It's only two months since I enjoyed the heck out of W. Michael Gear's 'Outpost', the first book in his 'Donovan' series, but I found it late and so its sequel is already here. I didn't know what to expect from this author but that book made me enough of a fan of his that I was eager to leap into book two and I'm really not looking forward to having to wait for book three. This one does everything it needs to do, but with a level of admirable patience and a subtly growing understanding of this planet thirty light years from Earth that highlights that the series can run just as long as Gear wants it to.
Before I continue, I should point out that 'Outpost' is an important enough introduction that, if you're interested in the series, you should read it first. It's not just a beginning, it's bedrock. Come back when you're done with it and we'll talk.
We left that book with a firm understanding of just how isolated and dangerous the planet of Donovan truly is. Not all the lead characters survived that book and others left on the Turalon, the only populated supply ship to show up in eight years, meaning that it may well not get home and thus the nascent colony is in deep shit. The technology they have may be bolstered by what recently arrived but they're having to re-create a lot more from scratch and they're up against the clock because the planet is encroaching on their land as fast as they can fight back. And that's not even beginning to talk about the wildlife, which makes Australia look like a picnic ground.
What Gear does best is to build societies. One of the lead characters who didn't leave on the Turalon is Kalico Aguilar, the Corporation's new Supervisor, who is both struggling to maintain the role for which she fought and enticingly finding a new one that she didn't expect. Sure, she wants to get rich by mining as much as she can of the rare elements that Donovan has in abundance and having them ready to go when the theoretical next supply ship shows up, but she's aware that that could never happen and so she has to find her place in Donovan society too. She makes concessions here that would have been impossible for the Kalico of only a book ago but is right and proper for the Kalico of now. And Gear does similar things with a whole bunch of other key characters and, in so doing, grows a society on Donovan that rings so acutely true that we almost feel like we're there.
What I like most about this book is that he doesn't confine that to the places we know. Sure, we see progression (and otherwise) between the Corporation's base and the independent Port Authority, where sheriff Talina Perez still holds sway, but Gear also looks beyond the newly reconstructed fences to the rest of the planet. There's an altogether different story going on in the forest, where a marine called Talbot finds himself stranded after an ill-advised side trip to see what Donovan had to offer. His colleagues are dead and he struggles to survive until he stumbles into a sassy nine year old called Kylee and Rocket, her companion quetzal.
Now, quetzals are enemy number one at Port Authority; they're shot on sight not only because they're a danger to the life of everyone there but because there's absolutely no way to deal with them other than to kill them. It's hard to imagine something more alien to the locals at Port Authority than a pet quetzal and that battle shows up late in the book, but we're let in on a lot more background before it does. What Talbot has found is a supposedly abandoned experiment in the south, Mundo Base, which is actually still a going concern run by three surviving ladies and a growing number of kids. Needless to say, they're more than happy for a big, tough male marine to join them.
It's Talbot who asks the kids to 'understand that it's all a series of complicated, often contradictory expectations, opportunities, and challenges.' He's talking about life in general with reference to lying, Port Authority, people, you name it, but his words sum up this book and this series magnificently. It's reasonably easy to put together a synopsis: mankind finds and colonises a promising alien planet but the many dangers only increase with a lack of support from Earth. The Donovanians are forced to fend for themselves against ever-increasing threats from the planet and the creatures that call it home. That's it, really. It's a survival story, 'Tunnel in the Sky' written in far more detail for a more adult audience.
But it's also complicated and often contradictory and the challenges are many, and there's no end to opportunity as these people do what they must to make a home. The concepts are universal. This could have been a western, with a set of stagecoaches heading west only to be isolated in rough country. It could have been a drama, with colonists lost in the outback of Australia, the wilds of Mongolia or some Pacific island that's not on the maps. The fact that it's a science fiction novel only gives the author more opportunities and he teases us with a number of them here.
Gear has a very different approach to say, Alan Dean Foster, in his exploration of the local flora and fauna. He's less focused on conjuring up wild and wonderful plants and animals that are completely alien and more on how these indigenous species react to the arrival of mankind. In many ways, he relegates them to the background, an ever-present threat, but continues to allow his characters to learn more about them until we're suddenly shocked to realise that we've been reading about a high-concept idea and we just hadn't noticed. Gear keeps his focus on human beings doing recognisably human things, from designing much needed antibiotics to keeping the peace via letting off steam at Dan Wirth's casino or brothel, but the science fiction he weaves into this mix is notably imaginative and worthy of book club discussion.
I'm almost unhappy to have found this series at book one, because I want to binge a dozen volumes and enjoy the dark wonders of Donovan through sheer immersion. Unfortunately, I have to wait for Gear to write more. I know that a third book is coming and it'll be called 'Pariah', but I have no idea what his expectations are beyond that. He's best known for his 'First North Americans' series, written with his wife, Kathleen O'Neal Gear, which currently numbers over twenty books. I wouldn't be adverse to this series eventually outnumbering it. The potential is that deep. ~~ Hal C F Astell
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