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by Greg Bear
copyright 1995
Tor, $18.99 TPB, 397pp
Publication date: November 2015

Here is a solid SF novel with big, mind-bending concepts. It starts in one amazing locale: an asteroid spaceship, called Thistledown, that has been traveling for generations. Now, a generation ship is not a new idea but this one has dimensional portals in it. There are politics at work, cultural changes and a war with aliens. But that’s not what this story is all about.

Our erstwhile hero, Olmy, is a bit adrift in his society; moving from one culture that he grew up in, to another. In so doing, he breaks off from an engagement and leaves friends behind. But he still finds himself being investigated for political ties to his birth culture; an unpopular group at the moment. A friend offers him a way out. A large group of dissidents opened an illegal dimensional portal and…left. This was discovered when a lone survivor used a stolen device to return to Thistledown; begging the authorities to rescue all the dissidents. They picked a world that was very earth-like but only lightly surveyed. The authorities on Thistledown are concerned about the human effect on the indigenous lifeforms. They want to send an investigator to establish the extent of damage or interference, and then recover a particular device that had been stolen. They want to send Olmy. And that is where the story really begins.

Using knowledge gained from the rescued survivor, Olmy plans to blend into the local culture, find the leader, survey the planet’s ecosystem, steal back the transportation device and return home. Almost none of those things happen.

The ecosystem of this planet is truly remarkable. The author postulates a single organism, continent-wide; using extensions of itself to propagate, travel to gather resources, communicate events and war with other continental-organisms. Humans had a difficult time planting terrestrial-type plants which were not compatible with the system. Starvation pushed them to experimenting with local flora for food they could use. But it was a precarious existence; from time to time, the ecosystem, for reasons unknown, would completely change all its flora and all the known food sources. Starvation was a constant threat. The charismatic leader who led 4000 people into the wilderness found dissidents within his own people; those who were less than satisfied with the promised utopia. War and murder – concepts all but unknown on Thistledown – have emerged again.

Olmy emerges onto the planet right in the aftermath of an attack. It’s also not exactly the point in time that was expected. Apparently, time can be a bit fluid traveling through the portals. And it’s many years later than when the survivor escaped; which means the information he shared with Olmy on dress and customs is a bit outdated. This makes it a bit challenging to blend in but Olmy was chosen for his ability to adapt – which he does with a fair amount of success. Then he begins a long journey to find Lenk, the leader. Along the way, Olmy takes careful note of the ecosystem and gathers information on the transformations that have occurred since the human incursion. He sees disturbing trends but it isn’t until the confrontation with the rebel faction, that the true cost of the human effect is seen. This is what the story is truly about – what the author really wanted to expound upon. He wraps Olmy’s journey – both physical and personal – around this core. We might be expected to be shocked at the events but, instead, the only emotion I could identify with was Olmy’s sadness. And the best part of the story, for me, was the wrap-up.

This book was remarkable for the story-within-a-story; I really wanted more of the Thistledown story. Olmy was not an engaging character; fantasy provides that better. SF tends to focus more on plot and setting. But he was interesting, an important characteristic of the story. Secondary characters were just that: flat and one-dimensional. I found the middle of the book a bit of slog but was happy with the conclusion, for the most part. In SF, oftentimes, the climax or conclusion has less to do with the characters than with the overall plot; and this was no different. The point of the story was always the ecosystem. It was not an exciting story but if you enjoy the mental exercise of engaging different concepts, this one should satisfy. ~~ Catherine Book

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