City of Pearl

City of Pearl
Karen Traviss

I hadn’t heard of City of Pearl until reading an article somewhere, possibly io9, about military science fiction. I am uncertain why this was on there, as it is not really MilSF despite the presence of a few marines. Still, new books are new books, so I gave it a shot. I know nothing of the genesis of this book, but it is a powerful debut, all the more so for its understated tone and grounded narrative. Traviss has a solid journalist’s resume, so it’s not like she is an amateur trying her hand; her background quietly fills the corners of the story and gives it gravity. She also perpetrates a pet peeve of mine, superfluous apostrophe usage in planet or race name, but I will forgive it just this once.

Let’s get the obligatory stuff out of the way first, before moving on to what really interests me. City of Pearl rewards the reader who digs into its complexity. Instead of Good Guys and Bad Guys, there are complicated people with multi-layered relationships and incompatible goals. There are several distinct groups, whether it be entire species, tribes within a species, or alliances across racial lines, each with its own worldview that may or may not conflict with others. There are aliens who are close enough to humans to elicit understanding, but distinct in ways that challenge characters and readers. There are big ideas like Science, Capitalism, and The Environment that tend to work at cross purposes, though conflict need not be inevitable. In other words, if we swap out the distant planet and a couple of alien races, we’re left with something that looks very much like Earth, circa Right Now.

All of this is outlined in direct, economical prose. Traviss allows herself lyrical moments once in a while, but this is primarily a “just the facts, ma’am” style that reflects well on her journalism background. She has also apparently spent enough time as a foreign correspondent, possibly embedded with troops or police, to give the writing its proper weight and verisimilitude. I appreciate verbal virtuosity as much as the next guy, but faithful readers will know that I like my writing no-nonsense and spare.

Now for the fun stuff! City of Pearl, more than any book I’ve read since Pohl and Kornbluth’s Search the Sky (and for very different reasons), has the potential to offend pretty much everyone. To begin with, if there are any Bad Guys to be found, none other than the scientists take the role. At best, they are proxies for the corporations, but at worst they are jealous, enthno-centric, arrogant, and reckless. They chafe under the restrictions placed on them as visitors, have little respect for the military and police forces that nominally head the mission, and even less for the natives. Rare is the science fiction novel that has readers cheering when a non-mad scientist gets what’s coming to him or her, but here we are.

The scientists were a bit of a surprise, but I was most taken aback by some conversations between Aras, the alien protector of the planet Wess’ej, and Shan, the policewoman leading the human expedition there. Aras and his race, the Wess’har, are utilitarianism taken to its logical conclusion. If someone is causing problems, remove the problems at the root, usually by killing that someone. Punishment is swift and automatic. If an entire city is the problem, firebomb the city and liquidate the survivors. “Humans,” says Aras, “Have too many rights and not enough responsibilities.” (Somewhere, Jerry Pournelle is reading this chapter and nodding vigorously.) In the context of the story, it is hard not to agree with him until one remembers what exactly those rights include. I know better than to assume that Traviss agrees with her characters, but the presentation and framing of this idea is certainly enough to trouble lovers of freedom and democracy on any part of the political spectrum.

What will really steam the Baen Books reading portion of SF-dom though, is the Wess’har approach to the environment. They are organic, vegan farmers who build underground rather than disturb the natural landscape. The humans that live on Wess’ej are, by necessity, the same; the antagonists are those that try to dominate and/or eat the environment rather than coexisting with it. Again, readers should avoid conflating story elements with an author’s opinion, but from her comfortable and detailed descriptions of the vegan farming and food preparation process, one can’t help but assume a certain level of familiarity. Of course, people who lambaste Wall-E for its liberal, environmental agenda aren’t going to parse City of Pearl too carefully, so expect this one to end up on Eric Cantor’s Poop List.

So now that most Republicans, the ACLU, and a set of humorless scientists are offended, what are the rest of us to think? One group of readers who will, I think, be happy is SF’s female half. I am hardly the one to judge this sort of thing, but Traviss puts her women front and center, challenges them equally with her men, and gives them the freedom to address the issues at hand in their own ways. I am not generally interested in or sensitive to female problems, but Traviss’ deft portrayal kept me engaged. She dealt with emotions in a much more natural way than many SF authors. (Considering the archetypal SF author, that should surprise nobody.)

Condensing all of the above into a pithy summation, City of Pearl is a complicated, philosophical novel that asks hard questions, doesn’t shy away from the answers, and is more than happy to irk the reader in the process. If its boldness wasn’t matched by quality and creativity, Traviss would just be shrill. It is though, and she isn’t, and City of Pearl is a must read for SF fans with a brain. (That would be most of us.)

Rating: Sam Allardyce. Not that he cares about vegans, organic farming, or complicated alien politics, but Aras would appreciate Big Sam’s brutally pragmatic approach to football.