Aug 26 2010 10:40am

Weather War: Marjorie Bradley Kellogg’s Lear’s Daughters

Lear’s Daughters is by Marjorie Bradley Kellogg and William B. Rossow. I originally read it in two volumes as The Wave and the Flame and Reign of Fire. I believe Kellogg is the writer and Rossow the science consultant, because I have read other books by Kellogg alone but not by Rossow, but I don’t have definite information.

This is  a good example of the kind of science fiction where people go to another planet to exploit it and learn about it, and the aliens who live there have ancient knowledge that turns out to be more advanced than you’d think, and in more interesting ways. This is not an original shape of story, and what makes Lear’s Daughters so great isn’t original ideas but the great twist Kellogg has put on this tale. This is a wonderful planet, and the alien Sawl culture is interesting and contains hidden depths. This is the a story of weather and anthropology and a science team from Earth who have very different priorities. The science fiction mystery has fascinating answers, but it’s the human conflict that drives the book and lifts it out of the ordinary.

No spoilers. It would be awful to spoil this book because the satisfying setting up and unwinding of everything is one of the things that makes it a joy, even when you know what happens. This is a book that deserves reading at its own pace so you can appreciate things as you get to them. The first time I read it, it had a yellow Gollancz hardback cover with nothing on it but the author and the title, so I knew nothing about it at all, and I think that was a good way to come to it. (And the title was “The Wave and the Flame”—it’s possible to argue that “Lear’s Daughters” gives too much away...) There are books that I want to read because hearing about them intrigues me, and books I want to read completely around a blind corner. This was one of those, and I wish it could be for you.

This is a revised edition. You know how sometimes you come back to a book and the suck fairy has been at it and the good book you remember isn’t there, only some thin little thing that you can’t like any more? The opposite has happened with this book. Kellogg and Rossow have rewritten the book for the republication, and made it better. In the original version, the prose started off flabby and a little purple, and the book took a while to get going. If I hadn’t been stuck in bed the first time I read it, I’m not sure I’d have got into it. It got abruptly better after a few chapters, as they got into the swing of it, and by the end it was amazing. This time, it’s been tightened up and it starts off well too. There is new stuff, which I’m ambivalent about, but the way the prose has been improved is just terrific news.

In the original version, there were occasional mentions of what a polluted hell Earth was. “This is like Venice used to be,” one of the characters says when contemplating an alien city with canals. For the new version, this has been made much more explicit, there are frequent mentions of how vile Earth is and how humanity has ruined it from greed. I’m not sure there needed to be quite as much, it was better when it was more subtle. Another change is that the problems are explicitly attributed now to global warming, whereas before global warming was one factor in amongst the other problems of industrial pollution. (I was reading something else recently that talked about an Earth polluted with industrial waste products, and noted that this seems to have receded as a trope in favour of climate change.)

The characters here are terrific, excellently drawn and with just the right degree of realism. The villain is successfully horrible—which is a harder trick than making the heroes sympathetic. Both humans and Sawls feel real—and the best character of all is the Sawl doctor, Ghirra, who hates his gods and would be a scientist if he lived on a better planet.

There’s a little bit of “natives are always magically right” here, and there’s a little bit of “what these people need is an Earthman,” so if you’re really violently sensitive to either of those tropes you might have a problem. I think the whole thing is subtle enough it’s commenting on the concepts rather than just repeating them, but you might not.

If you like anthropological SF, and alien planets with reasonable planetary science, and excellent characters, you will enjoy Lear’s Daughters.

Jo Walton is a science fiction and fantasy writer. She’s published eight novels, most recently Half a Crown and Lifelode, and two poetry collections. She reads a lot, and blogs about it here regularly. She comes from Wales but lives in Montreal where the food and books are more varied.

Claire de Trafford
1. Booksnhorses
Definitely second this; a brilliant book. I remember the yellow hardcover from the library! This was one of the books that first made me think about the environment, and it set my friend off on the course that led to her Ph.D and eventual job, so really influential on us.
James Davis Nicoll
2. James Davis Nicoll
At the risk of being a kill-joy, why would anyone go 600 light years for lithium? And if FTL is so cheap it's worthwhile to drag relatively common elements back to Earth from 600 LY and consumption is high enough to warrant using up whole planets, how is it Earth is still a wretched hive of poverty and evil corporate executives? Are we talking about a planet with a Gini Coefficient near 100?

1: One of the many ways Earth is defective from the point of view of space exploitation is its insistence on being relatively rich in various useful substances, thus cruelly denying us the need to look elsewhere for those materials: while lithium tends to get used up in stars faster than it is produced (thus the .06 ppb by weight abundance in the Sun), it is not all that cosmically rare (6 ppb) and we on Earth languish under a terrible surfeit of the stuff (17,000 ppb).

Actually, humans are relatively rich in lithium: 30 ppb, about 5 times more concentrated than the universe. This suggests an interesting scenario involving battery markets and ophanariums....

