Slonczewski Home
BIOL 103
Kenyon College

The Children Star:

A Study Guide 

The Children Star, published by Joan Slonczewski in 1998, is about medicine, ecology, politics, and religion, in a world far away, yet surprisingly near to our own.  Some of its more shocking ideas--such as that machines and apes will become "human" citizens--are just around the corner.   Others may seem more distant: How shall we colonize an alien planet whose biology poisons our own?  What if the planet's creature try to "colonize" us in turn?
Medicine and Politics
Ecological Chemistry: Food or Poison?
Evolution of Circular Animals and Plants
Hidden Masters of Prokaryon
Mathematics as Language
The Politics of Saving an Endangered Planet
Beyond The Children Star
Contact author.
Essay by Sandra Lindow.
Study Questions by Craig Jacobsen and Mike Levy.
Note: To learn what happens next (after the book ends), read Brain Plague this summer.

Medicine and Politics   ^Top^

The story opens in city on an overpopulated world, L'li.  The city evokes striking contrasts--lightcraft powered by microwave generators, people starving and dying of plague.  This scene was actually based on an experience of the author as a child, visiting family in Rio de Janero.   From the living room of a luxury apartment complex, she looked out onto a nearly vertical hillside where people lived in paper shacks in the dirt.  Years later, she imagined a story from the viewpoint of a child on that hill, looking out toward the apartments.

Brazil and other "developing nations" exhibit the contrast of advanced technology, often financed by American and European companies, amid deep poverty and spreading diseases such as AIDS.  In The Children Star, the planet L'li is beset by a plague, called the "creeping."   The creeping spreads inexorably like AIDS but is transmitted by family contact, more like leprosy.  The infectious agent is a prion, a self-replicating protein similar to those believed to cause Alzheimer's and "Mad Cow Disease."  Yet, as with AIDS, both the government of L'li and that of wealthier worlds of the Free Fold seem unable or unwilling to devote the resources to eliminate the creeping.  Ironically, by the end of the book, these worlds will face a far more dangerous plague.

Question 1.  The book's title, and the name of the first viewpoint character, 'jum, both indicate a cultural assumption about the availability of health care for children.  What kind of health care did 'jum's family expect?  How does their level of health care compare with that of Brother Rod?  With that of the "immortal" Elysians?  Why do these differences exist?  Discuss in terms of technology, politics, and economics.

Question 2.  Several different cultures and races of "people" are presented--the dark-skinned L'liites; the blue-eyed Valans, such as Brother Rod; and the near-immortal Elysians, born in bioengineering laboratories.   Then there are quasi-human races: gorilla-human hybrids, descended from slaves, and "sentients," in effect "descended" from machines.   How do all these kinds of "people" relate to each other?  Do some of their debates about human versus non-human echo debates from our own history?  See for comparison the STNG episode, "Measure of a Man."  In the Analog cover for the Children Star serial, which character is portrayed inaccurately?  This kind of inaccuracy is common in SF publishing; why do you think it happens?

Ecological Chemistry: Food or Poison?  ^Top^

Surprisingly, science fiction writers rarely face the likelihood that an ecosystem evolved on another planet will have developed a biochemistry dependent on "nutrients" toxic to ours, and vice versa.  In Dune, for example, a single psychotropic drug is portrayed as an inescapable part of the food chain; but all other parts of the biosphere seem compatible with a host of terrestrial animals and plants.  There is however no reason to assume this would always be so.

For example, all terrestrial organisms are composed of proteins built of the same twenty amino acids.  Incredible though it seems, all organisms--predator, prey, plant--have evolved cooperatively in this sense, enabling them to feed on each other.  On another planet, by chance, slightly different amino acids could have evolved.  The slightly different forms could well be toxic to us, because our own systems evolved in their absence. For example, the amino acid tryptophan is very similar to a host of indole-based alkaloid toxins:

How could human colonists live on such a planet?  Colonists would face a difficult choice between two alternatives:
(1) Terraform the planet--destroy its ecosystem, and replace it with an ecosystem of creatures evolved on Earth, producing plant and animal bodies that we could consume as food without being poisoned.
(2) Genetically engineer, "lifeshape," the human colonists with genes encoding enzymes to detoxify and digest the alien plants and animals.

