Thursday, 16 June 2016

Remnant Population by Elizabeth Moon

I suppose it might not be the biggest draw in the world to have a cover that showed an old woman mostly nude, wearing only a few things she'd made herself, completely unconcerned about covering anything in particular or anything more than being comfortable and wearing things that she enjoys. But did they have to go with such stereotypical ragged old woman clothes? It's such a big part of the book, the time Ofelia has to herself to figure out who she is without society breathing down her neck, and how she dresses when she can dress how she likes.

But I digress and that may be mystifying for those who haven't read the book. Funny thing was, this is a book none of my local library branches had, and so I'd put on my list to look for when I'm in used bookstores. But then I was at my in-laws, looking at their shelves and lo and behold, my mother-in-law had a copy! 

A lot of this book has to do with hierarchies of personhood, complicated by issues of gender, class, and age, then made more complex by the introduction of non-human persons. Who you see as human, who you treat as human, how you expect them to act and the ways such expectations become pressure to act them out, all are themes.

Ofelia was a settler on a remote planet, having signed up and been sent with little education - she was working class to begin with, and it was never thought to be much good to educate the colonists the corporations dumped on planets to claim them. She's old as the book starts, having raised and buried children, living with a grown son and his wife, dismissed because of her age. She's female, and in the restrictive culture of the settlers, relegated to roles cramped within roles.

When the colony is wrapped up, Ofelia decides to stay behind, the only human on an entire world. She spends quite a long time by herself, enjoying the solitude, deciding clothes as she knew them are not for her, and just generally not having anyone looking over her shoulder. Then another corporation sends a ship down, and it accidentally lands on something precious to an intelligent indigenous lifeform that had never before been discovered. The new humans are slaughtered, which Ofelia hears over the communications system.

A hasty crew is assembled to make contact, but before they get there, Ofelia herself meets with the alien species, who are progressing in technology by leaps and bounds. The section where Ofelia and the People learn about each other are fascinating, but the story both starts to cook and become intensely uncomfortable when the first contact team arrives.

The reader has spent the whole book getting to know Ofelia well, and learning as she does what the aliens are capable of, and what organizational structure their society has and what roles they value. She is adopted in as a nest caretaker, possibly the most important job, protecting and teaching their young.

But to the contact team, she's old, she's uneducated, she's poor, and she's female. Four strikes against personhood for her. And if they can dehumanize a fellow human that way, what chance do they have to get to know an entire other species?

As an exploration of class, gender, and personhood in the context of both human and non-human societies, this was enjoyable. The prose is unobtrusive, and the sections where Ofelia is dismissed by the contact crew truly painful. It made me think again about the roleplaying game I've been wanting to run about class and opportunity in a science fiction context. Maybe I'll get to do that one of these days.


I read this book as part of an attempt to read all the Hugo Nominees

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