It's the late 21st century and humanity is finally moving into space. The first colony ship is getting ready to go, and people everywhere are hoping to be on it. Not least because of the promise of children. However, the journey is overshadowed by the destruction of a survey ship, attempts to sabotage the ship's departure and mission, and a villainous power grab once the ship is underway.
I had trouble reading this book because my cat wouldn't get off it. I did get her to wink seductively for the camera, though. I also had trouble figuring out which bit was meant to be the title. It's the first book in the Tierra del Fuego, Colony Ship series, so that makes the title 'Parting Shots'. For convenience, anyway.
This was a book that present a perfect case study for the argument that 'science fiction is about exploring social issues of today's world'. From the handling of queer characters to the US running out of natural resources (did you know that fresh water is set to become one of the most limited resources soon?), to the enforced social change brought about by the dominance of *gasp* China (and Europe and the rest of the world), religious terrorism, the 'race to the stars', mainstreaming of animal rights and veganism, mass extinctions of species, and racism. Racism is still obviously a problem, and that, combined with the limits on children and new technology, is combined in a fantastic, thought provoking way that I don't think I've actually seen written about before, in a deliberate attempt to create a perfect, racism free, colony. Oh, everything about the colony ship is designed to be ideal in some way; from a democratic charter to meat being grown from tissues samples rather than killing the animals, to complete freedom of who gets to pair up with whom. Or quadruple up.
The setting is fascinating - a socalist and successful coalition based around China is now the dominant world power, and the US has run out of food and water due to (presumably) rampant exploitation of the environment, so has to become a vassal state. Along with that came an assortment of mostly sensible (and Godlessly liberal) restrictions, the most painful of which was the limits on children. Generally, it is very science orientated, upsetting some of the US people who prefer to argue based on personal beliefs. While people still complain, the only ones who really seem to mind are the obscure crazy fundamentalists sects. There are still plenty of religions around, though some have evolved and some are new, and we see both positive and negative versions of these (Trevathan's non-demoninational spirituality, the terrorist cult, the cult that kidnaps her partner, the religious group that rescues her partner and smuggles her to safety).
Our main female characters are all lesbians, and they seek each other out because of it. I mention this specifically because I did wonder for a while whether it was supposed to be a weird coincidence, or if there were a lot of lesbians! Gay and lesbian people appear to be no more or less common than they are today. The level of acceptance is generally higher, but there are still pockets of homophobia, apparently restricted to cults.
The main character was Lieutenant Trevathan Ivins, an officer in the space navy, and an environmental engineer. Her fellow lesbians included a loving couple, both in the medical field; a promiscuous and friendly cook, and the loner scientist Dr. Evangelena Herbert, who dedicates her life to studying the last remaining gorillas and teaching them to communicate through music. All except Trevathan came aboard as colonists, and we get to know them in short chapters following each of them. There were also quite a few men; two male friends of hers who come aboard as part of the crew, a male nurse the rest of the group keeps crossing paths with, and our poor lone infiltrator.
Dr. Evangelena was the most distinct character; an oddball, wholly obsessed with her studies and conservation, and highly ethical. Her initial chapters, following the gorilla conservation and studies of their ability to recognise music, were definitely my favourite.
Trevathan, our main character, is a nice, smart, tech who is reasonably high ranking, lost her beloved to a cult and remained scarred by that, gradually finding romance again with Evangelena. Trevathan is a figurehead of sorts because she is a highly visible 'out' lesbian In Space, and the person who ties most of the other characters together.
The others kind of blurred together; they were pretty generically nice, smart characters. I believe the couple were mixed race, and between them they pretty much rounded out the necessary skill set, and roles to move the story along. It could have done with less focus on them though, after the chapters showing the varied backgrounds and applications that went into making up the colony ship.
There was sex, mostly of the fade to black or non-explicit description type, but it was definitely sex, and handled well. And sexily. It suited the mood of the book, while still letting us get a peek into the personal, sexual lives of our characters.
It's an awesome, interesting book, however I still have a lot of nitpicks. Which I am going to delve into at length, because I want to both explain the problem and yet not denigrate the book too much, because it was a good book!
Initially, I was extremely disorientated, because I thought the first ship was attacked by mysterious aliens that the humans were unwittingly encroaching on. I instantly visualised a book about intergalactic politics and an alien-human conflict. I then thought the next few chapters were background stories.
