City of Pearl – Karen Traviss (2004)
The backstory is that Earth has established a colony on a planet around a nearby star. A hardbitten female officer, Shan – on the verge of retirement – is suddenly pulled in for an interview with a high ranking Minister and put in charge of a mission to the colony planet. The journey will take seventy five years so the crew will be frozen.
It appears that colony – a vegetarian devout Christian settlement – is thriving. However they did have help from an alien whose people live on another planet in the system.
Another (aquatic) alien race lives on the human-settled planet beneath the sea, and yet another race wants the humans gone so that they can settle on the planet themselves.
Back home, Earth is at the mercy of Biotech multinational corporations who have patented all of the world’s manufactured crops. They are looking for new material and this planet appears to be the motherlode.
Shan, the reluctant leader of the survey team, finds herself having to mediate between all parties and begins to forge a relationship with Aras, the guardian alien who has become an accepted member of the human colony. However he holds a secret which could lead to war between the various alien races.
The style is reminiscent of Mary Doria Russell and Sheri S Tepper in that there is an intensity in the relationships between various characters that is seldom found in the work of male genre writers.
The central story is the relationship between Shan and Aras, one which starts awkwardly and yet deepens into something if not sexual then of deep mutual respect. Traviss employs some cunning devices in that (a) the alien race is a matriarchal one and Aras is to a certain extent hardwired to kowtow to women in authority and (b) he is hosting a parasite which not only imbues longevity but incorporates useful alien DNA into the host’s metabolism. Thus he has become partly human.
The theme of an alien/human relationship is not a new one. Julie Czerneda employed it in her Web novels recently. It tends to be avoided in SF literature generally although TV Scifi find it almost obligatory for reasons of ratings and demographics. It is not employed here however as a cheap trick and has not so far descended to the level of a romance.
The novel makes very strong points about Genetically Engineered Crops and the Capitalisation of the world’s gene pools. This is paradoxically contrasted by Aras, who to all intents and purposes appears to be genetically engineering himself, or had at least initiated the process.
A fascinating novel that provokes much thought.