To be honest, I had not really expected to enjoy City of Pearl by Karen Traviss. From what I’d heard about the novel, it seemed the sort of science fiction I don’t especially like. And Traviss is known as an especially mercenary writer. No matter how talented she may be, such an attitude is unlikely to create works I would find appealing. Nonetheless, I picked the book as one of my dozen for my 2011 reading challenge, and though I may have slipped a little towards the end of last year, I had every intention of reading and blogging about the twelve listed novels.
And so I came to City of Pearl with, I admit, a few preconceptions. Some of them were indeed met, but I was surprised to find myself enjoying the novel more than I had expected.
Shan Frankland is a hard-as-nails police officer in a near-future in which corporations dominate ineffectual governments. All crops are genetically-engineered and trademark, such that no foodstuff can be grown without paying a license fee to a company. When Frankland is offered command of a mission to Earth’s only interstellar colony on Cavanagh’s Star’s second planet, she accepts the mission. But she doesn’t know exactly why, because whatever was told to her to persuade her to accept was part of a Suppressed Briefing, which only releases information into her memory in response to certain triggers.
The mission arrives at Cavanagh’s Star 2 and finds a situation it had not expected: a small low-tech human colony with an extremely small environmental footprint living under the aegis of an alien race, the wess’har. The aliens are actually native to Cavanagh’s Star 2′s twin planet, and are on Cavanagh’s Star 2 to protect that planet’s native squid-like aquatic race, the bezeri. Who had been almost polluted to extinction by a third alien race, the isenj, who had colonised the world. The wess’har wiped out the isenj colony, but now allow the humans to stay on sufferance. Aras is the wess’har responsible for the planet and its ecosystem, and he has been given this role because he has been infected by a native parasite, the c’naatat, which has made him immortal and almost impossible to kill.
Though Frankland tries to keep a tight leash on the scientific team she has brought to Cavanagh’s Star 2, they cavil at her restrictions and continually seek to subvert them. This makes tensions high within Frankland’s mission, a situation not helped by her high-handed and take-no-prisoners attitude. When a second starship from Earth turns up, having departed fifty years after the first, it seems Earth has formed an alliance with the idenj, who determined to take back Cavanagh’s Star 2. During a skirmish with the isenj, Frankland is mortally wounded, but Aras, who has come to value her, infects her with c’naatat. Now she can never return to Earth.
I liked Frankland, and the best parts of City of Pearl were the parts which focused on her. Unfortunately, the aliens are all single-note: the wess’har are literal and unbending, the bezeri are enigmatic, and the isenj are numerous. The scientists are all characterised as venal and selfish, and only the military characters appear to possess any redeeming virtues. The human colonists on Cavanagh’s Star 2 are treated like simple back-to-the-land peasants, and the novel makes little or no judgment on them or their way of life. A lot of City of Pearl is in Aras’ point of view, and he’s neither convincingly alien nor especially interesting.
There’s a fixity of views throughout City of Pearl which I found a little off-putting. The wess’har are very literal and do not compromise. Frankland is very much convinced her own opinion is always correct. The entire cast – with the exception of those Traviss villanises – are straight from the US mode of science fiction, with its Rational Competent Men. Though many in City of Pearl are actually women. Or alien. There’s no subtlety or complexity in the novel. The scientists are wrong, the isenj are wrong. And that’s it. I can see how such binary views might appeal to some readers, especially genre readers, since populist genre fiction seems incapable of psychological depth.
There are apparently a further five Wess’har books, but I’ll not be bothering to read them. While City of Pearl managed an interesting meld of near-future sf and space opera, it was too much like military sf in tone to really appeal to me. Traviss’s prose is readable and well-paced, though to be honest I kept reading more because I liked the character of Frankland than anything else.
Oh, and the titular city is the wess’har capital on their world, and it makes perhaps a half dozen appearances in the novel. Frankland visits it toward the end in order to seek permission from the wess’har elders to stay with Aras. It’s a somewhat peripheral element of the story with which to title it.