Question 3.  The humans of the Free Fold have chosen to lifeshape human colonists to live on Prokaryon, instead of terraforming the planet.  Why was this choice made?   The child 'jum is rescued from certain death by Spirit Callers, a religious order founding a colony of lifeshaped orphans on Prokaryon.  How does 'jum react to all this sudden medical attention involved in lifeshaping?  How does Brothed Rod cope with the effects of lifeshaping?  Explain how the ambivalence of each character is depicted.

Question 4.  What are the limitations of lifeshaping?  What economic and political consequences can be predicted?  Do you agree or disagree with the choice?  Be sure to take seriously the arguments of both the Elysian industralist Nibur Letheshon, and the political leader Verid Anaeashon; as well as the views of the Spirit Callers, the colonial miners, and the biologists who study Prokaryon.  Note of interest:  Nibur's ideas are based loosely on those of anti-environmentalist author Charles Rubin, Rethinking the Roots of Environmentalism.

Evolution of Circular Animals and Plants  ^Top^

On our own planet, we take for granted that the vast majority of all plants and animals are linear: bodies with head and tail, plants with roots pointing down and stems pointing up.  Yet a few species remain with radial symmetry, such as starfish and sea urchin.  The fossil record shows a wide range of body plans existed in species up to five-hundred million years ago, before they were outcompeted by the "linear" forms.

Could it have happened otherwise?  Could life be based on wheels?  Amazingly, at the molecular level we are full of wheels: the rotary flagellar tails of bacteria, and the rotary ATPase molecules powering our own mitochondria:

H. Noji, Science Magazine,  282-5395, 1998.
On Prokaryon, early rotary life-forms outcompeted the linear ones, leading to a host of bizarre rotary animals, helicoid flyers, and arching trees.  Even the "grass" is loop-leaved; only tire-shaped creatures can roll over it, whereas legged creatures get their feet caught.

Question 5.  Try to draw an imaginary "evolutionary tree" of Prokaryan species.  Imagine how an early ring-shaped microbe would have given rise to plant-like and animal-like descendents; then animals branched off to rolling "zooids" and hovering "helicoids;" then various sub-genera and species of each.  Explain how this evolutionary tree demonstrates the principles of divergence (many different species with diverse niches evolved from a common ancestor) and convergence (descendents of different ancestors, from Earth versus Prokaryon, evolve to fill similar niches).

Question 6.  How do people react to a world so different from Earth, and yet in some ways the same?  Explain how the author develops diverse viewpoints in: Brother Rod, Verid Anaeashon, Iras Letheshon, and Nibur Letheshon.  Compare Brother Rod's first visit to the mountain wilderness with the first visit of Nibur.  Compare the views of the quasi-human characters, Mother Artemis and the half-gorilla scientist Khral.  Note:  Mother Artemis is depicted with traits of the ancient Greek goddess Artemis of Ephesus, a multi-breasted goddess believed to feed all the creatures of the forest.  The Artemis temple was one of the "seven wonders of the world."

Hidden Masters of Prokaryon  ^Top^

From the book's first chapter it should be clear that all is not as it seems on Prokaryon--that humans and quasi-humans are not the only forms of intelligence.  Who are the "hidden masters"?  And why have they gone undetected for so long?

Question 7.  List the various lines of evidence that point to the existence of hidden masters.  Who believes in each kind of evidence?  How do others explain it away?  Do you think some of the evidence is indeed spurious?

