The colonization of distant planets is one of my favorite science fiction themes: I’ve always found it fascinating to observe humans react to a new, often hostile environment and having to do it on their own, because any kind of help is millions of miles away. It hearkens back to the idea of pioneers starting a journey toward the unknown, being aware of the dangers that might face them, but still feeling the need to obey that inescapable drive to move forward, to “see what’s out there“. One of such stories was the Heorot series by Niven and Pournelle, where the colonists found themselves face to face with terrible predators aptly named ‘grendels’, and I encountered a similar spirit in this novel, which enhanced my enjoyment of this well-crafted book.
Donovan is a lush, Earth-like planet rich in minerals and precious stones, a true paradise for colonists and miners, but it also possesses a dark, ruthless side, because most of its flora and fauna are deadly: in the three decades since planetfall, the first wave of settlers has dwindled down to a few hundred individuals, their life hanging on a precarious balance due in part to the heavy casualties and in part to the lack of supplies, because none of the ships sent with new people and equipment ever made it to Donovan. Items like antibiotics, for example, have run out, which means that on this planet even a banal infection can kill you.
Still, the Donovanians have learned how to cope with the situation and how to reach a sort of armed truce (where armed is indeed the key word) with the planet and its dangers, and in so doing have developed a streak of stubborn independence. Enter the Turalon, a new ship sent by the Corporation, the colony’s contractor, whose representative Kalico Aguila is determined to use the mission to further her ambitions: solving the mystery of the lost connection with this potentially lucrative settlement, and bringing it back into the Corporation’s fold, will take her to the top of the corporate food chain. What Aguila discovers is that travel in space is far more dangerous than one could have imagined, and on top of that the colonists are not ready to hand back the independence they literally bought with their blood.
What passes for government on Donovan is handled by a trio of people, the most notable of them being Talina Perez, a woman toughened by hardship who, like her two other counterparts, has won the respect and faith of the other colonists by showing her aptitude for survival. It’s therefore not surprising that the arrival of Aguila and her company of marines, led by the veteran Max Taggart, does not shake the community overmuch: the settlers know that before anyone can lay any claim on Donovan, they have to demonstrate their ability to survive it, to move beyond their new-arrival status (defined “soft meat” by the colonists) into the hardened shape that the planet requires.
To make things even more interesting, one of the new arrivals is a ruthless killer who boarded the Turalon with forged papers, determined to build himself a new life on Donovan – of course on the backs of his hapless victims: he proceeds to find himself a lucrative niche in the colony, doing away with any obstacle with the same ease as other indigenous predators; and as if all the above were not enough to keep readers on the edge of their seat, one of the ships bound toward Donovan, the Freelander, makes its appearance: the same kind of unexplainable anomaly that made the other ships vanish has caused the Freelander to be trapped in a sort of limbo for over a century – the crew and passengers are all dead and in the middle of the officers’ mess-room looms an ominous construct of human bones…
More than the fascinating glimpses of the wondrous, dangerous beasts that prowl the surface, like the reptilian quetzals, or the treacherous flora, like a kind of predatory vine that lashes out when one least expects it, this novel finds its strength in the contrast between the new arrivals, full of notions about how to run things and follow rules, and the settlers, whose experience has taught them the hard way that they had to adapt to the planet, and not the other way around. The political and economical quandaries faced by Aguila dovetail nicely with the personality clashes between colonists and Corporation people, the latter having a hard time wrapping their minds around the laid-back kind of anarchy that has supplanted any rule still observed by the newcomers, who have not had the opportunity to learn Donovan’s harsh lessons. One of the best scenes where these differences come to the fore is the failed attempt at a trial in which Talina and her two co-rulers should be the accused and end up being the heroes of the moment, having correctly judged the mood of the audience and the weaknesses of Aguila and her enforcers: there is a delightful balance between drama and humor in this scene that mirrors the novel’s overall mood, and the opposing attitudes between the major players.
As fascinating as the background is, the characters are even more interesting: apart from Talina, who is some ass-kicking woman indeed, one we meet for the first time as she chases a dangerous quetzal, there are her co-rulers Shig and Yvette – the former often relying on some inscrutable Eastern wisdom and the latter on a more practical approach – a triumvirate based on shared experiences and mutual respect. If they remain more or less faithful to themselves in the course of the story, we can see great changes in some of the new arrivals, especially Max “Cap” Taggart and Kalico Aguila. Taggart, who starts as the epitome of the square-jawed soldier, slowly falls under the spell of Donovan (and Talina’s as well…), for the first time realizing that there is more to life than an existence structured around rules and regulations, that the freedom he enjoys on the planet, despite or maybe because of the dangers he faces, is what he wants and maybe always wanted. In a sense, Taggart “turns native”, and this causes him no end of grief from his former comrades who are unable to look at Donovan with the same eyes. Kalico Aguila seems to be the perfect corporate drone, living only for advancement and power, and it will take the hard reality of Donovan and the fear engendered by the returning Freelander to steer her goals in a different way.
As the first book in a trilogy, Outpost does a good work of laying down the premises for the story and manages it while telling a compelling, multi-faceted tale full of twists and turns – some of them quite unexpected, like a development that caught me by surprise toward the end – but it leaves a good number of unanswered questions for the next installments: I can’t wait to see what this dangerous, mysterious planet still has in store for me…