The Children Star by Joan Slonczewski, New York: Tor, 1998

Reviewed by Sandra Lindow. March 5, 1999
Subsequently published in Tales of the Unanticipated, August 1999, p. 15.

In the history of humankind, how many mothers have told squabbling children, "Grow up and play nice"? This is a rhetorical question, of course; probably most of them have (especially the good ones), for growing up and playing nice is an essential problem in mastering the tasks of early childhood development. Furthermore, as the dawn of the twenty-first century approaches, we realize that it is also an essential task in creating a global civilization that will be able to handle the problems of greed and limited resources without destroying itself.

Beginning with Still Forms on Foxfield (1980) mother-scientist-author Joan Slonczewski has considered both of these issues in great depth. Her fiction is a sociological short course in the lessons required for growing up and playing nice. Her John W. Campbell award-winning second novel, A Door Into Ocean (1986), began a series based on a diverse interplanetary civilization that, though scientifically and technologically advanced, had not yet solved the problems involved in balancing nature with human nature. It introduced us to the Sharers, a nonviolent culture of women living on the planet Shora.  The Sharers, consummate natural biologists, had adapted to their world by genetically reshaping themselves for an aquatic life and hosting a purple microbe so that they could live naked beneath the bright Shoran sun. Extraterrestrial eco-feminists, they sought to live in peaceful coexistence with the natural world around them but it was not easy, particularly when the warlike planet of Valedon threatened to invade.

Slonczewski's second Sharer novel, Daughter of Elysium was perhaps the best SF novel published in 1993 (Red Mars and Moving Mars notwithstanding). Nearly immortal Elysians, afloat in twelve, beautiful cities, now shared the world of Shora. Raincloud, a pregnant priestess and diplomat from planet Bronze Sky, was expert in a form of martial arts dance that symbolized the difficulty of balancing human needs. She and her family were sent to Elysium to help avert an impending war with the barbaric Urulites. Part of the book's tension lay in wondering whether or not she would be able to survive ritualized hand-to-hand combat with the Urulite leader without either miscarrying or forsaking her vow of pacifism. Furthermore, newly sentient machines were also threatening war if their rights were not recognized. As in the novels previously mentioned, as well as The Wall Around Eden (1989), small children played an important role in finding creative, nonviolent solutions for resolving conflict.

Slonczewski's newest novel, The Children Star, continues the exploration of interplanetary ecological co-existence that she began with A Door into Ocean. Two centuries have passed since the events in Daughter of Elysium. Sentient machines are now equal partners in governing an expanding union of planets called the Free Fold. However, all is not well in the Fold.  All of the usual human failings are at work--greed, conspicuous consumption, over-population, poverty, disease and despair are rampant. In Reyo, a dying city on the planet L'li, a malnourished orphan named 'jum looks up from the desperate shack in which she lives to see a bright star.  "Her mother had called it the Children Star, a faraway paradise that children were born to when they died."  This star, otherwise known as Prokaryon will soon be 'jum's home.

Prokaryon is a beautiful but poisonous planet that may provide a temporary solution to the Fold's over-population problem.  Can it be made habitable or must the future colonists continue to painfully adapt their own biologies in order to survive in its lethal, arsenic-based ecology?  Terraforming has been an important theme in many SF novels from Pamela Sargent's Venus of Dreams and Venus of Shadows to Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars Trilogy, but Slonczewski takes this hallowed SF trope to task.  The Children Star is a thought-experiment that poses several questions: Under what circumstances would it be right to destroy the ecology of a planet? Who has the greater claim to a planet, the colonists who live there or the interplanetary corporation that "owns" its resources?  What about the microbial life of a planet-- does it, too, have rights? What are the criteria by which sentience can be established in radically different beings?

As in Slonczewski's previous novels, naked purple Sharers and small children play an important part in solving these dilemmas. Since babies adapt most easily to the physiological changes required for life on Prokaryon, a small colony of refugee orphans has been established by an ancient Holy Order called the Spirit Callers. The orphans are parented by Brother Rod, (Rhodonite), once a professional soldier, Reverend Mother Artemis, a sentient nanoplastic nana with Medusa-like tentacles in place of hair who previously worked in an Elysian creche or "shon" before earning her freedom, and Brother Geode, a six limbed sentient machine who resembles a giant, multicolored tarantula. When Brother Rod rescues 'jum from certain death on L'li and brings her to Prokaryon, little does he know that this child will be instrumental in discovering the mysterious intelligence that governs Prokaryon.

Meanwhile Nibur Letheshon, an effete Elysian billionaire venture capitalist is attempting to buy up fifty-one percent of Prokaryon's assets so that he can monopolize the planet's resources. (Nibur's last name is of symbolic importance here. In his monomaniacal desire for even greater wealth, he seems to have forgotten the humanitarian lessons of his childhood in the shon.) Can the lowly group of Spirit Colonists, forty of whom are children, keep their home from being destroyed by Nibur's terraforming white hole? To do so they must discover "the hidden master," the secret alien intelligence behind Prokaryon's strangely ordered weather, flora, and fauna. In the course of their quest, they seek help from Sarai, a Sharer descendent of Raincloud, who now lives as a reclusive lifeshaper/researcher on Prokaryon as well as from Khral, a Simian research biologist from Urulan.

