Some science fiction revels in its immersion in the futurescape, that unknowable presentation of technology and society that seems so distantly related to our own. Utopian fiction likes to posit that we will somehow overcome our vices (though, for the sake of story conflict, discover wonderful new ones). Dystopian fiction does the opposite, amplifying our vices with scary new methods of oppression, while also offering the hope of an easy dismantling of the totalitarian bureaucracy, very often by a plucky young protagonist who doesn’t know any better.
So, it’s kind of nice when someone like Karen Traviss offers up science fiction that throws such comfortable ideas out the window.
City of Pearl offers no easy answers. There is no magic formula that persuades antagonists to change their mind, no way to smooth over relations and create a happily-ever-after. From the moment Shan sets down on the planet around Cavanaugh’s Star until the moment the other human ship arrives, everything just seems to get worse, despite all her efforts to make it better. In the end, Traviss makes one question whether one person can ever be enough against the inexorable tide of folly that seems to follow our species around.
This is a postcolonial novel. Science fiction is one of the best settings for postcolonialism, as City of Pearl demonstrates. It’s too easy these days to think that colonialism is "over", that just because the "colonies" are gone the attitudes don’t remain. Traviss shows that colonialism is an ongoing process, one that would extend into space travel if it possibly could. This is a story about how corporations have colonized our heritage and pushed people out into the stars, only to come chasing after them, waving patents and injunctions like so many smallpox-infected blankets. The psychic and physical destruction wrought to Bezer’ej by humans and isenj in the name of “survival”, “commerce”, or any other totem, is no different from the way colonizers of the past and present have asserted and continue to assert their rights while trampling on those of indigenous people, be they inhabitants of a continent on Earth or the bezeri in this book.
Shan is our window into this world. She exists to provide a facet of nuance to an otherwise bleak morality play that indicts humanity’s expansionist ethos. I love that Shan is so far from perfect there’s no point in measuring. She is flawed, and so human and conflicted in her choices and actions. Ostensibly an agent of “the man”, a government enforcer of bureaucracy and regulation, she nurses a wilder, more rebellious side that agrees with what some of the eco-terrorists she represses are trying to do. This is all supposed to be moot when she takes the 75-year journey away from Earth to a distant planet. But with the arrival of Actaeon, everything comes crashing down. Shan is forced to act, perhaps rashly. Yet she remains our rock, our only point of sympathetic reference, because so many of the other humans in this book seem to be fucking awful.
From the self-absorbed, self-righteous scientists to the distant governments of Earth, the other humans in City of Pearl make me ashamed of my species. And I think that’s what Traviss is going for. This is not a "yay, humanity!" book. Unfortunately, it seems all too realistic a prediction of what could happen if interstellar colonization becomes possible. Any hope that the past few centuries of history and hindsight have changed us for the better is fatally misplaced.
That’s not to say that the antagonists are one-dimensional. Some of them certainly seem that way on an individual basis. But there are plenty of people, like Eddie and Lindsay, who are grey areas. Neither antagonist nor protagonist, they are free agents who aid or act against Shan based on the dictates of their consciences, which might differ from her own. Lindsay’s character arc particularly fascinates me. She begins by supporting Shan, even when Shan’s actions start to become extreme from the others’ points of view. But as her own sense of authority erodes in proportion to her pregnancy, Lindsay begins to question whether Shan’s morality is the best for the mission. Aras’ decision to save Shan’s life by infecting her with the c’naatat compounds the problem, for when Lindsay finds out it could have saved the life of her infant, she flips out. And, on balance, it seems obvious that Shan and Aras have the right of it when they defend their decision. But that doesn’t lessen the emotional impact of the event, or make Lindsay’s pain any less real.
The climax is a harsh lesson that often there is no easy answer to these vast dilemmas. There is no easy way for Shan to shake off c’naatat and avoid a hearing regarding her actions as expedition leader. There is no easy way to deal with the political tangle of Earth governments getting cozy with the isenj even as the colonists have become closer to the wess’har. Instead, the situation just gets messier and messier, until something has to give.
City of Pearl isn’t exactly about colonizing a planet as it is not colonizing it. It’s the story of how being 75 years away can mess up the best laid plans of governments and politicians. It’s the story of how individuals make mistakes and try to make amends, and sometimes it’s just not enough. It’s messy and tragic, occasionally funny, and very entertaining.