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Remnant Population
Elizabeth Moon
Baen Books, 352 pages

Remnant Population
Elizabeth Moon
Elizabeth Moon grew up in south Texas, 250 miles south of San Antonio and eight miles from the Mexican border. She attended Rice University and joined the US Marines in 1968. With a second degree in biology, she entertained thoughts about going to med school after her husband, but circumstances intervened.

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Excerpt: Remnant Population

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Kim Fawcett

Elizabeth Moon's Remnant Population combines the classic story line of first contact with a refreshingly unlikely protagonist in the form of 70-year-old Ofelia. Ofelia has spent most of her life enduring the gruelling lifestyle of a colonist. Over forty years, she has helped terraform a tiny portion of a new planet -- clearing ground, planting crops, building homes, and raising children. Remnant Population starts when the company that backs the colony loses its contract, and the colonists are given 30 days to leave the planet. They must start over somewhere new.

Ofelia is too old to start over, and after a lifetime of caring for others with little thought for herself she's ready for some solitude. She hides when the colonists leave, and soon she is the only person left on the planet. She has the colony's abandoned resources all to herself, and she has her first chance to discover who she really is outside the constraints of a demanding society.

Ofelia may make an unusual character, but she remains one of the most 'real' characters I've ever come across. In Ofelia, Moon manages to bring across the aches and pains of age, the crowded memories, and the wisdom of experience with a phenomenal degree of subtlety. This shows in the fact that the plot doesn't drag, even though Ofelia is the only character for half of the book. The character carries the plot.

Then we discover that Ofelia isn't alone after all. New colonists arriving on the planet are massacred by aliens, or rather indigenes. Ofelia feels real fear for the first time since her own colony left. There are others on the planet, and they are hostile. And Ofelia's fears prove justified when the aliens find her. Suddenly Ofelia must once again deal with the demands of others, and this time those others aren't even human. Gradually, as she and the aliens study each other, she makes the shift from fearing them to understanding them. And when representatives from Ofelia's government arrive to make contact with the aliens, Ofelia must make another shift -- to defending the aliens from her own people.

While Ofelia's first contact with the aliens is a bit too coincidental, her subsequent actions more than make up for the flaw. Moon depicts Ofelia drawing on her experiences as both mother and grandmother to learn to communicate with this new race. These roles allow Ofelia to fit into the aliens' social structure in a way both natural and critical to the plot. Ofelia's social standing has always been low in her own human culture, but in an interesting twist her position makes her the only one the aliens can and will deal with. Science fiction too rarely explores the roles of motherhood and nurturing in either human or alien cultures, and so part of Remnant Population's strength derives from its novelty.

I also liked the fact that the book's aliens really are alien, not humans in an alien form. They are not willing to compromise themselves to get along with humans, and their social structure, way of thinking, and value system make the problems of first contact very real. The team of specialists sent to deal with the aliens doesn't do a very good job, and at times Moon seems to downplay their abilities just to make Ofelia seem more heroic. This is completely unnecessary.

The plot is well paced up until the end, which is both too rushed and too pat. The epilogue was unfortunately cute for an otherwise realistic book, and didn't add much to the story.

All told, Remnant Population is a great story and a well-written book. Beyond that, it accomplishes what too few books, science fiction and otherwise, fail to do -- it raises bigger questions that don't necessarily have neat answers. In this case, Remnant Population forces readers to think about how we treat the elderly in our own society, and how our attitudes might represent us to alien outsiders.

Copyright © 1998 by Kim Fawcett

Kim Fawcett works, reads, writes, and occasionally sleeps in Ottawa, Canada. A day job writing for the hi-tech industry hinders her creative efforts, but has no effect at all on her book-a-week reading habit. She dreams of (a) winning the lottery, (b) publishing a novel, © travelling the world, and (d) doing all of the above all at once.

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