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Daughter of Elysium, Joan Slonczewski, AvoNova, 1993, 521 pp.

Daughter of Elysium, Joan Slonczewski's fourth novel, is the sequel to A Door Into Ocean, quite the tough act to follow. This book takes place over a thousand years later, and the intervening transition is well-imagined (not like Clarke's 3001, where very little happened in the intervening 1000 years). The new set of characters are fascinating, their dilemmas are interesting, the themes are insightful -- all as in A Door Into Ocean. So what does Slonczewski do to outdo that book? She experiments a bit with plot, an admirable thing even though it's only partly successful, and she throws in five contrasting cultures instead of the two colliding in the earlier book. This book is well worth reading, despite the weird plotting and the clumsy chunks of exposition. Daughter of Elysium stands as one of the best examples of thoughtful science fiction, and its uniqueness, even as a sequel, makes one believe in an exciting future for the genre.

The story of this novel has to do with a family, Blackbear and Raincloud Windclan and their two children, from the planet Bronze Sky, a newly settled world. Both Raincloud and Blackbear receive important jobs on the planet of Shora, working for the Elysians. Shora is still inhabited by the Sharers, but there are also floating dome environments where the society of immortal Elysians live. Blackbear has a job working on the immortality project and Raincloud works for Elysian intelligence, dealing mostly with the primitive world of Urulan. The fifth culture in the mix, the nano-sentient servants in Elysium, throws in another plot wrinkle. Slonczewski must have spent a good deal of time on the outline for this novel: the events weave together intricately and are completely non-stereotypical. While A Door Into Ocean had more of a typical headlong genre feel to its story, Daughter of Elysium takes a bit of time to gather momentum, and defies all attempts to outguess the next event. Quite an achievement.

I loved the changes in the time period that has elapsed since the events of A Door Into Ocean. The whole political structure based on the Patriarch of Torr collapsed almost immediately after that book, and a enlightened grouping of planets, called the Free Fold and based on Sharer principles, developed with the advent of FTL travel. Slonczewski summarizes a basic part of this story on page 43, but the way the changes in society interweave through everything raises it to the level of genius. Very few sequels have made a similar leap -- I would put this book in the same league as Speaker for the Dead and Marooned in Realtime for the way it invests as much time in new speculation and new philosophical ideas as went into the original book. Even though the main opposition in A Door Into Ocean, the planet Valedon, has become too "civilized" to be of much dramatic interest here, we get more than enough new moments of drama to compensate.

The characters are fascinating, and best of all, no culture has all one type of character trait. The Elysians have a great range of debate among themselves, the Windclan's particular belief system is only a minority on Bronze Sky, and even the Urulans turn out to be far different than the stereotype of them held by the rest of the cultures in the Free Fold. The cast of characters is in fact quite large -- each of the five main cultures is represented credibly and thoroughly -- and, to her credit, Slonczewski keeps the reader well-informed about who is who and why we should care. At the same time, there is no dramatic flab in the way the characters interact, and this is an important point. Everyone has an important role to play but none of the characters feel like clockwork oranges in the service of the plot -- kudos to Slonczewski for that. The Windclan family become the viewpoint characters for most of the events, and even as we are learning about their familial dynamics and background culture they are learning about the other cultures and events in the book.

Slonczewski, herself a scientist, goes into lots of detail about the immortality project and the biology knowledge necessary for that. She follows the basic narrative principle of showing us only what the characters need to know, in this case Blackbear doing his job. Unfortunately, the detail level is too high, and the book suffers for the extended passages of exposition whenever Blackbear is at work in the lab. The minutia is convincing, but I kept thinking that after thousands of years (an unspecified time period between us and A Door Into Ocean plus another millennium), the methods of science would be so advanced and the paradigms so different that to write from our own scientific vantage point doesn't seem quite right. Granted, the Elysian society is regaining lost knowledge, but to make their journey of scientific discovery run in the same tracks as ours seems a bit presumptuous. I can't think of a word for it, perhaps it's ethnocentrism. That's a strong word, and I don't want to give the impression that I'm slamming Slonczewski's work as a whole, only that this one aspect bothered me as I was reading.

Slonczewski creates many stunning ideas and moments in this book. I loved the culture of the Bronze Skyans, especially their system of martial arts, and the fascinating religion of the Dark One. The Dark One's creation story, found on pp. 241-3, is a pointed retelling of a very familiar story most of us know. The bits of the story of the "Web" that we learn as the book progresses gives us a compelling glimpse into the events that happened in Sharer society just after A Door Into Ocean. The philosophical point about adversaries returns, and is elaborated: "one is bound to become that which one fights, to some degree. Therefore it's wise to choose a worthy adversary" (332-3). The surprises encountered by Raincloud while on Urulan make that whole subplot well worthwhile. Slonczewski even throws in a few bits of humour, like when Raincloud is talking to their nano-sentient house about when it can take a vacation: "'Why not?' she told the house. 'In another two weeks, we'll be out at Kshiri-el for the World Gathering. You'll have the place to yourself, then'" (277). However, what charms me most about the book is its underlying respect for life, and its willingness to engage the issues fiercely. Slonczewski pulls no punches in what is, in some senses, essentially an ethical project writ large, with fascinating cultures and characters to keep us reading. In fact, Slonczewski's wisdom encompasses the possible flaws in such moral crusading, as passages such as the following demonstrate: "Verid had blamed the crisis on greed. But compassion mixed with self-deceit was little better." (169). Slonczewski loses none of her keen insight, and the few slight blips in her storytelling do nothing to take away from the accomplishment Daughter of Elysium represents.


Last modified: March 24, 1998

Copyright © 1998 by James Schellenberg (james@jschellenberg.com)


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