(2013) Phillip Mann, Gollancz, £14.99, trdpbk, 515pp, ISBN 978-1-575-13262-7
Paradise is an unique planet: a fertile, lush, verdant, green world teeming with life. And so it was inevitable that soon after its discovery that it would be begun to be explored. However, the scientific missions soon discovered that much of paradise's beauty killed. Its local fauna and fauna were inedible to humans. No matter there was option 2: the exploration team would grow crops from Earth. Alas, nice try, that did not work.
Meanwhile Paradise was declared a conservation area and the attempts to agriculturally domesticate the local species and try to grow Earth crops continued. However as the first years passed progress was next to nothing. Even dogs brought from Earth died after a few months for reasons unknown: it was amazing really that the humans survived with so little difficulty. But with everything the exploration settlement needed having to be imported from Earth the practicality of keeping a settlement on Paradise going was becoming less and less feasible. Matters were compounded by the local species changing in unpredictable ways. For example, just when the explorers thought they had bred a native plant that was edible, they found that only some of the new strains could be eaten with others remaining toxic, and those that they thought edible never bred true. Finally the day came when the authorities on Earth had had enough and the decision was made to evacuate Paradise: all human presence of the planet would be disestablished.
To some in the settlement this was disastrous, for though living on Paradise was not easy, it was a beautiful place and a natural wonder. Also there was a fear that once Paradise had been left alone for some years, the reasons for it having a conservation status would be forgotten and the planet then ransacked for its mineral resources. Hera Melhuish was reluctant to go and determined to make the most of the remaining time on the planet.
Phillip Mann has crafted a neatly, and very completely packaged story that is science fantasy covered in a thin, hard-SF wrap. The author now lives in New Zealand, and one does wonder how much of his adopted home has rubbed off on him in this book's writing? New Zealand is a largely rural country with an unique biogeography that was tragically undermined when humans arrived in just the past few centuries: first the Maoris and then the Europeans. The Maoris killed of much of the megafauna and the Europeans brought rats as well as their own imported species that ruined the ecological integrity of native ecosystems. Here the parallels of such conservation concerns with those if The Disestablishment of Paradise are obvious if not blatant.
In many respects this is a remarkable novel that will appeal to a good proportion of SF readers, so one can see this novel raising the author's status within the SF community: plaudits will no doubt come. Having said that, I can equally see that this novel may not be for everyone: it is a marmite novel with some likely liking it greatly while others may simply walk away wondering what the fuss is about.
The reasons for liking it are obvious. The set-up appeals to the core sensawunda (sense-of-wonder) at the heart of all but the shallowest of SF readers. We have a very strange planet that is beautiful and mysterious on one hand, yet resistant to understanding and taming on the other. We have an issue that is environmentally related, tugging at topical concerns of our own world. We have an adventure, and to ramp up the tension we have a countdown to when the humans are scheduled to leave the system.
The reasons that many may struggle or even wonder what all the fuss is about regarding this book are equally strong. Leaving aside that even in a large format the page count at over 500 means that a little determination is needed to get through it unless it had been written in a page-turning style (it isn't), and so this does mean that some may find the going hard. This is compounded in that the story is neither told in a linear way, nor in a single format: there is narration, the whole text is framed as a historical flashback, then the story jumps mid-chapter to interview mode (a journalist interviewing post hoc some of the lead characters) and back again, and finally there are a dozen supporting documents covering over 50 pages appended to which we are repeatedly invited to skip to in the course of journeying through the main part of the book. This novel is not a straightforward read and add in that Mann's style is ponderous (though others might equally consider this descriptive, literary and one of savouring the repast) the whole thing might make some wonder if they have better things to do; there is too much packaging.
So those are the reasons clearly for and as well as those decidedly against this novel. And then there are the reasons in-between that might equally sway you either way depending on what sort of a reader you are. Despite the seeming novelty of the story, we have been here before (and nothing intrinsically wrong with that as much SF builds on the same tropes and similar treatments thereof). The mysterious and exotic alien has appeared countless times in SF and especially there is more than a little of Lem's Solaris (1961) about The Disestablishment of Paradise. Equally there is the planetary resistance to humans we have also encountered many times before be it with Harrison's Deathworld (1960) or Wilson's Bios (1999). There is even an 'Androcles and the lion' pivotal moment with 'Androcles' sign-posted ahead in the story in motorway billboard-sized font.
During reading this book I went through all the above states: at times thinking that The Disestablishment of Paradise was inventive and entertaining and possibly a classic in the making, and yet at other times thinking for goodness sake hurry up and get on with it, with shades of reaction in-between through to being bored witless. However, I have read enough of the genre to know when a book will generate a certain, if not even a respectful, following and I am sure that this one will.
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