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review by Duncan Hunter
Elizabeth Moon's Remnant Population recounts an apparently familiar SF tale from an unusual angle. An unscrupulous corporation orders the abandonment of an unprofitable colony on a far-flung planet. One stubborn colonist, however, manages to hide and avoids the enforced evacuation. Later, a second attempt is made to seed a colony in a more favourable location on the planet's surface, but shortly after the humans land they are massacred by a force of previously unknown alien creatures. The runaway from the evacuation, now the only surviving human on the planet, listens in horror to the last transmissions of those slaughtered in the massacre. Tension mounts as the aliens set about finding the original colony, determined to learn more about the humans who have destroyed their nesting grounds.
Whereas the plotline seems at first to conform to many of the conventions of SF storytelling, Moon's choice of main character is original and surprising. Ofelia, the last human on the planet, the 'remnant population' of the title, is an elderly woman. A contract worker who has grown too old to fulfil the agricultural and maintenance duties described by her contract, she nevertheless refuses to move with her family to a new world. Instead she is determined to live out her days in solitude, taking advantage of the lonely freedom of the abandoned colony to tend her plants, care for the colony's animals and take stock of her life.
These unhurried and absorbing descriptions of Ofelia's gardening and home keeping, rich with the smells and textures of her garden and the steamy climate of the tropical world, offer a welcome change from the preoccupations of many more action-focused SF writers. Choosing an elderly widow as the central character forces us to look at the events of a first encounter in an unusual way. Ofelia, aware that the aliens might appear at any moment, is naturally afraid of what will become of her should she fall into their hands. But when the aliens do eventually reach the site of her colony, their reaction to her is surprising. Although she has been ignored and treated as worthless by the leaders of her human society, the aliens recognise Ofelia at once as a wise and experienced matriarch, whose life experience as a mother and homemaker lends her a unique status amongst their people.
In the best traditions of SF writing the novel challenges its readers to look at the world from an alternative viewpoint, inverting the assumptions and conventions of our society to demonstrate its rigidity and unfairness. The aliens (actually 'indigenes', since they are natives of the planet, as Moon has her characters point out on many occasions) value Ofelia's experience as an old woman because they prize her skills as a caregiver, educator and nurturer of children more than anything else. Yet the human characters who come into contact with her see her as little more than a useless and inconvenient obstacle to their goals. Humanity's contempt for the wisdom of its elders and caregivers and its obsession with power through the pursuit of academic, commercial and military status is thrown into stark contrast against the 'natural' values of the alien people.
Moon's novel is an unusual and thought-provoking read.
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