Question 8.  The scientists at Station (who is herself a sentient scientist) each propose various candidates for the "hidden masters."  What scientific evidence is presented for and against each candidate?  (Note: If you have trouble with this, don't hesitate to contact the author!)  What political and economic considerations interact with scientific investigation?  For example, what will happen if all the "hidden master" theories are disproved?  What will happen to the careers of individual scientists if one hypothesis proves correct?

Question 9.  The actual "hidden masters" are overlooked, almost till the last minute.  Why is this so, despite the investigation by so many scientists?  Did you find this plot development realistic?  Did you figure out the true "masters" before the characters did?  Once the true identity becomes clear, a number of ironic connections are made to past events, as early as the lightcraft flitting up and down above Reyo, and Brother Rod's promise to 'jum that she will never again be infected with deadly microbes.  (The microzooids in fact are not deadly to her; the human politicians are!)  See how many of these ironies you can trace, and show how they extend the meanings of the story.

Mathematics as Language  ^Top^

Throughout the story, mathematics plays a special role.  'jum is shown as having a special relationship with numbers; her name in fact is based on the that of the famous Indian mathematician, Ramanujan, whose last syllable is pronounced "jum."  'jum's personality traits, and to some extent those of the exiled Sharer scientist Sarai, are typical of a condition known as Asperger's syndrome.  Individuals with Asperger's tend to be of exceptional intelligence, but relate better to things and numbers than to people.  They often become engineers or computer specialists!

Question 10.  Trace the depiction of 'jum's character and personality traits.  How does it become clear that she deals with mathematics at an exceptional level?  Note how she uses numbers to express even her feelings about her family.  Why does she have difficulty dealing with people, even the saintly Spirit Callers?  Why does she seem to deal better with Sarai?  Note for example Sarai's comment that "children were subject to hunger and thirst, she recalled."  This analytical approach is typical of an Asperger's personality trying to "act normal" in human society.  Contrast Sarai's approach with that of Mother Artemis, a sentient machine.  Why is this ironic?  Based on this and other clues, what view of human and machine is the author trying to show?

Question 11.  How do the talents of 'jum and Sarai enable them to make the final connection to the hidden masters?  What crucial role is played by Khral?  By Brother Rod?  Once the connection is made, how do all the various characters react to the news?  Are their reactions consistent with their character?

Question 12.  As intelligent characters, what do you make of the microzooids?  Do they all think and act alike?  ("Aliens" too often do, in science fiction.)  Are they better or worse than humans?  What seems to determine their values?  Do you find this plot development realistic?  Explain, based on what you know of humans in diverse cultures and environments.

The Politics of Saving an Endangered Planet  ^Top^

Toward the end of the story, the leader Verid takes a crucial role in determining the fate of Prokaryon.  The politics of this struggle are not unlike the politics of our own terrestrial struggles to preserve endangered ecosystems.

Question 13.  Verid is characterized by Nibur as a hopeless idealist; but she is also a skilled politician, over a thousand years old.  In your view, does she act idealistically, or practically?  Does she make compromises?  What political moves does she make to win the vote?  (Environmental activists take note!)  What might be unintended consequences of her success?

Question 14.  In order to succeed, Verid has to make a highly personal choice, at great risk to herself.  Why does she do it?  Would you?  Can you think of examples in history of leaders taking similar personal risks for the sake of their nation, or the rights of oppressed people?

Question 15.  Of course the "oppressed people" we're talking about are actually microbes.  Compare with the problem of the prion plague: from this viewpoint, does Verid's choice seem particularly bizarre?  Would you risk your life for an intelligent strain of AIDS virus? (Think carefully!)  Could AIDS virus be of any benefit to us? See this link.

Beyond The Children Star  ^Top^

If you enjoyed The Children Star, and you'd like to read more from Slonczewski about saving children, ecosystems, and microbes, be sure to check out her other books.  The Campbell-award winning A Door into Ocean will be back in print in Fall 2000, as will her new book, Brain Plague, about how the microzooids try to take over Valedon and Elysium!