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The Children Star
Joan Slonczewski
Tor Books, 349 pages

The Children Star
Joan Slonczewski
Joan Slonczewski received her Ph.D. from Yale University after graduating magna cum laude from Bryn Mawr College in 1977. She is an Associate Professor in the Department of Biology at Kenyon College and was the Chair of Biology from 1993-6. Before that, she was a Visiting Associate Professor at U. Maryland at Baltimore, and a Visiting Professor at Princeton University. Her other SF novels include Daughter of Elysium, The Wall around Eden, and A Door into Ocean.

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Past Feature Reviews
A review by Greg L. Johnson

Joan Slonczewski is representative of something that used to be a rarity in science fiction. She is a hard SF writer whose main interest is biology and ecology, not physics or astronomy. Chair of the Biology Department at Kenyon College, she knows her area of study at least as well as Gregory Benford knows his, and her ability as a writer makes such a comparison even more meaningful. The Children Star, set in the same fictional universe as A Door Into Ocean and Daughter of Elysium, is a good example of her ability to use her scientific background to create believable worlds, while her writing skills insure that there's a good story to go along with the scientific accuracy.

Prokaryon is a planet which is inhospitable to humans unless they undergo a grueling process of genetic modification known as "life-shaping." This process is much more arduous for adults than for children. There appears to be no intelligent native life, yet the few settlers have noticed several oddities. Trees grow in orderly rows, and it only rains in the evening, unless a shower is needed to put out a forest fire. One of the settlements on the planet is a colony of orphaned children, run by Brother Rod and Mother Artemis of the Spirit Brethren.

The story begins slowly, taking time to let us get to know the planet, Brother Rod, and Mother Artemis. Problems begin when an interstellar corporation, Proteus Unlimited, obtains ownership of Prokaryon. Interstellar law forbids the terra-forming of planets with indigenous intelligent life, but there is great pressure to open up Prokaryon for settlement. L'li, the most overpopulated human occupied planet, is suffering from plague, and desperately needs a place to alleviate its overcrowding. Proteus proposes to destroy the existing life on Prokaryon, exploit the mineral resources, and create a world humans can live on without the need to alter their genetic structure.

This, of course, would be the end of Brother Rod and the orphan colony. The story thus becomes one of finding a way to save the planet by solving the mystery of Prokaryon's ordered ecology, and the possible existence of intelligent life on the planet.

And a gripping story it is. Slonczewski does a good job of introducing enough biological detail to keep the reader guessing along with the characters, but not so much that the plot becomes bogged down in exposition. The ending realistically leaves the colonists with some of their problems solved, and others looming ahead of them that are a result of the discoveries they make.

The book does have one major flaw. The bad guy, Nibur Letheshon, the owner of Proteus Unlimited, is strictly a cliché. As far as we can tell, he acts greedily, arrogantly, and selfishly simply because he is greedy, arrogant, and selfish. The only things we learn about him as an individual are that he likes his dog and seems to prefer virtual to actual reality. The basic situation of the story, evil corporation versus good-hearted orphans, by itself makes it obvious where our sympathies are expected to lie. It's hard to imagine that many readers would side with Nibur, even if he had been portrayed as more than just a one-dimensional villain.

Still, the existence of Nibur and his corporation serve their purpose in the story, which is to give the rest of the characters a compelling reason to solve the mystery of life on Prokaryon. That mystery drives the story, and well-drawn characters like Brother Rod, 'jum, the young refugee he rescues from L'li, and Sarai the Shaper, pull the reader into the story and involve us in solving the mystery.

The Children Star is a well-written novel that is a worthwhile addition to the future history Slonczewski began in A Door Into Ocean and Daughter of Elysium. It's a bit of a shame, then, that a villain whose characterization fails to rise above the level of a stereotype prevents this good novel from being a great one.

Copyright © 1998 by Greg L. Johnson

With this review, reviewer Greg L. Johnson sets a personal record for number of reviews published in one year, almost equalling the number Lisa DuMond turns out in a typical month. His reviews also appear in the The New York Review of Science Fiction.

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