About: A new generation of pioneers seeks sanctuary from our dying earth in a mission to a new planet. Only the patient, whole-minded Quakers have worked out the challenges to turn these theoretical missions into a reality. This literary hard sci-fi follows the takeoff, the problems encountered during the mission and the effects of those challenges on the very human community that rises to meet them. Published 1998, Adult Sci-fi. Awards: 1998 Oregon Book Award Nominee for Fiction (Finalist). A NYTimes Notable Book.
The Short of It: This book will appeal to a certain kind of reader, certainly, because of its carefully crafted tech details, people and atmosphere. I care about two of the three (people and atmosphere), so I liked it. The complaint I hear most often (and agree with) is that the plot moves very slowly.
What I Loved: (1) The setting and descriptions work with other elements to create pitch-perfect tone in this novel of “the new frontier.” It’s beautiful and bleak, a real gem. (2) Molly Gloss slows down each moment so you can understand the psychology of each moment, sensation and act of humanity—grief, adultery, lust, fear, etc.—and you grow to care for these flawed people because you see yourself in them. (3) I also loved the cultural vision and authentic feeling of the Quaker meetings, both the personal and collective experiences of them. They feel very genuine, neither sentimental nor unfeeling. Having attended small religious meetings all my life, I was tickled to recognize the characters in the Quaker meetings: the elder, the blah-blah-er, the gossip, the elderly, etc.
What I Didn’t Love: (1) A few things didn’t ring quite true—such as when a God-fearing person refers to humans as animals. Maybe futuristic Quakers will accept a completely naturalistic explanation of life, in which humans are considered animals; but I doubt that this will ever be a majority opinion among spiritual communities (although I have very little familiarity with Quaker theology). I think the reverence for our humanity, the thing that separates us from animals, is too great for that sort of casual comment. It sounds like agnosticism trying to mask itself as theology.
But those moments are comparatively rare. Gloss got the important thing right, namely that for all the truthful, searing human folly present in every character, there is also a certain peace about the community that rings just as true.
(2) The plot is a bit of a snore, although the tension in the writing still kept me reading. The structure and purpose of the book were better formed than they are in your typical character or plot driven novels. This novel was more “idea-driven,” or, as Orson Scott Card might have put it in his Writing Science Fiction and Fantasy, “milieu-driven.” The wandering plot feels designed to mirror the wandering quality of a Quaker’s movements in the spiritual realm—waiting for the spirit to speak through them to the community at large. Waiting. Listening. Then, perhaps, speaking.
Other Comments: There is some very technical jargon about the ship and the theories of survival. I don’t really understand or care about those, but I thought I’d mention them in case they matter to someone else.
Recommendation: For adults who love thoughtful, literary sci-fi and for readers wanting an intro to hard-sci-fi (because the book is rather short).
***3 stars for character, atmosphere and cohesive vision.
Favorite Quote: “When people are feeling the weight of their own lives, they want to see the life other animals are given, and there is something mysterious and revealing about the discarded machinery of birds’ lives. In abandoned flakes of eggshell, emptied seed cases, the hollow stems of cottongrass, in the delicate attenuated backbones of fish and the teeth of desiccated crustaceans, you can sometimes glimpse the bare and intricate structures of God” (239).