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Radiant
James Alan Gardner
HarperCollins Eos, 374 pages

Radiant
James Alan Gardner
James Alan Gardner's first novel, Expendable, was published in 1997. Commitment Hour followed in 1998. A Canadian author, Gardner has honed his skills publishing short works in Amazing, The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine, On-Spec, and the Tesseracts anthologies. He has won numerous writing awards, including Grand Prize winner of the Writers of the Future Award (1989), as well as an Aurora Award for best short story (1990). His latest accolade is a 1997 Nebula nomination.

James Alan Gardner Website
ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: Trapped
SF Site Review: Hunted
SF Site Review: Commitment Hour
SF Site Review: Hunted
SF Site Review: Vigilant
SF Site Review: Commitment Hour
SF Site Review: Expendable
Excerpt from Commitment Hour
Excerpt from Expendable

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Rich Horton

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James Alan Gardner has published seven novels now, all set in a common future. In this future a group of superintelligent aliens called the League of Peoples rules the Galaxy from behind the scenes. For the most part they enforce one rule: that no non-sentient being can travel between Solar Systems. A non-sentient being is defined as one that has killed (or seems to be a risk to kill) another sentient being. Other than enforcing this rule, they mostly leave the everyday lives of human-level species alone. There are several human-level species knocking around, including two groups of humans: the Technocracy, which mostly disdains genetic engineering; and the Unity, which eagerly embraces genetic engineering and other means of improving the human baseline. The novels can be divided into two groups. Five of them are set off-Earth, and feature characters originating in the Technocracy, in particular one recurring character, Admiral Festina Ramos of the Explorers. The other two are set back on now isolated Earth, which has become a backwater, and a place suffused with technology that is treated as magic. By and large these novels have been lots of fun -- with wacky adventure plots, plenty of implausible but engaging and imaginative concepts, some philosophical ideas, and plenty of humour.

Radiant, Gardner's latest novel, is one of the Festina Ramos books. As with all the books but the first (Expendable), Ramos is not the main character but an important secondary character. Ramos's group within the Technocracy's Navy, the Explorer Corps, is composed of physically imperfect people who are deemed "expendable." It is held that the morale of the rest of the Navy is improved if only deformed people are sent on dangerous missions such as first landings on newly discovered worlds. Frankly, I have always found this idea stupid, but once you swallow it (however reluctantly), Gardner does some nice things. Festina Ramos's deformity is a huge port wine birthmark on her right cheek. In Radiant, Gardner deliberately introduces a sort of mirror image character. The protagonist, Youn Suu, is a young Explorer with a birthmark on her left cheek. Also, Youn Suu is Buddhist, from a planet settled by people from Myanmar, while Ramos came from a more "Western" culture. (I thought the book's use of "Eastern" and "Western" to describe attitudes in a space-based society (with no members still on Earth) a bit anachronistic -- but probably understandable as shorthand, and I suppose at least arguable as a possible linguistic remnant.)

Youn Suu's first adventure ends up with her meeting Festina Ramos, and with her being infested with spores of the superintelligent but rather sinister Balrog, a hive mind. Festina, Youn Suu, her partner Tut, and two irritating Technocracy diplomats, then head off for the planet Muta. It seems that the Unity's recent attempt to colonize that planet has ended in disaster -- all of the colonists have disappeared, with only a brief SOS. It turns out that two previous groups of aliens on the planet also disappeared: the Greenstriders, and more ominously, the Fuentes. For the Fuentes are a group of aliens who mostly transcended and joined the League of Peoples thousands of years previously. Muta seems to be the only planet on which significant remnants of Fuentes technology survive. But both the Greenstrider and Unity colonization efforts failed despite ideal conditions...

The novel proceeds to a reasonably satisfying resolution of the mystery of Muta. Youn Suu's problem with her Balrog infestation is also pushed towards an interesting conclusion. Festina's story, that is the overarching story arc of the series, is advanced to some extent. The action of the novel is fairly interesting. There are even hints of alternate, perhaps more palatable, explanations of such things as the curious Technocracy policy about Explorers. And there are grace notes such as Gardner's description of the Unity, which to an extent read to me like an affectionate parody of Iain M. Banks's Culture (complete with special language). But... but... on balance I didn't like the book very much. Why?

Willing suspension of disbelief is a necessary feature for enjoying an SF or Fantasy novel -- or for that matter any novel. The reader must, for the scope of the novel, believe in what is happening. We must believe in the characters. We must believe in the technology, in the laws and customs of the societies portrayed. I've already hinted that I have a hard time believing in some of the basic ideas behind this series: the "Expendable" Explorers for one; and the League of Peoples' magical ability to determine (and enforce) their idea of "sentience". But I have mostly swallowed these to date. At times in Radiant my suspension snapped. Part of it was the invocation of concerns about "sentience"/"non-sentience": certain actions are deemed necessary to avoid League action. It seems that at times people (and governments) bend over backwards to avoid the slightest hint of negligence. Yet at other times, people and especially governments act with terrible lack of concern for the safety of others. I am forced to conclude that authorial convenience is the deciding factor as to when an action is "non-sentient". Another problem for me is the nature of some of the superhuman intelligences -- they are simply too powerful for my taste. A third issue is that I found the antagonists on Muta uninteresting. Finally, many of Gardner's previous books overcame my objections by being funny. One of the best ways to make a reader willingly suspend his disbelief in absurd things is to leaven with humour -- and this Gardner has often done in books like Ascending and Trapped. Radiant, by contrast, is almost never funny -- or, perhaps I should say, I found the characters who may have been intended to be funny (Tut and the two ambassadors) either cliché or simply wearying. So -- a weak entry in a series of books that I have found generally enjoyable.

Copyright © 2004 Rich Horton

Rich Horton is an eclectic reader in and out of the SF and fantasy genres. He's been reading SF since before the Golden Age (that is, since before he was 13). Born in Naperville, IL, he lives and works (as a Software Engineer for the proverbial Major Aerospace Company) in St. Louis area and is a regular contributor to Tangent. Stop by his website at http://www.sff.net/people/richard.horton.


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