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, Lindhold had already published ten other novels. A lot of these are out of print these days and that is a shame, the seven I 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 works also includes urban fantasy to books that border 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 Hobb is no guarantee you will like Lindholm.
Beware, I loved this book and I am going to tell you why in quite a bit of detail. The text below is spoilerish.
Alien Earth is set in a far future. Humanity has managed to poison Earth to such an extend that the alien Arthroplana step in and offer, what is in their view, the only possible solution to the catastrophe unfolding 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. Keping 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 travellers, the Beast Evangeline, her Arthroplana keeper Tug, Captain John, his crew mate Connie and stowaway Raef have their own ideas agenda. The journey slowly turns into a much more than a trip to survey the Earth, it becomes an exploration of what it is to be human somewhere along the way.
There are several aspects of this novel I very much liked. The relationship between the Arthroplana and humanity being one of them. Tug and his race may seem like benevolent saviours and rulers of mankind. 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 in firmly charge. It does not take long for the first cracks in Tug's story to appear however. The unravelling 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 the treatment of ecology in this book.
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 and give in return to the system 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 their is a relentless competition between species for an ecological niche as well as a pressure from within a species that promotes that those best adapted to their environment are mist 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 optimum. An optimum that is not stable either. 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.
To achieve 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 quite complicated concept and takes a while to fall into place for the reader. As a result many people will think the book 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 not particularly sociable, a lot of time is the book is devoted to introspection. Early on in the novel dialogue is not that important. Mistrust and downright anger is making the characters move carefully. Once Earth is reached and the inevitable crisis begins to take shape and the characters are forced to open up or seek the confrontation this changes quite dramatically. For the most part this is quite gradual except for Evangeline. This is probably the only bit of criticism I have on this novel. The 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 this novel 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 an extend where 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. Although Alien Earth is quite different from other novels I have read in terms of setting and concepts, I guess the in depth characterization is unifies Lindholm's entire oeuvre. Unfortunately you'll be hard pressed to find a copy of this novel, and many of Lindholm's other titles but if you do 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?
Title: Alien Earth
Author: Megan Lindholm
First published: 1992