Blue Mars by Kim Stanley Robinson.
Ofelia Falfurrias was one of the original colonists of Colony 3245.12, arriving with her family to settle on the planet that would be their home for the next 40 years. During those years, her husband and all but one child died as did many of the other colonists, their death rate forever matching or exceeding their birth rate. When we enter the story, the authorities have revoked the Sims Bancorp's franchise to run the colony as it is considered a failure, and they have no choice but to disband it. As for the colonists themselves, they are to be forcibly shipped off in cryo-sleep to wherever the company feels like sending them. When Ofelia finds out that her family will be deducted for the cost of moving her from one place to another as she is considered too old to be of any further use for the Company, she decides to stay behind. There is a good chance her age will cause her to die while in cryo-sleep anyway, so why not spend what is left of her life where she buried her children and her husband?
On the day of departure, she hides away in the forest until she considers it to be safe to return to the village knowing that with their deadlines, the Company will not waste much time looking for one elderly colonist. At this point, she starts a fairly different existence to the one she has been forced into for so many years. Finally, she is free to play and to do what she herself wants to without fear of censure from the rest of the community, a freedom she hasn't had since she was a little girl. In spite of the work she has to do to stay alive, she is quite happy with her situation, when one day, a second group of colonists arrives, intending to settle somewhere to the north. As she listens to them, she unexpectedly becomes a witness to them being slaughtered by what cannot be anything other than sentient beings. For the first time since she herself arrived on this planet 40 years earlier, she realizes that the colonists were never alone.
It never ceases to amaze me how, no matter what kind of technology we as humans acquire or what kind of amazing things we can do, in most science fiction novels I have read describing all these wonderful things, the genders keep behaving as if they were still stuck in the Victorian era of our world, or worse. One would think that after having figured out how to move people across the universe, and how to colonize on worlds with ecologies not suited to support human beings and so on, there would be some improvement in the social spheres of life too, but no such luck. Among the colonists of Colony 3245.12, while men and women are taught to do the same jobs, it is considered the right way of things that the men should control the women, and the adults should control the children. Using violence to achieve either of these two, seems to be commonly accepted. When they are offered another way to look at things, they also respond with violence. Of course, it should be noted that the Company chose for their colonists to be uneducated people, set in certain ways and traditions, yet easy to form into what they needed and without too many ideas of their own. That, along with the placement of the colony itself, was most likely a factor that helped doom it to fail from the start.
I do like, however, how Moon hits right on the head how we as a society tend to treat our old people, in this novel illustrated in part by how an old woman is thought of no further value once she is past her child-bearing years. Where we should perhaps have cherished and honored them for their knowledge and their years of experience, we tend to write old people off as useless, someone who only takes up time and space; a bother. As the story unfolds, Moon shows us how things could have been had we considered their value differently, and appreciated them for what they were, and made use of their experience. And then she reminds us again, quite firmly, that this is just not the way of most human beings.
What I liked best about Remnant Population is how most of the story is told from the point of view of an old woman. She is often thinking about her aches, she is often grumpy, and she is completely aware of the fact that she does not know everything - although sometimes her general life experience makes her more knowledgeable than she gives herself credit for. She is an unlikely heroine, I think; I know I was surprised when I found out that the story would revolve around her, and not someone younger, or of a different gender - or both! Considering that that is what I have been served in most of the science fiction I've read till now, this was actually a nice surprise.
As a linguist, I guess I should also mention that once first contact is made between Ofelia and the unknown beings inhabiting the planet, it is fascinating to see how they go about trying to communicate with each other. Especially with their starting points being so completely different from each other and, at first glance, with no apparent common ground from which to get started.
All in all I really enjoyed this book, despite my general annoyance with sexism in science fiction. I guess it is not a overly exciting story as such, as a lot of the descriptions are of the daily toils of the main character; mundane tasks such as weeding the kitchen garden, fixing the houses, knitting, painting and cooking, and so on. Still, I kept wanting to go on to see what would happen next, especially once the unknown beings were introduced to the storyline, and I was never bored. It does not seem to matter that much to me whether Moon writes fantasy or science fiction, I seem to enjoy the results regardless.
Title: Remnant Population
Author: Elizabeth Moon
Publisher: Ballantine Books
First published: 1996