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Playing God
Sarah Zettel
Warner Aspect Books, 417 pages

Art: Steve Youll
Playing God
Sarah Zettel
Sarah Zettel has been writing for fourteen years now. With two published novels in hand (Reclamation and Fool's War) and her short fiction published in Analog, she's found herself with a host of fans and critics alike singing praises of her work.

Sarah Zettel Website
ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: Fool's War

Past Feature Reviews
A review by David Soyka

Now this is my idea of what science fiction ought to be -- believable characters facing difficult and not entirely resolvable conflicts in a futuristic setting where plot and pacing take precedence over arcane technical speculation and long-winded philosophical digressions. Which is not to say that Sarah Zettel doesn't have something weighty for us to ponder in Playing God -- right off the title tells us there's something here to think about. But unlike some more ponderous practitioners in the field, Zettel's storytelling skills posit the bigger questions without the pedantry. Indeed, Zettel's considerable gifts to spin a yarn have been compared to Asimov and Heinlein, but if you ask me (and since you're reading this, like it or not you already have), she's better. Sorry, all you die-hard Golden Agers out there, but there are times when the two Grandmasters get downright tedious, even ridiculous. Despite an occasional stumble (a confrontation that sets the plot rolling strikes me as incredibly unthinking for an otherwise smart character, though certainly a fair share of actual tragedies have resulted from amazing thoughtlessness), Zettel has produced the classic page-turner that sticks in your head long after you finally arrive at that last sentence.

One nice trick up Zettel's prose sleeve is how she gets you to sympathize with the aliens as much -- if not more so -- than the humans. Praeis Shin is an exiled Dedelphi -- a matriarchal humanoid society with a heightened sense of tribalism -- called back to her native planet to muster support for a fragile new Confederation formed to cease an endless war between two major factions, the t'Theria and the Getesaph. Though neither trusts the other, biological warfare (initiated by the other side, that side always depending upon which side you're talking to) has decimated their planet and their people. But because they possess only primitive late 20th century technology, the Dedelphi Confederation must place the fate of their world in the hands of humans -- specifically by contracting with the Bioverse Enclave, a sort of corporate clan, to biologically scrub and reconstruct the Dedelphi eco-system. What's in it for Bioverse? Unlimited access to radiation-hardened inorganic debris and living organisms representing a singular source of biochemistry that can be tapped for future lucrative eco-reconsturction projects. So Bioverse's interests here are not purely mercenary. And what's in it for the Dedelphi? The prospect of a plague-free future for their children. The question is whether the powerful inherent feelings of family can overcome their equally powerful -- and certainly related -- xenophobia.

As Zettel puts it in her afterword:

"All societies that evolve violent survival strategies (at least all the ones we know about) also evolve rules about who may be hurt or killed, and under what conditions. If a culture is not completely suicidal, some concept of peace, friendship, or trust must exist side by side with the violence. With the concept of killing comes the concept of not killing. The existence of these ideas can give a freedom of choice to individuals in their daily interactions, even when those are with strangers. The ultimate question is: Which way will the balance tip: toward evolutionary predisposition, cultural condition, or individual choice."
While highly intolerant of other races and cultures within their own species, the Dedelphi have little trouble forming bonds of respect and friendship with humans. In an interesting twist (and certainly a refreshing bit of common sense for a genre in which aliens are often depicted freely intermingling and even mating with humans), unprotected long-term exposure to humans is potentially deadly to Dedelphi. But despite the necessity for humans to wear protective clean suits when living among the Dedelphi -- and thus unable to engage in the constant touching by which tribal members continually reaffirm their relationships -- two significant friendships form between the Dedelphi and humans: Bioverse's project leader Dr. Lynn Nussbaumer with Praeis Shin of the t'Theria and Arron Hagopian, Nussbaumer's former lover and Bioverse opponent, with the Getesaph. How those relationships play out, and how they affect the once intimate relationship between the humans, form the foreground against the Dedelphi conflict to explore "the ultimate question" Zettel asks.

Meanwhile, In the background, rebellious factions respectively within the t'Theria and the Getesaph plot to undermine the peace process and their evacuation to orbiting "city-ships" before the eco-reconstruction can begin. So you get your fast-paced action thrills and your philosophical ponderings all wrapped together in a nice package.

One thing I noticed about Zettel is that most of her central characters are female; indeed, the Dedelphi biology works in such a way that the only use for the male is reproductive. I don't know if there's some sort of feminist statement here (though it's been made before) or if it merely reflects the author's own gender orientation. In any event, there's no heavy-handed proselytizing here. Zettel seems comfortable in presenting two major arguments of feminist speculation -- superior female qualities put them in positions of power and dominance (Ursula K. Le Guin) and women have the choice and capabilities for the same nasty things as men, like wage war and seek revenge (Joanna Russ) -- as givens. Which, some thirty years since Le Guin and Russ first published, you would kind of expect it to be.

While I was aware of the acclaim Zettel had received for her previous work (Fool's War was a New York Times Notable Book of 1997 and Reclamation received the Locus Award for Best First Novel) this is my first exposure to her work. I suppose I passed on the earlier works just because my pile of "to-be-read" books was already spilling off my desk. Having read Playing God, though, I'm just going to have to add two more volumes to the pile and, with apologies to all those other books I still haven't yet had the time to get to, put them right up on top.

Copyright © 1998 David Soyka

David Soyka is a former journalist and college teacher who writes the occasional short story and freelance article. He makes a living writing corporate marketing communications, which is a kind of fiction without the art.

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