Before this book was published in 1987, Steven Barnes had co-written two books with Larry Niven and written two on his own. This was the first to team him up with both Niven and Niven's most frequent collaborator, Jerry Pournelle. It's been a long while since I worked through much of Niven's bibliography but I'm remembering his work with Pournelle as being a little more political, a little more militaristic. Beyond being great with fight scenes, I'm not yet familiar enough with Barnes's work to suggest at what else he brought to the table.
The result, however, is fantastic. This is clearly a science fiction novel but it's also written like a horror story because, quite frankly, it's both. It's a very grounded book, a textbook example of worldbuilding, but it goes a definite step beyond that. Tau Ceti Four isn't paradise but it seems to have everything that the first offworld colony needs to succeed. Except that, as the back cover blurb of my Sphere paperback hints, "beyond the perimeter the nightmare began to chatter..."
It starts out as pure science fiction, looking at the colonisation of another planet from the perspective of hard science. The two hundred carefully chosen colonists spent a hundred and five years asleep on the Geographic, as it found its way to Tau Ceti Four. There's a little more gravity there than on Earth, a second moon and a much longer day, but it's notably habitable, especially on a carefully selected island with fertile land, a native food supply and deposits of iron and uranium. Oh, and no predators. That's important.
Because, as Pournelle would surely have quoted, "no plan survives contact with the enemy". The point of this novel is that, however carefully you plan to not have an enemy, that doesn't mean that there isn't one. And, as anyone who gets the reference in the title knows, every enemy also has a mother. Even if I was having doubts about it, which I wasn't, the way this novel handles escalation would have sold me completely. Horror novelists get that wrong so often. It's ironic that these science fiction novelists absolutely nail it.
Part of it is surely how comfortable things get. There's a real confidence in play here, which serves double duty: it's as important for the science fiction mission at hand to thrive as for the horror angle to tear apart. The reason it all works so well is that both those genres are treated with respect and equal importance. This isn't a science fiction novel that thinks it can scare people or a horror novel that thinks it knows science. You could slap either label on the back cover and it would work perfectly on that level.
In fact, the horror works all the more because of the science fiction. The Tau Ceti Four colony comprises of two hundred people, eight of whom died en route. They're genetically diverse and of sufficient numbers to seed a colony into a population. However, when calamity strikes in the form of the the chattering nightmare of that back cover blurb, a single death is statistically important and catastrophic failure isn't far away.
What's more, the chattering horror itself is a science fiction creation and it really is refreshing to see something completely alien work so well in a human story. In a sense, this is a first contact novel, though it's a first contact novel in the same way that 'Alien' was a first contact movie. The action, what I'm starting to see as Steven Barnes's responsibility, is handled excellently, especially the first grendel in the camp. And if that name surprised you, you clearly didn't recognise the title. Go ahead, look it up.
I'd love to talk here about the ecosystem that our human colonists build their camp in, because it's wonderful stuff, but that way lies serious spoilers and you don't deserve that. Suffice it to say that this isn't just about a monster beyond the fences, it's a full on exploration of the ecosystem on this island, apparently sparked from a conversation at Niven's house with Jack Cohen, noted biologist who talked about "an African frog with nasty habits", as the note at the start of the book has it.
What I haven't mentioned yet are characters and that's because they're not as interesting as everything else going on. The authors do develop a few of these colonists, but they're mostly archetypes. The most important is easily Cadmann Weyland, that surname surely a nod to the 'Aliens' franchise, but he's still a very Niven/Pournelle sort of archetype: former military, security conscious at a time when nobody else is, very confident in his own abilities, but a little older than he'd like to be. There are sections written from the perspective of the chattering horror and, frankly, it's as sympathetic and for precisely the same reasons.
I liked this a lot, though it gets a little unwieldy by the end. Some scenes very late in the novel prompted me to wonder about their choreography instead of carrying me along in the flow. I'm looking forward to the first of what is now two sequels, 'Beowulf's Children', which saw release in 1995. Before then, however, I have two more 'Dream Park' books, the last two in the Aubry Knight trilogy and a standalone novel, 'Achilles' Choice'. Next up: the first of the 'Dream Park' sequels, 'The Barsoom Project', and I'm especially eager to dive into that one because I recognise that reference too. ~~ Hal C F Astell
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