Not anywhere near as rewarding as Brasyl or River of Gods, but this earlier novel reconfirms McDonald as a very major SF writer--arguably in the top five of contemporary speculative fiction writers. What he brings is a way to push through familiar genre elements--here alien contact--with some very new patterns that make his writing engaging, creative and extremely interesting to think about.
There are great characters and realization of the setting, but in the end for McDonald it always comes down to the story, and the one here is very good. It takes the same basic tact as his more succesful River of Gods and Brasyl--disorienting change of technological impact occurs, centeres somewhere outside of Europe or North America. Here again it’s McDonald’s ability to bring in strong relevance and a rich, detailed and non-exoticized environment that melds up the potential in his brand of science fiction, and highlights the way many authors misuse that potential for books set in either near-future Britain-America or a further future envionrment that is socially a direct extrapolatio of Britain-America in space. In this novel the setting is Kenya, the disruptive element is an alien lifeform known as the Chaga that adapts and shifts itself to fit the environment. It’s treated as an annihilatory menace by the world, but the book explores the greater nuance that emerges.
There’s lot of effective interrogation of colonial and post-colonial politics in this, particularly the forms by which multinational mercantile exploitation can occur both directly and subtly. At stake in the story recounted is what kind of future the world embraces, acceptance towards the strange secular paradise of alien contact or xenophobia, parochial interests and paranoia. It’s not as simple as this breakdown makes it sound, and in the ranging positions the protagonist traces a rich path of skepticism and engagement at different levels. Another main topic is the role of the media in such questions, touching on technology, political power, culture, exploitation and utopia.
Above all the novel is an exploration of extremes, using the science fiction potential to explore radical presentations, in a very good way. The aliens are quite extreme in what they can do, what they can survive, what their whole nature implies about life in the universe and the future. Similarly, they provoke a range of responses characterized by the breakdown of settled middle ground, promoting violence for territorial and multinational forces, heroes and villains alike. The book is an exploration of one attempted middle-ground voice, and the way she gradually is drawn into a commitment. Highly thought-provoking, and benefits from carrying out nuts and bolts of the story in a conventional yet unique way.
Worse than: The River of Gods by Ian McDonald
Better than: The Snow by Adam Robert