City Of Pearl and Crossing The Line by Karen Traviss
Eos Science Fiction, both 2004, $6.99 and $7.50, pp392 and pp373
ISBN 0-06-054169-5 and 0-06-054170-9
This review first appeared on The SF Site
Welcome to the end of the 23rd century and the world of Superintendent Shan Frankland. Shan is just finishing a final case for her employer, the Federal European Union, on the Mars Orbital. She works in Environmental Hazard Enforcement - the environment cops. Unfortunately her last day is about to get a bit longer - about 150 years longer - because she's been chosen to head up an interstellar mission to Cavanagh's Star, ostensibly to follow up on a missing colony there, but probably also for other reasons too. Shan can't be sure because the Suppressed Briefing she's been given will only reveal details to her conscious mind on a need-to-know basis; she has been briefed and she knows she accepted the mission with no qualms, but she just doesn't know why.

Fast-forward 75 years to Shan's arrival at Cavanagh's Star along with a BBChan reporter called Eddie, a cadre of Royal Marines and an impatient group of scientists. It turns out that the first colonists, all Quaker-style Christians, are alive and well. They are taken care of (in all senses of the phrase) by Aras, a member of the Wess'har, the alien race in charge of this particular planet. The Wess'har are also taking care of one of the planet's indigenous lifeforms, the aquatic Bezeri, who were nearly wiped out by a third alien race, the Isenj. The Isenj had colonised this world before the Wess'har arrived, and, as mentioned, nearly made the Bezeri extinct. The Isenj are now currently confined to the other habitable earth-like world in the Cavanagh system, and the edgy balance of power between the Isenj and the Wess'har looks sure to be upset by the new arrivals from Earth.

That summary describes roughly the first third of City Of Pearl, and if it sounds rather pedestrian that's because on one level it is. These two books are essentially first contact novels, and despite there being Royal Marines involved and hints of superior alien weaponry, the number of actual shots fired in the whole of this first book remains in single figures. If you're after heroic space war in blazing Technicolor glory then you're in the wrong department - try the space opera section round the corner. City Of Pearl and Crossing The Line are morality tales, and not only human morality either: they're also tales of disaster in glacially slow motion. I found it interesting to wonder if the disaster is at all avoidable or whether our seemingly hardwired prejudices, preconceptions and instincts will always come to the fore. Will we as a species ever actually be able to adhere to a well-intentioned code of conduct or ethics? Where both of these books score incredibly highly for me is in this area of tangled morality. There are good guys and bad guys, but the good guys don't necessarily do good things, and the bad guys are not necessarily evil - they're just foolish, ignorant or they're simply not thinking clearly. The characters aren't transparently 'good' or 'evil' - they just are, and therefore they act. The morality of their actions is, by turns, relative, hypocritical and imposed - but never absolute.

I have to say that it would have been so easy for these books to be worthy but dull, and I know there are a quite a few people out there who probably will find them a little ponderous and unfulfilling. However, I found them to be astonishingly rich - brimming with philosophical quandaries, difficult moral questions and humanity (not the species), often when and where you might least expect it. There's a gigantic sense of inevitable disaster throughout, a literally tragic inevitability on both a large and a small scale to rival, I think, some of the Classics (not a claim made at all lightly).

This isn't hard sf by any means. Although the laws of physics are largely obeyed they're not particularly important to the story; there's no arousing military- or techno-porn, and precious little 'common-sense' machismo or gung-ho soldiering. It's worth mentioning that there are philosophical similarities with The Dispossessed, but these books are, in my opinion, even deeper and more complex than Le Guin's classic, and they're still far from over.

Another glorious aspect of these two books is that they're almost the antithesis of everything Trek: humans haring round the universe imposing their morality and point-of-view upon anyone who can listen, and always, eventually, turning out to be right, or at least admirable. And if we're not even admirable then at least we have bigger guns than everyone else to console ourselves with. In Traviss's universe we're seen as being far from admirable and even further from right, and it looks like being a very hard, possibly even fatal, lesson for us to learn. A warning to the unthinking patriots amongst you: you may find these books somewhat unpalatable.

I've followed quite a tortuous route to discovering Karen Traviss's novels: she's English, I'm English, and yet neither of these books has a UK publisher, so I've had to get them from the US, a fact that both perplexes and saddens me since both City Of Pearl and Crossing The Line would seem to be a very English type of sf, and English sf at its very best, too. If you want to read something that will leave you thinking, perhaps if you're a fan of Le Guin, Kim Stanley Robinson or, more generally, of intricately gloomy English science fiction, then this series is one you want to read - I promise.

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