Lesbian partners Verid Anaeashon and Iras Letheshon from Daughter of Elysium also play important roles in creating as well as resolving the conflict. During the Valan Occupation described in A Door into Ocean, Verid, then a young lawyer or "logen", had successfully defended the right of native Sharers to shelter fugitives in the tunnels of their rafts. Four hundred years later, at the time of the conflict described in the second book, Verid was the "generen" or judge who was able to negotiate a settlement and avert war between the Elysians and the nano-sentient machines. By the time of The Children Star, Verid is now Secretary of the Free Fold. Iras, Nibur's "shonsib" and now President of the Bank of Helicon, has decided to underwrite Nibur's venture capitalism on Prokaryon. Verid, whose name means "truth," is caught in an approach-avoidance conflict. She must find a way to balance the Freefold's serious overpopulation problem with the unique possibilities of Prokaryon's nearly unexplored and untapped ecosystem.

Certainly enlightened readers will agree that Prokaryon, like Earth's rainforest, should be preserved. However, even a predisposition towards environmentalism cannot explain the amazement and sense of wonder readers will experience while reading Slonczewski's description of this world's plant and animal life. Prokaryon is a macrocosm only a microbiologist could envision. Slonczewski writes:

Prokaryon was named for its unique "prokaryotic" life forms. Animal or vegetable, all Prokaryon cells contained circular chromosomes, free of nuclear membranes--like bacteria, "prokaryotes." But Prokaryon cells were ring-shaped as well. And the higher structure of all the multicellular organisms was toroid, from the photosynthetic "phycoids" that grew tall as trees, to the tire-shaped "zooids" that rolled over the field they grazed--or preyed upon those that did." Furthermore, in this extraterrestial Camelot, trees sing and it only rains after sundown.

Historically science fiction written by women has sometimes been described as "soft science" and "wet diaper." By this, disparaging male critics have meant that women's SF lacked scientific rigor and focused too often on family issues. Slonczewski's work is a powerful blend of hard scientific rigor with softer sociological and moral issues. It is this blend that makes her work so fascinating. Prokaryon is a young, primitive world. Wet diapers do occur in abundance, but Brother Geode, the sentient machine who changes the diapers, can also work as a threshing machine while simultaneously reading classical literature for his own pleasure.

Joan Slonczewski is a very good microbiologist. Chair of her department at Kenyon College, she has an impressive record of publications and awards within her field. When she creates a world she does it thoroughly and with scientific discipline beginning with the original microbes that comprise the ecosphere. There are none of the smoke and mirrors, sleight-of-hand alien ecologies so common in novels created by less rigorous authors. The Children Star also contains references to some hot topics in microbiology today. The residents of the planet L'li, for example, are dying from "creeping sickness," a plague caused by prions, microbial proteins that cause slow paralysis of the limbs and eventual death. In our world, prions cause the neural degeneration called "Mad Cow Disease." Slonczewski describes another mysterious disease on Prokaryon as "intelligent." In the last few years researchers have begun to describe AID's as intelligent. Scientists have found that viruses follow the same laws of evolution and survival that we do. Those viruses that spread themselves the most, survive the longest. There seems to be a kind of awareness within the virus that affects how lethal it needs to be. Researchers suggest that when people were primarily monogamous the HIV virus was less lethal because it needed its host to survive as long as possible. However, when looser sexual mores caused people to have sex with many partners, the virus became more lethal. It had little "motivation" for keeping any one host alive for long. Like AIDS, Slonczewski's disease is able to hide in the nervous system, spread undetected and evolve into other forms as necessary when the hosts' bodies begin to fight the disease. Unlike AIDS (fortunately), Slonczewski takes her disease one step further to give it actual awareness, a hive-like kind of sentience.

One of the marks of a good scientist is that she can explain her theories in a way that others can understand. This is also true of a good theologian. Slonczewski is an excellent explainer, who makes some very hard ideas accessible. Furthermore, in reading The Children Star, I began to understand that for Slonczewski, a Quaker, there is no conflict between science and religion. Rather, the lessons learned from science on the microbial level can be used to underscore the importance of growing up and playing nice on the human level. We must respect all life if we are to eventually inherit an ecological kingdom of heaven. As in Christ's parable, Verid shepherds the Fold by seeing truth and morally dividing sheep from goats. The Spirit Colony's claim is given more moral weight than Nibur's for they respect the alien life of the planet while following the Good Shepherd's suggestions for inheriting the kingdom, "I was hungry and you gave me food. I was thirsty and you gave me drink. I was a stranger and you invited me in." (Matthew 25:35) Furthermore, 'jum, the fortieth child in the Spirit colony, also becomes instrumental in its salvation. "A little child shall lead them." (Isaiah 11:6) In The Children Star Slonczewski seems to be reminding Nibur that despite all his money, power and fancy technology, "Unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven." (Matthew 18:3)

Slonczewski is a very good scientist. She is also a very good mother. Publication of The Children Star was delayed because she needed to nurse her son through a traumatic illness. She has thought long and often on the difficult problems of balancing family and career. Perhaps it is through her writing that she seeks answers for the conflicts she has experienced. Certainly writing, is an intensely personal process that involves her heart and soul as well as her intellect. The worlds she creates and the stories she tells become her other children. I first met Joan years ago at a conference of the Science Fiction Research Association in Chicago. Since then, when I have attended her lectures and when we have talked together I have found her to be the kind of woman who is perpetually pregnant with new ideas. I knew that her family and her teaching came first, but I waited for the publication of The Children Star as impatiently as for the birth of a friend's long awaited child. I hope that in the years to come, she will mother many more worlds, many more children.

Sandra Lindow teaches reading and writing to emotionally disturbed children and adolescents in a residential treatment center in Eau Claire, WI.