Fri
Jun 24 2011 3:32pm

Quakers, aliens, sex: Judith Moffett’s Pennterra

Pennterra (1987) is a “wish for something different at the frontier” novel. Earth has been devastated by ecological catastrophe and has sent out missions to a potentially habitable planet in the hope of finding a new home for mankind. The advance ship contains a few hundred Quakers. When they get there, they find the world is habitable but inhabited by aliens, who ask them not to use machinery and not to live outside the one valley where they have first settled. The Quakers go along with this. The second ship to arrive contains a thousand mixed settlers who unsurprisingly don’t want to go along with this. The alien hrossa warn them that in that case, they will be destroyed by the power of the world. The new world of Pennterra is explicitly and repeatedly compared to the New World of America, but here the indigenes and their world have the power to protect themselves.

The Gaian philosophy is rather simplistic and a little annoying. What’s interesting are the aliens and the mysteries of their ecology, and the effect of the aliens on not human culture but on Danny, the boy who goes through puberty surrounded by aliens broadcasting sexual feelings. There are several point of view characters, some Quakers, some from the second ship, and one alien, but it’s Danny who carries the book and makes it worth coming back to. The other good thing about it is the prose—Moffett is just a very good writer.

No plot spoilers, and no cool alien biology spoilers.

The Quaker culture is idealised but interesting—and helped along by the broadcast empathy from the aliens. The misguided but well-intentioned people on the second mission are also interesting. The aliens are too nice, but also cool. Danny moves between worlds. He has always been isolated by being the only boy his age and by learning the alien language better than anyone else. In the course of the book, he has an alien immersion experience and then a human immersion experience (in the other settlement) and they are both alien to him, but the aliens are closer to normal.

There’s an awful lot of sex in the middle section of the book, the alien immersion section. It’s necessary, and it’s not designed to titillate, but there is a lot of it and it would put some people off reading it. I think even these days it would be too much sex for a YA, which is a pity because this is a book teenagers would really like with its questions of identity and belonging, and with their higher tolerance for simple solutions.

From sex to violence—I was right in remembering that there is absolutely minimal violence. All solutions are non-violent, not just the Quakers. The introduction, by Asimov, talks about this and makes it seem more important than it is—but as books without violence are so rare, it is worth noting. There’s plenty of conflict and excitement, but no violence. Maybe the extra sex makes up for it...

I haven’t re-read Pennterra in quite a while, maybe not since my initial completing re-read. I picked it up now because I was thinking about Moffett as a Campbell winner. She came from nowhere with “Surviving” and “The Hob” and Pennterra, and her writing was so good that she seemed like she was going to be another Delany or Le Guin. Pennterra has the flaws of a first novel—and also the flaws of somebody whose natural length is shorter. It is written in sections and with switching points of view, and each section could almost stand alone. It doesn’t really have the unity of a novel. Reading it now that was quite apparent—the different bits of it lean on each other for support, but they don’t quite make a whole.

All the same, re-reading it now I found it completely absorbing. It’s easy to sound too negative—simplistic Gaeanism, idealised Quakers, not-quite fitting pieces. But I didn’t want to put it down at all when I was reading it, even though I remembered what happened. It has splendidly complex characters with real dilemmas, especially Danny. The prose style is wonderful—Moffett is a poet and it shows. It makes you care what happens and want to get back to it.

I wish this book (odd, slightly awkward, but extremely promising) had been the beginning of a prolific and improving career. Unfortunately Moffett only wrote a handful of (brilliant) short stories and the Hefn novels, which I didn’t like as much—they had a little too much Gaean preachiness and wise aliens come to sort everything out. (Octavia Butler’s Xenogenesis books did that better, and with aliens with some complexity.)

So there you have my mixed feelings about Pennterra, for what they’re worth. It seems to be in print, so you can check it out for yourselves.


Jo Walton is a science fiction and fantasy writer. She’s published two poetry collections and nine novels, most recently Among Others, and if you liked this post you will like it. 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.

27 comments
Chris Chaplain
1. chaplainchris1
Hrossa - isn't that the name of the aliens from C.S. Lewis' Space Trilogy?
Judy Moffett
2. Judy Moffett
It is. It was a deliberate borrowing, accounted for in the text of the novel.

