Megan Lindholm is perhaps better known under her pseudonym Robin Hobb. Since the appearance of Assassin’s Apprentice in 1995, her work set in the Realm of the Elderlings has gained her a wide popularity among fans of epic fantasy. Before the emergence of Hobb, Lindholm had already published ten other novels. A lot of these are out of print these days and that is a shame; the seven I’ve read so far are more than worth reading. It should be noted that Lindholm had a good reason to adopt another pen name. While the Robin Hobb books tend to be more traditional epic fantasy, Lindholm’s work also includes urban fantasy to books that border on historical fiction and, in the case of Alien Earth, even science fiction. It’s hard to pin down the difference in style, but Lindholm’s writing has often been described as grittier. Liking Robin Hobb is no guarantee you will like Megan Lindholm.
Alien Earth is set in a far future. Humanity has managed to poison Earth to such an extent that the alien Arthroplana step in and offer, what is in their view, the only possible solution to the catastrophe unfolding on our home planet: complete evacuation. This evacuation is made possible by the unique relationship of the Arthroplana with a species of space dwelling Beasts. Converted to spaceships, these huge creatures manage to save some humans and the most important of their cultural inheritance. Keeping humanity firmly in control, the Arthroplana set out to show the evacuees the error of their ways as well as how to create an ecologically balanced society.
Centuries after the evacuation, Captain John Gen-93-Beta of the Beastship Evangeline is approached with an unthinkable mission. A faction dissatisfied with Arthroplana rule asks him to return to the dead planet Earth to find out if the Arthroplana are right in saying the planet is beyond recovery. The Arthroplana will not approve of what John’s employers are trying to achieve, so the whole mission is complicated by blackmail, manipulation and the need for secrecy. Nevertheless, John sees no other option than to accept. Setting out with a small crew, John heads for Earth without any of them knowing the details of John’s assignment. Each of the five travelers — the Beast Evangeline, her Arthroplana keeper Tug, Captain John, his crew mate Connie, and stowaway Raef —have their own agenda. The journey slowly turns into much more than a trip to survey the Earth; somewhere along the way it becomes an exploration of what it is to be human.
There are several aspects of Alien Earth that I very much liked. The relationship between the Arthroplana and humanity is one of them. Tug and his race may seem like benevolent saviors and rulers of mankind, but they are anything but, as one of the five main characters of the book, the Arthroplana Tug, clearly shows us. He manipulates, deceives and speaks half truths to keep perfect control of the situation. His long lifespan, compared to humans, and his seemingly complete control of the Beast Evangeline appears to put him firmly in charge. However, it does not take long for the first cracks in Tug’s story to appear. The unraveling of Tug’s control and of the flaws in his story is one of the main story lines in this novel. This process is quite subtle and very complex, but I guess you could say a major clue can be found in Alien Earth’s treatment of ecology.
The Arthroplana are a species that strive to create a cooperative ecology wherever they go in the universe. By this they mean an ecology made up of species that don’t compete but only take what they need to survive. There is no predation, no wasteful breeding strategies, not even competition within a species. Plants only produce enough seeds to replace an ageing specimen, not to colonize new terrain. A place for everything and everything in its place, as one of Connie’s teachers put it. Ecology as a perfect symbiosis of species.
That is of course not how earth’s ecology works. In what the Arthroplana call a competitive ecology there is a relentless competition between species for an ecological niche as well as a pressure from within a species that promotes those best adapted to their environment and, therefore, those most likely to procreate. Earth’s ecology is not a balance. It is more like a series of interacting species, each constantly oscillating around their own personal unstable optimum. Ecology is constantly moving, driving evolution and in turn being driven by it. A system promoted by the Arthroplana would be stagnant with most of the driving forces of evolution negated. And yet, this is what the Arthroplana are trying to make the human race fit into.
The goal of achieving this guided evolution has been forced on the human species. Their lifespans has been radically increased, partially by suppressing growth and delaying puberty, and size has been decreased significantly to lessen the drain humans pose on the ecosystem. So much interference does not come without a price. Human procreation is becoming increasingly problematic, and to keep the human race convinced of the necessity of such tampering, a treatment known as Adjustment is often required. You can feel the strain on the way the Arthroplana deal with the universe in every part of the story. The more these alternative views on ecology are unfolded to the reader, the more it becomes clear something’s got to give. I think it is a great concept for a science fiction novel.
It is also a complicated concept and takes a while to fall into place for the reader. As a result, many people will think Alien Earth is rather slow to start. I must admit I didn’t really get going myself until close to the halfway point. With five characters that don’t fully trust each other, several of which are not particularly sociable, a lot of time is devoted to introspection. Dialogue is not that important early in the novel. Mistrust and downright anger is makes the characters move carefully. But this changes dramatically once Earth is reached, the inevitable crisis begins to take shape, and the characters are forced to open up or seek the confrontation. For the most part this is quite gradual except for Evangeline, which is probably the only bit of criticism I have for Alien Earth. Evangeline’s change from the dumb beast Tug seems to think she is to the vast intellect Raef discovers felt a bit abrupt to me.
Another aspect of Alien Earth I thought very well done was the way John and Connie view Earth. Having been away from it for generations and knowing the planet only from books and other kinds of documentation, they have no idea what to expect. Earth is truly alien to them. Connie’s incredibly naive exploration of their surroundings and her thoughts on seeing one of the despised competitive ecologies really drive home what has happened to humanity since leaving the planet. It’s monstrous to consider, really. Even Connie, who is by no means a model citizen as far as the Arthroplana are concerned, has been indoctrinated to the extent that her very survival on the planet where her species evolved is doubtful.
I found Alien Earth to be a very good read. Lindholm expertly weaves the stories of these five very different characters into a magnificent science fiction tale. If you happen to come across a copy, I highly recommend you seize the opportunity. Given the result of this first foray into science fiction (unless there is short fiction in that genre I am not aware of) it is a shame Lindholm didn’t write any others. Which leads me to wonder, what would a Robin Hobb science fiction novel look like?
FanLit thanks Rob Weber from Val’s Random Comments for contributing this guest review.