Tor, 2001, 366 pages, C$37.95 hc, ISBN 0-312-87796-X
As regular readers of these reviews already know, I’m not much for fuzzy-huggy Science Fiction that deals with grand statements on what it is to be human. I’ll leave that to others who are fascinated by the idea: they’re probably as uninterested in what does fascinate me, and that’s perfectly okay. Science Fiction is big enough to accommodate all type of readers, and the only mistake lies in criticizing what is obviously best suited for others.
No, I didn’t expect much from Candas Jane Dorsey’s A Paradigm of Earth: Her previous Black Wine had left me shrugging, and there wasn’t anything in her latest novel’s premise to get me interested. In some way, A Paradigm of Earth is yet another variation on the old “first contact with alien serves to illuminate human nature” SF story. In this case, a dozen alien infants are left on Earth (roughly distributed around the globe) to learn everything they can about humanity. As it happens, one of them ends up in Edmonton, Alberta, where it’s assigned to a social worker named Morgan. Morgan, as it happens, is a woman with a number of unsettled issues: the recent death of both of her parents has left her without any clear goal, and even the vast house she has inherited isn’t much comfort. But when the alien decides that he’d rather stay at her place rather than at the government facilities, she realizes that she’s humanity’s representative… no matter how ill-prepared she feels for it.
While I can respect the quality of Dorsey’s writing, she is obviously writing for a very, very different type of reader. A Paradigm of Earth is the type of quiet and contemplative story that, most days of the week, would send me running to faster-paced works. But great writers can be recognized in how they can cross boundaries and reach readers of all type, and so I felt myself sucked into A Paradigm of Earth almost despite myself, gradually wondering what would happen next to the characters.
There is a very comforting Canadian-ness to A Paradigm of Earth, a quiet matter-of-fact quality that seems almost calculated to trump traditional genre expectations. No explosions, no “aliens are going to destroy the planet unless we show them how worthy we are” histrionics. The alien decides to live in a boarding house, and the Prime Minister thinks it’s a splendid idea; how much more Canadian could this novel be? Heck, one of the protagonist is even a bureaucrat with tremendous depth of personality. Despite the murders that pepper the narrative (!), this novel has a comfy feel: call it a “cozy first-contact” novel. Dorsey’s stripped-down style chugs forward despite some plot lulls, leaving no barrier between reader and story.
Readers of Theodore Sturgeon’s story will feel at home with this book: Though well-labelled as Science Fiction, A Paradigm of Earth uses aliens as an excuse to explore humanity and how they react to this new situation. Love of people permeates this novel from beginning to end. But Dorsey’s slice of humanity, as is happens, is not the type of overachieving clean-cut atomic stereotypes so prevalent elsewhere in SF: They’re a diverse bunch of misfits, rebels and dissidents. Even the policemen and bureaucrats, defenders of the orthodoxy, often prove to be as unusual as their charges.
Gender issues are raised (the alien has no specific gender, which makes an odd match given Morgan’s own preferences), although the impact of those issues remains diffuse: The quiet intensity of the novel tends to make the gender issues disappear in the background of the novel, as just another piece of the alien’s education. As a reader who’s not particularly interested in gender issues, I remain unsure how I was supposed to be affected by this material, or if I was supposed to have strong reactions to a number of scenes that, to me, just blended with the rest.
But as I said, I’m not the kind of reader who’s supposed to be enthusiastic about this type of novel. That it worked well enough on me is enough of a compliment: Imagine what an effect if could have on you, if you think you wouldd enjoy this type of stuff!