Thursday, January 5, 2012

Review: City of Pearl by Karen Traviss

City of Pearl by Karen Traviss
Published: HarperCollins/Eos 2004
Series: Book 1 of the Wess’Har Series
Awards Nominated: Philip K. Dick Award, John W. Campbell Award

The Book:

“Three separate alien societies have claims on Cavanagh's Star. But the new arrivals — the gethes from Earth — now threaten the tenuous balance of a coveted world.

Environmental Hazard Enforcement officer Shan Frankland agreed to lead a mission to Cavanagh's Star, knowing that 150 years would elapse before she could finally return home. But her landing, with a small group of scientists and Marines, has not gone unnoticed by Aras, the planet's designated guardian. An eternally evolving world himself, this sad, powerful being has already obliterated millions of alien interlopers and their great cities to protect the fragile native population.

Now Shan and her party — plus the small colony of fundamentalist humans who preceded them — could face a similar annihilation . . . or a fate far worse. Because Aras possesses a secret of the blood that would be disastrous if it fell into human hands — if the gethes survive the impending war their coming has inadvertently hastened.” ~from

City of Pearl is Karen Traviss’s debut novel, and the first of a six book series (though it does stand well on its own).  I chose to read it based on its selection as the December book for the 2011 Women in Science Fiction Book Club, and its selection as the December ‘Dare’ from the Calico Reaction blog.
My Thoughts:
City of Pearl addressed many social and moral topics that are relevant to today’s society, through the lenses of several distinct alien cultures and their conflicts with each other and humanity.  The alien cultures included the expansionist Isenj, the environmentalist Wess’Har, and the aquatic Bezeri.  Humanity presented less of a unified cultural front than these species, since the fundamentalist colony, various factions within Shan’s group, and the galactic human civilization all embraced very different ideologies. I enjoyed how the conflicts between the alien cultures and factions of humanity slowly built in severity throughout the story. 
The leader of the human expedition, Shan Frankland, and the human’s Wess’Har guardian, Aras, were the main characters of the novel. Shan was a no-nonsense cop, but she was also an environmentalist, a Vegan, and she carried a pretty deep distaste for her own species. Her personal philosophy was conveniently similar to many aspects of Wess’Har cultural beliefs. As a physical if not ideological outsider to his own species, Aras seemed a little like the alien counterpart to Shan’s role in the story.  I enjoyed their interactions, but the pattern of their relationship felt a little too predictable to me.  On her own, I thought Shan was an unusual and interesting heroine, but she was also a terrible expedition leader. Much of the conflict in the story was a result of her keeping her underlings deliberately uninformed and isolated.  Unnecessary withholding of information was fairly common throughout the story, from Shan’s treatment of her human colleagues to her own ‘Suppressed Briefing’.  I appreciated that Shan was a flawed character, but the particular flaw of poor communication became a little tiresome.
With the exception of Shan and Aras, I felt that much more effort was given to portraying populations of characters than individuals.  The cultures of the Isenj, the Bezeri, the Wess’Har, and the human religious settlement were distinct, but none of the individuals from these cultures made much of an impression.  Shan’s group had a little bit more characterization, but it was still essentially made up of two groups—the marines and the scientists.  The scientists were constantly referred to as ‘the payload’, and they were portrayed almost without exception as greedy, self-absorbed, unreasonable, bratty children. Given that these are scientists who gave up their lives and homes for a chance to explore an alien planet, I highly doubt that they would all be so petty, profit-driven, callous, and immature.  In contrast, the marines are shown as reasonable, trustworthy, and necessary to keep the ill-behaving scientists in line.  I found this simplistic good/bad representation of groups of people, which can also be seen in the portrayal of the alien cultures, to be pretty grating.  
In a similar way, I felt that the important issues raised within the story were handled in a frustratingly blunt, black-and-white manner. The message of the novel was mostly of an extreme environmentalist nature, and was centered on protecting the environment and the balance of nature, at whatever the cost.  There were certainly some valid issues raised, but I disliked the way the novel’s judgments were handed down to the reader.  There wasn’t much in the way of debate or discussion, just statements that were accepted without any significant opposition.   I know this is the start of a six book series, so it is entirely possible that these views will be examined in more detail throughout the following novels.   
My Rating: 2.5/5
I enjoyed some aspects of the story and characters of City of Pearl.  In particular, I enjoyed following the constantly worsening political situation between the three distinct alien races and humanity. However, I disliked the way the book’s potentially persuasive message was handed down with little debate or examination.  I was also frustrated with how often a deliberate withholding of information played into the plot.  I also felt that there much more focus on developing the ideologies of populations than of fleshing out individuals’ personalities and views. As a result, though the main characters—Shan and Aras—were interesting to follow, few members of the supporting cast were memorable to me.   Overall, I don’ t think this is a series that I am going to continue.

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