Let me add how surprising and enjoyable it was to read this very contemporary review of my 24-year-old first novel. The career anticipated here, alas, was short-circuited by the poor sales of the second Hefn book, Time, Like an Ever-Rolling Stream; but Vol. 3--The Bird Shaman--is available now, and it's the best of the bunch. Better than Pennterra I think, for what that's worth.
Jo Walton
3. bluejo
ChaplainChris1: Not only is the borrowing mentioned in the text as the author has said, but it's one of the few examples of anybody in a science fiction book admitting to having read any science fiction!
Judy Moffett
4. James Davis Nicoll
it's one of the few examples of anybody in a science fiction book admitting to having read any science fiction!

Huh. This does not match my experience.
I just read one (not out quite yet so I cannot ID it for... a month or so) where not only did the late-21st century characters seem familiar with SF but specifically SF by people most people here would know. In fact most of the authors name-checked were around decades ago and most are dead; I wondered at the time if the subtext that nothing of interest was likely to be written after 2011ish was intentional.

They also reference an actor dead in the 1970s and movie music from the 1960s.
Michael Burke
5. Ludon
Should I be seeing a giant Mickey Mouse in the sky in the cover image posted above?

No. This is not meant to be a joke. Mickey was the first thing I noticed when I looked at the image. The large moon is one ear and his other ear is suggested as being seen at an angle. His face is the dark patch with his mouth being that light streak. His body flairs out below his head. Please don't tell me that I'm the only one who is seeing this.
Judy Moffett
6. James Davis Nicoll
The advance ship contains a few hundred Quakers.

Aside from this and Still Forms on Foxfield(1), there aren't a lot of Quakers In Space! SF novels.

1: From the review, it seems like there are parallels between Pennterra and Still Forms: Quaker colonists (fleeing the possibility of WWIII or was it that the Bussard ramjet was built to flee WWIII but then got sold on the cheap because WWIII failed to arrive on schedule?) settle a world with natives; being Quakers, they co-exist with them. A century or so after settlement, FTL craft arrive from Earth, carrying the representatives of the culture that rose after WWIII (which turned out to be late, not prevented). The Terrans have an open mind about about other cultures; they're open to the idea that other cultures should conform to Terran standards in all areas where local and Terran standards conflict, and for judgmental post-apocalyptics are quite keen on extremely firm measures to ensure this happens. The Terrans think they're in a remake of 1492 and the aliens are just simple, although somewhat enigmatic, savages: actually, it turns out to be more like (rot13) Erq Cynarg. Hilarity ensues.
Jo Walton
7. bluejo
There's also Molly Gloss's Quaker generation starship A Dazzle of Day.
Judy Moffett
8. James Davis Nicoll
I have never heard of that one.
Judy Moffett
9. hobbitbabe
Is Danny in Pennterra the boy who had such trouble in a super-urban environment because he kept using an "outside voice", but in the new settlement he shouts "Hey, Dad!" across a clearing, and his dad winces in apology and embarrassment and then realises that here his son will be fine?

I've been wondering where I read that scene for a long time, because I thought it might be Lije Baley's son but I couldn't find it.

Also, if I'm wrong and someone else remembers where it's from, I'd be glad to know, and I bet this is the readership to ask!
Judy Moffett
10. James Davis Nicoll
A Dazzle of Day

(googles)

WHO WRITES A GENERATION SHIP STORY WHERE THE GENERATION SHIP DOESN'T COLLAPSE INTO CIVIL WAR AND BARBARITY HALFWAY TO THE DESTINATION?

I mean, OK, the second Exiles book has the ship arrive more or less in one piece at Alpha Centauri but Bova corrects his failure to conform to the One True Generation Ship Story in the third book.

(puts book on keep an eye out for list)
Judy Moffett
11. Teka Lynn
@9: I believe there's a similar scene in Anne McCaffery's Decision at Doona.
Jo Walton
12. bluejo
Hobbitbabe: That's not this book.

James: Quakers. HTH.