2: And don't get me started on free sunlight and O2. Some day every watt that hits the surface will be metered.
Jo Walton
3. bluejo
James: I'm sure it would have made you happier if they'd called it unobtanium, but I liked it being lithium and having the same physical properties of lithium in reality. I think the economics of the FTL were better done than you often see -- and what they wanted the lithium for was as a clean power source. If FTL itself is a superscience thing costing peanuts but no use for anything but startravel, then it totally makes sense. And fortunately, Kellogg didn't explain how the FTL worked.
David Levinson
4. DemetriosX
James Nichols @2: Actually, according to Scientific American at current usage rates, known lithium stocks are expected to run out in roughly five and a half centuries. Kick up the rate we use it, and it could turn into something worth going a long way for.
James Davis Nicoll
5. Michael S. Schiffer
As I understand it, "known reserves" only refers to the amount that's believed to be available in known and proven sources. For an abundant element like lithium, it seems pretty likely that there are lower-grade supplies that aren't worth assaying, and undiscovered supplies that aren't worth spending much exploring for, if there's five centuries worth of the stuff already known about.

That said, implausible interstellar economics and conveniently cheap but limited ftl are both pretty forgiveable SF sins (or if not, they wipe out a lot of other stories along with this one). Though it at least sounds like the message may be a little heavy-handed here. (But I haven't read it, so I may be wrong about that.)
James Davis Nicoll
6. CarlosSkullsplitter
... currently, lithium carbonate costs less than beef. Lithium can also be recycled.

But let's assume the price spikes a hundred-fold due to scarcity, consumption, lithium gnomes, whatever. That would put it about the current price of silver.

Then, given the premises of that novel, it would also be economical to mine silver 600 light years away, which should have implications for the setting of the novel.

Making the properties of lithium in the novel *more* realistic makes the premise *less* realistic, since, as James noted, it's not exactly rare here. One common way currently to extract lithium is through brine pools, and given the higher price point, lithium extraction from sea water would be perfectly feasible with current technology (the South Koreans are in fact investing in this process in the expectation of a price rise).

I haven't read the novel, so these things might be mentioned; and it strikes me from your description that these are all tangential to the point of the novel.

But for some readers, it's like a biography that claims Mussolini was torn to pieces by an angry mob, or that Admiral Leahy was Secretary of the Navy in 1935. If the author gets this wrong, they might think, what else do they get wrong.
James Davis Nicoll
7. R. Emrys
I wasn't going to comment, because I haven't read this yet--though I suspect I will eventually enjoy it.

But then I mis-read part of the last comment: "It's like a biography that claims Mussolini was torn to pieces by an angry crab." I would totally read that. Arthropoid aliens invade fascist Europe?
James Davis Nicoll
8. James Davis Nicoll
Perhaps anti-fascist tool-using cousins of Birgus Iatro?

James Davis Nicoll
9. James Davis Nicoll
One thing I noticed about the book is that as someone who didn't read the original version, the seams were not obvious. A lot of fix-ups, you can see the joins.

Hey, did something change about the Tor site? Let me check something. Yes it didn't did. How convenient.
James Davis Nicoll
11. Wortmauer
I enjoyed these books ... except that I never could quite suspend my disbelief on one point: the Star-Trek-like premise where aliens turn out to be almost identical to humans. Compatible metabolism, compatible language apparatus, humanoid shape, even their males and females have human male / female traits. And then eventually we find out that it's not just superficial: human and Sawl DNA are very similar, to the point it's possible to mistake one for the other if you aren't looking closely. Well, I guess that explains the similarities. Too bad (at least, so far as I recall) nothing explains that.

Beside that one, the financial feasibility of mining lithium via FTL travel is trivial to explain away or ignore.
Jo Walton
12. bluejo
Wortmauer: It's mentioned at the beginning (of the new edition, not in the original) that the life-from-space seeding hypothesis has proven to be the case.
James Davis Nicoll
13. Wortmauer
bluejo: Yeah, that helps. Guess I wasn't the only one to think this was an awfully big hole that needed to be filled in.
Tim Cliffe
14. timcliffe
Years later, in case anyone ever looks.
Referring to Wortmaur and bluejo's comments on the likelihood that the Sawls would be human right down to the DNA level: It's entirely ridiculous, and it nearly ruined the book for me. The "seeding" hypothesis does NOT solve the problem. Even if seeding is how life started on a given planet, evolution does not produce identical organisms after billions of years. And (in this case) please don't say it was humans in particular who were scattered about the universe, because our own evolutionary history is clearly tied to Earth, and our species is relatively recent -- 200,000 years by current estimates. The Sawls claim to be much older than that, so they could not have been plucked up from Earth and transported to their planet; we didn't exist yet as a species at the time they came into existence.
There are, of course, numerous SF stories in which humans of one sort or another have been scattered about the galaxy. I have no problem with this IF it's consistent with our having evolved here on Earth, because we did. If humans (DNA humans, if you will) are found elsewhere, they have to have come from here, originally, and they have to have been moved elsewhere within a scientifically defensible timeframe; i.e., within the past 200,000 years. The Sawls don't meet that last criterion, and are therefore ridiculous to me.
I liked everything else about the book, but this kind of nonsensical Star-trek stuff really galls me, and it was unnecessary. (I don't remember which plot twists may have depended on it, but the essential story certainly did not.)

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