines. Don't get me wrong, it's tragic to lose a baby like that, but there was so little development of Lindsay's character that I didn't feel any sort of emotional connection. It was just a thing that happened in the background. Another subplot was Shan's real mission to Bezer'ej, which was given to her in a Suppressed Briefing so she knows it subconsciously but it will only be revealed to her when a proper trigger is met. I actually thought this was a really nifty device to gradually introduce exposition across the book, which can be a challenge for authors, but again Shan's real mission goes nowhere. She's actually sent to find the human colony's gene bank and bring back samples of unmodified, unpatented crops for use on Earth because all crops currently in existence are patented by large agri-corporations. Again, the patenting of genetically modified crops is a serious issue in the modern day and deserved a lot more development than it got in the book, because Shan ultimately isn't going back to Earth and so the crop samples are staying there with her. Also, I think it was implied that the government had gotten fully bought out by the corporations but it wasn't explicitly stated. Either way, there was no point because the crops aren't coming back to Earth since Shannon has decided to stay behind. It was just really irritating for me because both of these topics were really serious issues that could have been explored in depth but they were effectively tied up with little to no chance of future development in later novels.
Another issue, and this will be minor compared to the big one coming up, was the inconsistency in the story about a number of things. Again, as an example, the book couldn't seem to decide what state Earth was in when Shan left. It's mentioned that the colony's gene bank is supposed to one day help bring biodiversity back to Earth, but at the same time there are plenty of people still living on Earth and obviously growing crops and able to establish colonies within the solar system and launch interstellar missions so clearly it isn't a blasted hellhole. Or, in another example, the society back on Earth is described as highly secular and rampantly consumerist with a disregard for the environment. Yet at the same time Shan works as an Environmental police officer and all of the equipment issued to the Marines is described as biodegradable, sustainable, or recyclable. Would a rampantly consumerist economy really issue their military biodegradable bullet casings? Finally, and this is a REALLY BIG SPOILER, Shan gets shot in the head and is saved by an alien, Aras, who has taken a liking to her. Basically Aras is infected with a parasite that makes him immortal. As a result he's seen everyone he cares about die and is an exile among his own community of aliens due to his nature. Furthermore when Shan finds out she explicitly tells him that if she ever gets infected with his parasite be sure to kill her because she couldn't deal with being immortal. (Yes, there is a way to kill them, it's just really, really hard to do, so I guess they're effectively immortal.) Again, dealing with immortality and being forever alone is another major issue that deserves its own book. However, when Shan takes a bullet to the head Aras decides protocol and promises be damned, and infects her with the immortality parasite. Initially Shan is mad about this but then is just, "Eh, whatever, I'll deal with it." I probably haven't given this inconsistency the full justice of its effect but it's fairly rage-inducing on my end. I can almost sense that the immortality issue is going to get dragged out in future installments of this series and to be honest I really don't want to deal with it so I'm not going to. It's all these little inconsistencies that make me utterly frustrated with the book and its inability to remain consistent on a number of issues.
The really big issue, and this is what really frustrated me with this book, was that all of these inconsistencies and abandoned plot threads were buried under some of the most rampantly offensive pro-vegan propaganda I have ever encountered. Now, I personally have nothing against vegans. If you wish to make that lifestyle choice then you are free to do so and may you be happy doing it. At the same time, however, I ask that you respect my lifestyle choice to go ahead and eat meat in conjunction with fruits and vegetables because I think it's delicious. The trouble I have with the depiction of vegans in fiction is that generally they're portrayed as sanctimonious, holier-than-thou assholes who are in the moral right because they don't abuse animals like you do, which is a very unfair portrayal of veganism. Furthermore, this vegan lifestyle is not only promoted but enforced by the wess'har, aliens with much, much bigger guns than us, and apparently it's okay to enforce veganism and a lifestyle "in balance with nature" at the barrel of a gun. Granted, the humans were on their land and it's good manners to obey the rules of the host, but I got the feeling that they wanted to enforce their particular views beyond just their own backyard, where I take issue. Furthermore, I thought it was rather hypocritical of them to make the humans live in underground houses that didn't despoil the landscape while they were allowed to build a giant city that dominated the landscape rather than being in harmony with it. Finally, the whole pro-vegan language went to far when the wess'har advised against treading too hard on the grass because you might hurt it. Really? We have to worry about offending the plants now? I admit that animal cruelty is, again, a major and serious issue and there are plenty of problems with our current farming process. However, once you start saying that we need to worry about what the plants might think makes me lose any and all respect for your opinion.
I would recommend my readers just avoid this book entirely. There are subplots that get wrapped up and have little to no influence on the larger plot so they just waste your time and much of the world is inconsistent to a maddening degree. Drown the whole thing in poorly rationalized pro-vegan ideology and you get a frustrating and disappointing novel with a lot of wasted potential.