|Epiphyte Book Review||up to review index|
The problem with a wildly popular debut novel is that the author will never, ever again write anything that isn't held up to that standard. My enthusiasm for Elizabeth Moon's Paksenarrion books carried me through two disappointing prequels and three anemic Heris Serrano books. Her latest novel, Remnant Population, is a departure: an enjoyable light read about an old woman who finally has a planet to herself, then discovers she's sharing it with intelligent aliens.
Ofelia has spent most of her life caring for her menfolk in an agrarian colony on a frontier planet. The colony has failed miserably, largely because it was built in an area prone to flooding and frequent hurricanes. (Either the sponsoring company was more interested in propagating Evil Corporation stereotypes than in establishing a viable colony, or a thorough planetary survey with climate analysis would have taken all the challenge out of it.) When the colonists are evacuated, Ofelia manages to hide and stay behind. Alone, she has plenty of peace and quiet and the freedom to work in her garden barefoot; fortunately, the company was kind enough to leave behind such amenities as a functional power plant, so she's perfectly comfortable until the next wave of colonists arrives.
As Ofelia listens to the new arrivals' radio chatter, they land far away from her village, where they are promptly wiped out to the last man by indigenous aliens whose existence no one even suspected before. (I know "indigenous aliens" is a contradiction in terms, but it says what I mean, so I'm using it anyway.) Ofelia's precious peace comes to an end when the aliens turn up in her village.
I think that Remnant Population would have been a better book if everything before the evacuation had been cut -- only two chapters, but it seemed longer. It's tiresome to plow through page after page of people condescending to the viewpoint character. The constant reminders that old people aren't all stupid and useless are tiresome, but they become less frequent (but no subtler) once the pace of the story picks up.
Ofelia isn't given to introspective interior monologues; she reacts mostly to physical sensations, and when Moon stops being preachy, the narrative is full of dirt between the toes, sun beating down, and the smell of cooking onions. The planet doesn't feel in the least alien, but it does feel very real.
I find it hard to believe that Ofelia's people and the nomadic aliens never ran across one another in several decades. However, the aliens are likable and interesting, endearing without being cute. I particularly like their method of reaching consensus by drumming their feet. I also like it that the aliens are smarter than the humans, but with these humans, that's not saying much.
I did enjoy Remnant Population, and I'd recommend it to fans of Moon and to people who like first contact stories. But unless you greatly enjoyed the Serrano books, get it in paperback.
-- Christina Schulman.
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