Monday, 13 February 2017

Refuge, by Judy Griffith Gill - 4 Stars

For the record, I’m reviewing The Refuge 2nd Edition and I haven’t read the original printing of this colonial science fiction series but as the page count has changed in this update, I thought that suggested post-publication improvements and extra content. I’ve since found a note from the author at the back which says that the changes were to connect the first book to later developments in the sequels.

This story is set at a future time when humans have spent one or two hundred years colonising other planets, yet still haven’t mastered the elements on this particular one, which suffers from terrible winters on alternate years, with wind speeds and cold at such a magnitude that even the Viking sagas couldn’t keep up with them. When walls are breached by the gale, people really do get sucked out to their doom, so the colonists rely on cryogenic technology to survive the winters. (Spoiler alert for the next sentence) What doesn’t work too well at this colony is the rule of law, as someone has been selectively tampering with the life support freezers.

Judy Griffith Gill has presented us with soft sci-fi of the children and families type, then spiced up the plot with psychic awakenings, murderous deeds and officials who don’t have their hearts in the right places. Survival is another strong theme, combined with parenting and protection. The pace is not fast but that’s good sometimes as you need time to soak in the atmosphere and believe it, slowly compiled drama, lengthy and solid like the early sagas, which the structure and open system setting that already suggests this instalment will fit into a longer form.

The original name for Star Trek was going to be ‘Wagon Train to the Stars’ and this story feels like that sort of journey, with men, women and children (not necessarily family) homesteaders exploring a new and untrusted territory and trying to work out how they can naturalise into it, to survive and not be rejected by the land, the sky and carnivorous beasties. It’s a voyage into ‘the Wide’, as the characters call it, the blue yonder of old, so paint yer wagon and herd the critters. Can they do it? Can they survive when even their own kind are resistant to change. In another sense, can these technological folk return to nature when their technological support fails and rusts, as it has to eventually? Taking a step backwards in tech is hard, particularly for those who have lost the knowledge because they never thought it would be useful to anyone again – the same reasoning behind me never bothering to learn how to knap flint.

I would normally classify this as a 3 star story, well told and plodmanlike, imaginative enough to avoid negative comments and so on, but what elevates it with a jolt is the inventive vocabulary. Just as many writers have done before her, Judy has assumed that language will have morphed and twisted in a few hundred years from now as it is a living tool that adapts to the people that use it. Quite correct. The grammar in this story has stayed the same but it would be a step too far to alter that too because it would harm the book’s readability, so another good bit of reckoning. Other writers have tried this method, adding language, particularly with elements of youth gang-slang (Anthony Burgess) but usually the invented words are not credible, just cop-out swear words like ‘frak’ or a string of nonsensical pants like Tolkien’s poems in Elvish. Judy’s dialect words are really good and very credible. Really good. I can imagine feeling comfortable (not ludicrous) saying I shouldn’t vetch (currently: “a widely distributed scrambling herbaceous plant of the pea family, which is cultivated as a silage or fodder crop”) as it’s a better use for the word than our time’s definition. I might start using it now. Vetch vetch, I love that crunchy sound, like slippers in the snow. Apolz is an obvious contraction, as it pute and lavo, all representing the end of an existing trend of shortening words in our hurried lifestyles (this process has already started in text language), which will presumably become more hurried and words will keep transforming. Then there’s the new plant, animal and object names, the glasses of sillyberry juice (yes please) and children chasing the dragonflitter (sounds fun), running in your gummies and a string of useful alien farm animals (the Earth species all failed to adapt). If the author can keep it realistic, I suggest she should keep going with this language invention because she’s done better than not only Star Trek and A Clockwork Orange (which was good for exploring crime and punishment, not for “blood running red and kroovy”. The more celebrated devotchka, chai and droog don’t even count as invented because they are loan-words) but has also matched the credibility of some of the stuff Lucas Films and Jim Henson invented.

If you don’t mind me going all decimal on you, this is my internal dialogue typing, towards the end I was forming an opinion and thinking a 3.6 value doesn’t deserve to be put down to 3 stars when it’s a more professional piece than that but raising it to 4 stars would need at least another layer, like a twist in the tail. Fortunately, this was provided in the nick of time by a sudden change of direction with a whole bunch of new input, like new characters, spaceships, FTL travel, nanobots, arrested ageing and reconnection with space travel heritage which hinted that the colony had been established on the wrong planet by mistake, which is a splendid way to start but only revealed at the end, all of which had the welcome feel of a fresh rain and oxygen into what was feeling like a fully explored and overly circled pool. The slider in my mind moved up to 3.9 as the new material gave a starting point to the next book. New is healthy and these were the first green shoots of a new phase. Every colony needs to plan for the future.

All in all, a fluid read with a rich diet of invented words and some creatures that I quite like. It’s set up like a part of a greater story, as one person’s life is just a part of their family story, which is a part of the history of their land, which we will find out about in greater detail through sequels. It isn’t at the intense and imagination-exploding level of inventiveness that it would need to be to get a top rating from me but it’s better and much more realistic than a whole swathe of colonial soldier yarns and the weather closing in did make my fingers go cold and stick to the Kindle. Still, mustn’t vetch.

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