I loved Dazzle of Day and have reviewed it here.
Bob Blough
13. Bob
I remember really enjoying this book when it first came out and I read both of the Hefn books - now I should get that third one.

Jo, I really appreciate how you review books that somehow have been lost to modern readers and definitely still should be read.
Jo Walton
14. bluejo
Bob: Thank you, that's my primary purpose here. I do write about more recent books and about classic books, but writing about good books that nobody has thought about for ages is what I'm here for.
Judy Moffett
15. Judy Moffett
Molly Gloss's novel is THE Dazzle of Day, not A. I thought it was, went to my bookshelf to check, pulled it out, started to flip through it...and you know what happened: now I'm rereading it.
Teresa Nielsen Hayden
16. tnh
Bluejo @3, James Nicoll @4: I don't read as much published work as either of you, so maybe some stuff has gone past me, but I distinctly recall how surprised and relieved I was when I read Ken McLeod's The Cassini Division, and found he'd built a future in which science fiction is part of the assumed cultural background.
Judy Moffett
17. James Davis Nicoll
I only read a tiny subset of current SF, no more than a fifth of it, but it's my impression that it's actually reasonably common for characters within SF to read SF.

It's not a recent thing, either. There's at least one Clifford Simak short from around 1960 (1) where it turns out the one product humans have that the galaxy wants is pulp fiction, which no other species does. One civilization has taken to nicking ideas from our fiction to turn them into real things - being somewhat unclear on the whole concept of fiction, I think - and the specific item they create will be familiar to Simak completists as a prop from a previous, unrelated Simak short story.

1: Which is to say I am 99% sure it is in How Bright the Vision but can only eliminate two of the four stories as possibilities.

Man, that Whelan cover brings back memories.
Pamela Adams
18. Pam Adams
JudyMoffett@2,

I haven't yet read Pennterra, but love the Hefn series, and agree- The Bird Shaman is great.
Judy Moffett
19. James Davis Nicoll
Following up on 4, Ibis (a robot living several centuries from now) from Hiroshi Yamamoto's The Stories of Ibis seems to be remarkably conversent with the short fiction of one Hiroshi Yamamoto. She never actually name-checks him but every story she uses to illustrate a point was written by Yamamoto at some point between 1997 and 2006.
R. P.
20. aryllian
hobbitbabe @ #9: I think that's in one of Anne McCaffrey's Doona books.
Judy Moffett
21. houseboatonstyx
Lewis's Out of the Silent Planet talks a lot about earlier SF.

What did his estate think of the Pennterra hross (plural forgotten)?
Judy Moffett
22. Judy Moffett
Pam @ 18, thank you!

I realized a few days ago that in Bird my characters see someone reading Childhood's End on a streetcar.

houseboatonstyx @ 21, well, it got past the copyeditor at Contemporary Books and nobody brought suit. The source of the term was explained. I doubt that the executors knew or cared.
Judy Moffett
23. Judy Moffett
And the plural, btw, is Lewis's plural: hrossa.
Judy Moffett
24. Cissa
I really adored Moffet's book "A Homestead Year"- for me, it gave a lot of context to her novels.
Jo Walton
25. bluejo
Judy: I think it's fair use to have characters in a book have read another book and make a reference to it. I wouldn't want to defend this belief in a court, but I doubt either of us would have to.
Michael Burke
26. Ludon
Jo,
I had a chance to ask an IP Lawyer about having that situation in your writing during a seminar at Archon and this is what came out of that conversati0n.

The Edge Of Night is a copyrighted property but that people watch The Edge Of Night is a Fact. You cannot copyright Facts. Therefore, you can have your characters watching the show or making a comment about the characters - as people do in everyday conversations about the shows they watch - without any problem. You'll get into trouble if you go into too much detail about a story line or anything that goes beyond typical conversation over an episode or movie.
Jo Walton
27. bluejo
Ludon: I agree with your expert. And say you had a Tolkien fan in a story and they had called their cat Beruthiel -- that's characterisation and not a copyright infringement. And that's exactly the situation with the Hrossa in Pennterra -- people who had read Lewis called the aliens after Lewis's aliens, and that tells you something about the kind of people they were. And the kind of aliens too.

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