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The Color of Distance
Amy Thomson
Ace Books, 472 pages

The Color of Distance
Amy Thomson
Amy Thomson was born in 1958 in Miami, Florida. Her first book was Virtual Girl from Ace in 1993. She won the John W. Campbell Award in 1994 and was a finalist for the Phillip K. Dick Award for The Color of Distance in 1996. Amy Thomson lives in Seattle with her husband, Edd Vick.

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SF Site Review: Through Alien Eyes

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A review by Ken Newquist

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Alien worlds are exactly that: alien. The terrain, the atmosphere, bacteria, the plant spores, the weather, the life forms -- we can expect some or all of these things to be different when we arrive on an extra-solar world. Most mainstream science fiction television shows avoid or ignore these possibilities, but Amy Thomson takes them head on in The Color of Distance.

The book opens from the alien perspective with the frog-like inhabitants of the rain forests of a world called Tendu. The elders of one of their tribes find a bizarre new animal on the verge of death and perform a miraculous feat of bioengineering in order to save it. One of the elders dies and a second is greatly weakened by the operation, which is conducted without using a single machine. The aliens take the creature to their village and begin nursing it back to health.

The creature's name is Juna, and she's part of a human survey mission to the planet. Her scout ship crashed and her crew -- clad in environment suits -- had been forced to try and hike back to base camp through the dense Tendu forest. Their suits ruptured during the trip, exposing them to an atmosphere to which their bodies were violently allergic. Everyone else died, and Juna expected to join them.

She didn't, a fact that amazes and horrifies her when she awakes to find herself transformed into something resembling the aliens. She's able to breathe without life support, has a strange skin that reacts to her moods, and razor-sharp talons. After choking back her fear, she begins making contact with the intelligent aliens, hoping against hope that she can still get to her mothership before it leaves.

First contact stories are exceptionally difficult to do right. Fledgling authors -- and even the occasional pro -- often seem to fall back on pulp science fiction when it comes to meeting aliens. Thomson does not. She creates an alien race that has some human aspects, but many others, which are truly alien. The alien world is inhospitable to humans not because of extreme temperatures or a bizarre atmosphere, but because of something as simple as pollen. Thomson has her hero learn the aliens language -- a sort of skin-based sign language -- without the help of an all-powerful universal translator (although Juna does get to accelerate the process with a portable computer later on). The story is well-paced, and steadily moves Juna through alien crisis after crisis until she finally comes to understand the most crucial tenants of life on Tendu. The story is first and foremost about first contact, but its subplots deal with issues of trust and identity.

The novel does have one jarring flaw -- Thomson insists on describing the emotions associated with the aliens skin color changes. I would rather have discovered the meaning of the skin color changes as Juna did -- by observing them and understanding their meaning based on the context clues. Although she occasionally did this, most of the color meanings are spelled out for us. In the end though, this is a minor distraction. The rest of the book, with its rich portrayal of first contact and alien life, more than makes up for it.

Copyright © 1999 Ken Newquist

Kenneth Newquist is a confessed science fiction/fantasy addict living in Easton, Pennsylvania, and working as a webmaster at a small university in New Jersey. He's regular contributor to Science Fiction Weekly and is the editor of the speculative fiction webzine Nuketown.


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