Saturday, May 20, 2017

REVIEW: Decision at Doona (book) by Anne McCaffrey

Decision at Doona is science fiction. It was originally published in 1969.

This review includes a slight spoiler.

Review:

I’ve read many of Anne McCaffrey’s books, but for some reason I never got around to her Doona books. This first one primarily stars Ken Reeve. Earth is enormously overcrowded, so Ken is excited to learn that Doona, a planet uninhabited by intelligent sentient beings, has been discovered and that he and his family have been picked to be some of the first colonists.

The “uninhabited by intelligent sentient beings” part is important. Two hundred years earlier, a botched first contact situation led to an entire alien species, the Siwannese, committing suicide. This led to the Non-Cohabitation Principle, which stated that humans could only colonize a planet if there was no evidence that intelligent beings already lived there. Doona seems perfect - until the human colonists come across a settlement of cat-like aliens known as Hrrubans.

Nobody wants to go back to overcrowded Earth, but the Non-Cohabitation Principle is serious business. Still, it isn’t as easy as just packing up and leaving. They need the bigwigs back on Earth to believe what they’ve seen and reported, they need a ship, and they need orders on how to conduct themselves until a ship can come pick them up. Meanwhile, the Hrrubans don’t seem to care about any of that and are just as determined to interact with the humans as the humans are to keep their interactions with the Hrrubans friendly but brief.

I tend to gravitate towards first contact science fiction. And one with stubbornly friendly cat-like aliens? Gimme! Unfortunately, I didn’t like it nearly as much as I expected I would.

The first third of the book was probably the best. I enjoyed the humans’ initial interactions with the Hrrubans, particularly the Hrrubans’ polite determination to work together with the humans. I also liked that this seemed to be a subversion of the usual “colonists with more advanced technology save the poor low-tech natives” story, without going the “mystical natives” route. The Hrrubans were polite and friendly, yes, but even the humans noticed that the Hrrubans seemed more concerned with them learning the Hrruban way of speaking and doing things than the other way around. And although the Hrrubans asked the humans for help building a bridge, in the end it didn’t seem like the humans were particularly necessary at all. The Hrrubans had all the necessary materials, technology, and knowledge, so the bridge-building was really more of a cross-species togetherness activity than anything.

Early on, I suspected that there was more going on with the Hrrubans than they were letting on. How had whole Hrruban villages gone unnoticed during the initial evaluations of Doona as a possible colony planet candidate? Why were the Hrrubans handling first contact with humans so calmly and so well? I had a guess as to what was going on, and I really wanted to find out if I was right or if McCaffrey had something even better up her sleeve. I enjoyed the big reveal, when it came, although I was a little less thrilled with it when I realized that the book included an enormous spoiler at the beginning that I just hadn’t been observant enough to catch. It also bugged me that the big reveal essentially negated some of the things I’d previously enjoyed about the book.

The characters were pretty flat - most of them were little more than names to me. Also, many aspects of the story were dated. There was a reference to a hugely important event in 2010 that, obviously, never happened (and was linguistically suspect). And the colonists anxiously read communications from Earth using microfilm readers.

The thing that really turned me off this book, though, was Todd, Ken’s 6-year-old son. Since Earth was so overcrowded, everyone was taught from an early age to be quiet, move carefully, and not take up too much space. Todd violated societal norms by being loud, energetic, and occasionally aggressive. He was so difficult to deal with during the journey to Doona that he’d had to be locked up and supervised in 4-hour shifts. One of his first actions upon arriving on Doona was to run up to one of the Hrrubans and yank his tail as hard as he could.

While I could sympathize with Todd’s frustration with the requirement to keep his behavior restrained and with the way he was treated (more on that in a bit), the tail-yanking was absolutely not okay and he should have been old enough to know better. The humans were horrified, but surprisingly the Hrrubans treated Todd indulgently. Later on, one of them even said that his behavior indicated he’d one day be a leader.

As much as I disliked Todd, I also didn’t like the way his parents spoke of him. Until a certain point in the book, Todd’s mom (Pat, Ken’s wife) never said anything truly positive about him and Ken’s feelings about him were mixed but leaned heavily towards negative. At one point, Ken almost beat Todd but refrained because he’d have had an audience. When the Hrrubans offered to essentially act as Todd’s daycare, Pat couldn’t have agreed more quickly and Ken’s protests were token at best. (I initially understood the Hrrubans’ offer as a kind of temporary adoption, which made Pat and Ken’s relief and celebratory sex especially difficult to take.)

Todd turned out to be instrumental to the book’s ending, and...ugh. McCaffrey wanted readers to believe that 6-year-old Todd was incapable/unwilling to conform to behavioral norms on Earth, and yet willing and able to become fluent in both the formal and informal varieties of a new language, learn an alien species’ formal etiquette, and behave according to those rules for hours on end. Um, no. Even an adult would probably have had periods of boredom and mental exhaustion.

McCaffrey was one of my favorite authors when I was a teen, but this definitely isn’t making it onto my list of favorite books by her. Still, I won’t rule out reading the next book in the series, which was published a couple decades later and might potentially work better for me.

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