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Karen Traviss – City of PearlCity of Pearl, the first book in Karen Traviss' Wess’har Wars series, spins a splendid new yarn on Ecology, Peaceful Co-existence (or not), and Social Structures - well written and highly entertaining:”If Karen can hold that level of writing and storytelling then this will be a series to look out for, and look forward to indeed!” (in retrospect, as I re-post this 4 years down the line, I can confirm that this indeed is/was the case!)

Shan Frankland, a former Superintendent in the Environmental Hazards Enforcement Police force, is in charge of a Relieve/Rescue/Recon force landing on the 2nd planet orbiting Cavanagh’s Star (short CS2 in Navy slang). She brings with her a group of Royal Marines, Extreme Environment Warfare Cadre, a group of scientists working for the various Bio-Corporations that bankroll the mission (affectionatly referred to as ‘Payload’), and Eddie Michallat, a BBChan (sic) journalist. Their mission is to find out what happened to a colony ship which intended to land on CS2 long ago, and which was, until recently, presumed lost. But there’s more – Shan is under a ‘Suppressed Briefing’, instructions she can only remember when triggered by the right circumstances, and thus doesn’t know her real mission.
The colony of religious fundamentalists is not lost, though – it’s right there on Bezer’ej (the local’s name for CS2), and it’s thriving, in a special zone set up for that purpose by Aran, the planet’s guardian. Yes, there are aliens, intelligent aliens, developed far further than humanity – and the first intelligent alien species that humanity meets. And, like buses, you never get just one - there’s another species, the Bezeri, living in the oceans on Bezer’ej, and being the main raison-d’etre or their Guardian (the humans are some kind of pet project of his).
And, to round things off, there is another (another!) species of aliens, the Isenj, laying claim to the planet, as expansion territory. They settled there once before, and millions of them were wiped off the face of Bezer’ej by Aras, leaving (nearly) no trace.

The cast is highly varied, but very believable. It starts with Shan, and the history she carries (she was demoted after ‘losing’ a group of Eco-Terrorists after 10 year’s surveillance…) – her sympathies clearly do NOT lie with the Bio-Corporations which have patented and controlled nearly all of flora & fauna on earth, and who are conducting unethical (by most people’s standards) experiments on human material.
Lindsay, the CO of the Marines, is less detailed, but serves as a catalyst and tripwire in the story, just as much as some of the payload, who (for personal greed, mostly), simply feel that following orders is optional.
Eddie, the BBChan reporter, is developed to far greater detail, indicating that his role in the series is to develop further, even if he’s mainly an observer in this book.
Aran, the Wess’har guardian of Bezer’ej, is a key. Highly ethical, principled, focused on ecological balance to the exclusion of about anything else, he’s literal-minded to the extreme. He also has history – he is the one who wiped out the Isenj from Bezer’ej. He also was their prisoner of war, which, given that he’s infected with a virus/symbiont (c’naatat) which makes him nearly immortal, exposed him to the nasty side of the Isenj’ mind indeed, and has left more than a little trace in his system, as well as mental scars.
Josh, the leader of the colonists, marks another side of this strange moral maze. He is (like all the colonists) very religious, vegan, anti-violence (but willing to defend his colony!), and generally afraid of what this ‘rescue’ mission is going to do to his flock.

The topics the story is built around are many, and they are highly relevant and contemporary, despite being set on an alien planet 75 year’s cryo-sleep away. There’s conservation – at any price (if you’re Aran); there’s the ongoing dispute concerning ownership of genetic material, and the power of the Bio-Corps who do hold it (Shan’s main drive, at least at the beginning).
There is the lovely concept of c’naatat, less a virus, than a symbiont, (re-)assembling its host’s DNA from everything it can get its hands on (figuratively), acting as a accelerated DNA-based evolutionary agent, an AI adapting its body to the needs of its carrier in near-realtime, and a nano-assembler implementing the consequences of all DNA changes in relatively short time (days) on its host. A strange, and, IMHO, not very realistic concept, but a great story device nevertheless. Directly following from c’naatat are discussions and repercussions on race, tribe, and the belonging to (or not) to such, especially when your body keep altering, and building in all kinds of alien DNA. And, of course, the questions of love, companionship, and responsibility in a social setting containing such greatly differing groups of beings. Good stuff, this.
And then, just to top it off, we get the BIG concepts. What makes us ‘right’? What allows us top act the way we do? Who decides what’s right or wrong? Who gives us the right to decide how others should live (or die)? Answer on a postcard (or maybe in book 5 of the series? I doubt it…)

Karen Traviss is best known for her writing in the Star Wars universe (no, I haven’t read any of those), including the development of a language for LucasFilm Industries.
'The City of Pearl’ was nominated for the Philip K Dick award – I think it would have deserved to win it, too. Despite all the heavy topics it is a quick and easy read – the closest the writing style reminded me of was Michelle Shirey Crean’s ‘Dancer of the Sixth’, although the time line here is much more conventional (thank God!), whilst the concepts are much more profound.
The concept of c’naatat is illogical in my opinion, but it’s a very powerful tool to drive the story, so we’ll accept that this is not hard SF, and look forward to the further 4 books of the series (2 out, one released this year, last one coming soon) – I’ll have to play catch-up it seems!
Overall – very good book, recommended. Get started on the series now, it will be complete soon!

More Karen Traviss

Title: City of Pearl    
Series: Wess’har
Series Number: 1
Author: Karen Traviss
Reviewer: Markus
Reviewer URL:
Publisher:  Eos    
Publisher URL:
Publication Date: March 2004
Review Date: 30 Oct 2006
ISBN: 0060541695
Price: USD6.99
Author URL:
Pages: 392
Format: Paperback
Topic: SF
Topic: Social Co-Existence
Topic: Ecology


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