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In Deborah Wheeler’s Collaborators, Earth scientists take refuge on an alien planet after a devastating mid-space accident. With nowhere else to go, and desperate to make repairs, they initiate first contact with an alien civilization on the planet Bandar. But their mere presence on the planet accidently sparks off a devastating war between the alien nations of Erlind and Chacarre, which had previously been living in a hard-earned, tenuous, but functioning peace.
Misunderstandings and miscommunications lead to one cultural mishap after another, escalating until the well-meaning Terrans try to clean up their messes by stepping into the position of reluctant dictators calling themselves a Peace Force. Wheeler creates a compelling tale of political intrigue, and well-meaning intentions creating disastrous tragedies. She raises questions about who has the right to interfere: Who has the right to step in when countries are clashing? Who has the right to dictate how a culture should communicate, make war, make peace, or make love? And does stepping in ever solve the problems, or does it just create more?
As Deborah J. Ross, Wheeler is best known for continuing the legacy of Marion Zimmer Bradley’s bestselling Darkover series. She is, therefore, extremely practiced at creating compelling, human characters with rich emotional depth. And it shows in her science fiction, as well. Nothing about the Bandar are alien except their bodies—which appear to be asexual until mating triggers sexual differentiation (prompting the Terrans to wonder where all the alien women are, and the citizens of Bandar to wonder how Terrans can live with so much hormonal distraction!). The biology is so lovingly respected in the prose that the divide vanishes in the reading.
Wheeler’s language is both straightforward and engagingly evocative, the environments lush without being overly described. The strength of the narrative and depth of the tragedies comes from the ever-shifting point of view between a dozen alien and Terran narrators; all of whom refer to their own people as human. The book suffers only, perhaps, from a surfeit of characters, making the thread sometimes hard to follow until it all comes together in a breath-taking Gordian knot of passionate politics and violence in the book’s climax. The world-building is solid, if sometimes overly detailed, but each tidbit is fascinating and worth treasuring.
The love stories between the alien pairs were the most important, and the most tender moments of the book, Not only for the fascinating look at sexual biology and the way Wheeler has shaken and blended gender norms like a Bond martini, but because they are also beautiful romances, familiar family issues, and heart-touchingly domestic. The aliens’ whole way of life is built on the family structure, the treasuring of the all-too-rare children, and the valuing of honesty and generosity between clan kin. The relationships span all ranges and makeups – from widowers to young lovers; from established partnerships with adult children to newlyweds with a baby on the way; from unrequited loves to loves cut tragically short. In this way, Wheeler has given us aliens with hearts as human as the readers, and that’s the point.
A starkly entertaining allegory of Middle East tensions, and a romantic and intellectually sexy gender discussion wrapped up in a compelling novel that solidifies Dragon Moon Press’ swiftly growing place amid the new wave of socially-aware and unafraid-to-make-its-readers-think genre fiction publishers.
By Deborah Wheeler
Dragon Moon Press
Paperback, 9781897492635, 336 pp.