What an excellent read! This book is fast paced and gripping. It is set in a well thought out world with interesting and complex characters in a challenging situation. It is a feast for the imagination – thoughtful with parallels in modern life on the nature of race and prejudice.
The story opens with Brother Andre, a Franciscan monk, travelling to meet the newly appointed pope and right from these first opening pages an interesting dichotomy opens between a monk who has taken a vow of poverty being forced against his principles to use very high technology to travel to see the pope because the Vatican is no longer situated on earth. This deftly introduces the high tech world of the future against the backdrop of an ancient religion.
Brother Andre is instructed to investigate and advise on the presence of genetically super-human “people” on the tiny planet of Pock’s World. Since they are not a part of God’s creation, genetically created humans are a soulless abomination to the church and so they must be destroyed. They are treated as if they are an infection on the planet and so, to ensure they do not survive, all life on the planet must be destroyed, including the existing human population – a cost that the church claims is fully justified.
Several other planets in the same situation have already been destroyed with billions of lives lost. A mysterious, un-elected and manipulative organisation called STARS controls all interplanetary travel and is involved in identifying and destroying these infected planets.
Ratty Turnsole is a journalist in a super high tech, on-line world who uses brain inserts to record events around him which he then edits into immersive, real-life documentaries exposing corruption as well as interesting life stories. He has recently created a sainthood myth around Father Andre in the hope of getting him elected as pope – an intervention that Father Andre did not appreciate. Ratty is summoned by STARS to take part in the mission.
The next character we meet is Athena Fimble, a politician with a strong respect for all life who is deciding whether to end her senate career in order to have a child or to stand for president requiring enormous sums of money and thus risking her family estate and way of life. She is approached by Linn Lazuline, an extremely rich old “friend” who offers her an enormous amount of money – enough to enable her to run for president – if she will sleep with him. She refuses, and is then invited on to the fact finding mission to Pock’s World only to find out that Linn is also on the committee. They are joined by Millie, a shallow and rather vacuous career politician.
Thus the inspection committee with all its complexity and tensions is ready to investigate Pock’s World and decide the fate of its entire population. Pock’s World is only habitable by humans with genetic modifications, which are not considered sufficiently extreme to make them super-human. The main religion on Pock’s World is based on worship of the gas giant planet it orbits and is lead by four generations of women called Wisdom, Duty, Love and Joy. Each incarnation adopts the role of the previous generation. So, when a new daughter is born through pathogenesis when she becomes Joy and so Joy becomes Love, Love becomes Duty, Duty becomes Wisdom and Wisdom dies.
Right from the very start the storyline introduces believable, interesting and complex characters. The situation is presented very quickly and cleanly and makes for compelling reading. The world structure is well thought out, self consistent and intriguing. In addition to the main plot, there are interesting subplots for each character, with their back stories deftly presented. Will Athena sleep with Linn? Will Ratty seduce Joy and so create a planetary incident? What caused Brother Andre to leave Pock’s World in disgrace several decades ago and will it affect their mission? Most important of all, though, is whether the committee will decide that genetically modified superhuman people are present on Pock’s World and so condemn the entire population to death.
The only weakness in the novel is the final conclusion, which I felt did not quite meet the high standards set by the rest of the story.
The main plot is based on “Overcoming the Monster” (see The Seven Basic Plots by Christopher Booker) but there are also several other storylines each with their own subplots.
And now for the awards. I give it the following positive awards, which the author and publishers will probably like. They are all out of five:
• Five Gorts for a compulsive storyline with an entire planet at risk.
• Four Blade Runners for excellent interesting characters with believable and coherent back stories.
• Five Trees of Souls from Avatar for creating a world with an interesting culture and religion.
• Four Lithians for including a Franciscan monk in a high tech world. If you’ve never read A Case of Conscience by James Blish then I suggest you get a copy not only so you can find out what a Lithian is but also because it is such an excellent read.
There are no negative awards for this book as my only complaint is that the final conclusion, which would have been fine in a more mundane novel, does not quite live up to the overall standard of this novel, although I have a sneaky suspicion that there may be a sequel.
I hope it wins some real awards for the quality of its writing.
To summarise, this is an excellent book and I recommend it to everyone who likes good, well presented and interesting science fiction.