When I suddenly clicked that the mysterious alien attack was in fact a fundamentalist terrorist group from Earth and that the ship was part of the initial movement off Earth, not generations later, it all made a lot more sense! I don't think it was badly written, I just assumed; mostly because I didn't really know what the book was about other than 'space, colony ship, lesbians', because the initial attackers had a rigid social structure and were described very impersonally ('The Title spoke' rather than 'the man spoke'), with no visual description. Oh, and lastly, because the people attacked, and investigating the attack, seemed to have no awareness of a specific enemy, which would be consistent with lurking advanced aliens annoyed with the irritating humanoids. On rereading the beginning, it was obvious that the problem lay mainly in my assumptions, not the writing (the only problem in the writing being that it did not contradict my assumptions).
The apparent familiarity of the various characters with each other, even the ones that shouldn't really know each other very well yet. It felt as if the author had an established group of characters that are probably going to be the core of the series, and the actual awkward 'I know your name but I don't really know you that well' phase was mostly skipped. They had some reason to get together; they did get on well, they were all lesbians or friends of one, and most of them crossed paths regularly. Still, it felt like there should have been relationship development at least being hinted at, instead it just got skipped. That, or the population of the ship was a lot smaller than I thought it was.
Point of view was a problem, with the constant jumping around; the initial chapters focussing on each of the characters were great. but as soon as they all ended up in one place, the stories occasionally got a bit murky. This wasn't helped by the fairly indistinguishable attitudes they had towards each other. If they weren't in the same room, it was fine, but if they were... it was often that one person 'saw' everything for all of them, and they more or less thought the same way about it. This wasn't as big an issue as it sounds, just an underlying nag that occasionally popped up and distracted me as I tried to figure out who we were following and how they happen to know each other, and it did settle into following specific characters.
Unfortunately, the story also suffered from cardboard enemies. I found the entire storyline and the issues and characters and the terrorist issues interesting enough that Captain Tsai and Hara were distracting and a bit pointless. They lunged straight into 'take over as evil villains' mode and some of their motivations didn't seem to make sense. They also came out of nowhere. Plus, the huge amount of effort that went into screening the colonists should surely have headed them off? As the story progresses, motivations are explained and people get caught up in events, getting a bit better, but it constantly teetered back and forth across the line of plausibility.
A common problem with hard sci-fi is the info-dump, 'tell not show', style. Parting Shots actually handled that pretty well, and I found a lot of the science and social change very interesting and internally consistent, as well as somewhat realistic based on today's world (disclaimer: science background, so I actually found the gorilla research a bit light, but another person may have found it a bit heavy). Still, I had to stop and digest it fairly often, especially in the first few chapters. It struck a good balance between being about 'the people' and about 'the science/story', but the pace of the story felt a bit stilted at times, because we kept wandering off to delve into interesting, but not character development related, sci-fi and colony ship stuff. After the voyage is underway (and I literally did not realise the ship had left Earth as I was waiting for a big fanfare, and the characters didn't really seem to be thinking about it - though I may have missed it in all the over things that were going on), the action speeds up, and the details lose out. It becomes a shallower story, easier to read, but I missed the meaty science, world building and minutiae of the first few chapters.
I think the cause of most of the lack of flow, or the sense of too much going on, was that the story was trying to follow too much at once, so we skimmed several story lines at the same time. This gave it a lot of context and a wide overview of the situation, but meant that depth was often lost and situations became a little confusing. For example, we never see Trevathan really mourn her mother and brother, aside from a couple of touching family moments, and it's reduced to 'background information and plot point', the motivations of the villains are skipped, and our poor young terrorist quietly panicking and having a change of mind is done well, except that I had to reread it a couple of times to figure out when and why he decided to change direction. And the developing romance between Trevathan and Dr. Evangelena was sweet, slow, uncomplicated and fairly boring (no drama, no sex, no violence)! It worked well within the story, though, and if it had tried to take a more central role, it would have detracted from the rest of the story. This is also somewhat consistent with hard sci-fi; we see a lot more of the events and explosions than the internal angst and emotional back and forthing
As a series it has a lot of potential, and I hope the author takes the time to give her universe the attention it deserves. I do recognise that whether to write it as a first book of a series, or to try and make sure it can stand alone, is always going to be a problem with the very first book from an author. Parting Shots falls somewhere between the two, but it's worth reading and it makes me want to read the rest of the series.
And it's real 'hard' sci-fi with lesbians, which is still rare enough to be appreciated.
Parting Shots is not yet available on Kindle. The sequel, Katrinan Breach, is coming out soon.
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