Jun 29 2012 12:00pm
Kangaroo Rex: Janet Kagan’s Mirabile

Mirabile by Janet KaganWhat can I say about Janet Kagan’s Mirabile (1991)? It’s a sweet book about colonization and biology that somehow feels older than it is. It’s a fix-up, which may account for some of that, and I read most of the stories that comprise this novel in the eighties when they came out. They work better together than they did separately, because while it is episodic there is an overall plot.

People came to colonize the planet Mirabile on a generation starship. They brought a lot of information but lost some of it on the way. They brought a lot of animals and plants, and encoded the DNA for a lot of other animals and plants inside the original ones, so they can mutate into all sorts of things in the right conditions, with weird intermediate stages. These weird things are known as “dragon’s teeth.” Annie “Jason” Masmajean is a jason, because who deals with dragon’s teeth? Jasons do, naturally. Her job is half pest control and half environmental advisor and she has an amazing authentic voice, distinctive, indvidual and funny:

This year the Ribeiro’s daffodils seeded early and they seeded cockroaches. Now ecologically speaking even cockroaches have their place, but these suckers bit.

That’s the first line and the book goes on just like that from there on in, and if you like that you’re a long way to liking all of it.

Problems first. These people came on a generation starship with 1991 era computers just like my trusty 286... and they have them sort of networked to a mainframe. This sort of works if you assume they were a generation starship that left quietly in 1991 without mentioning it to anyone else, except that they have this brilliant biological engineering. So there are oddities like doing computer searches that take hours but doing gene scans of whole organisms that are much faster. This isn’t any worse than the usual “where is my moonbase” issue with older SF, but I kept on noticing it, maybe because it does work like my 286 and not like some entirely imaginary thing called a computer.

The other problem is the problem of colonization. Kagan has chosen to make them a mixed bunch of humans and to make ethnicity a social choice — there are societies for various ethnicities that get together and do social things. This leads to good things like names and skin colours from the whole of Earth, but it also leads to the default real culture of Mirabile being standard mainstream American with a few quirks. When this combines with an explicit frontier fervour and the concept of “Earth authentic,” it gets a little odd. There are no sentient natives on Mirabile, this isn’t a “wish for something different at the frontier novel” but it also doesn’t examine its assumptions in this direction at all.

Okay, good things now. Annie’s voice is terrific. And she’s an older woman with a serious scientific job. Maybe this shouldn’t be so notable that it’s worth pointing out, but regrettably it is, still. She also has a romance proceeding slowly over the course of the novel with an older guy, and she meets his grown up children. She has a best friend, Elly, who is a professional child raiser — they need to keep the genetics and not everybody is suited to raise kids. Elly’s lodge and her kids are also really well done. The kids are different ages and have different motivations and they are important to the book without taking it over. It’s unusual to have a pile of kids like this in a novel that isn’t a children’s book.

I have no idea whether the biology is plausible or even possible, and my in-house biological expert hasn’t read it and doesn’t plan to read it soon enough to be helpful. In any case, it’s great, it’s what’s happening, it’s the focus of the stories and it’s a lot of fun. I don’t care if you can have kangaroos that “chain up” to a Tasmanian Wolf via a carnivorous kangaroo rex, I’m happy to suspend my disbelief while I’m reading.

There’s no violence — all the plot is problem solving. The formula of most of the stories here is that there’s a problem of something odd biologically showing up somewhere and Annie investigates and comes up with a solution. The solutions vary a lot, and the way the solutions build and mesh is a great part of what makes the overall plot — Kagan sets you up to expect one kind of solution and then Annie comes up with a totally different one. You get to feel clever when you know bats are insectivores and then surprised when they turn out pastel coloured.

This is the kind of book that some people really love and which I mildly like. I think it’s much less good than Kagan’s other original SF novel Hellspark (post). I’ve been meaning to re-read it since a panel at Farthing Party where everybody seemed to me much more enthusiastic about it than I was. I was wondering if I’d missed something, but no, it still strikes me as sweet and funny and fairly slight.

Jo Walton is a science fiction and fantasy writer. She’s published two poetry collections and nine novels, most recently the Nebula winning and Hugo nominated Among Others. 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.

Brian Mac
1. Brian Mac
Put me down as one of those who love Mirabile. I discovered it when I was in college, shortly after it came out, and at the time I was more concerned about accurate physics than accurate biology, so it worked just fine for me. I agree with you that it's not as good as Hellspark, but both books, at this point, just make me wistful that there were never any more stories in those worlds. (My roommate loved them as well...he told me once that he still chuckles whenever he meets someone whose middle name is actually Jason.)
Brian Mac
2. OtterB
I just reread this recently. I agree it's not as good as Hellspark, but Hellspark is in my all-time top ten. This one, because of that sweet flavor you mention, is a wonderful comfort read. People have conflicts, but they resolve them in sensible ways. And it has that quality of story - I can pick holes in it later, but while I'm reading it just drags me on through.
Alexander Austin
3. AlecAustin
So I think the thing with people's reactions to the book on that Good Reads panel was that it was the one book that we all seemed to like without much in the way of reservations, and so we may have come off sounding more enthusiastic than we were.

I wouldn't have claimed that Mirabile was a monumental work of staggering genius, but compared to some of the other books we discussed, I found it very enjoyable indeed.
4. herewiss13 violence? Maybe not people-on-people, but I seem to remember those Frakenswine as being pretty dangerous...and not coming to a good end. Not all the Dragon's Teeth were friendly.

And if not profound, it is a profoundly _fun_ book, in a problem-solvy way. Everyone in it is both rational and enthusiastic. This is the kind of 'adult' sci-fi I might wean younger readers onto...if it were still in print.
Brian Mac
5. Gardner Dozois
I certainly liked it, and did when I bought all the stories in it piecemeal for ASIMOV'S in the '80s.

If you knew Janet, it's a very Janet book. The voice is basically Janet's, and the character is more or less her, and the philosophy more or less reflects the way she thought.

One thing I noticed early on when Janet started writing (I knew her for years before she did) was that although her stuff was not to everybody's taste, the people who liked it REALLY LIKED IT. She grew very loyal and enthusiastic fans who were going to stay with her for life. If her health hadn't failed her and if she'd continued to steadily turn out novels, she would have grown a large fan base by now, and would perhaps be thought of in the same way that people think of C.J. Cherryh.

Her STAR TREK novel is also very popular among Star Trek fans, who consider it to be one of the best.
David Goldfarb
6. David_Goldfarb
There was a time in the early '90s when she seemed to be very productive: the Star Trek novel and Hellspark both close together, and then a bunch of short stories and this fixup, culminating with her Hugo win in 1993. It seemed like a very promising start to a career...and then boom. Nothing.

You can certainly count me among the would-have-been loyal fans.
Jo Walton
7. bluejo
There are dangerous animals, certainly, but... there's also a forest fire. I wouldn't call either of those things "violence" though they're both dangerous and exciting.
Brian Mac
8. Gardner Dozois
David, her health began to fail her after that, and after a decline of several years, she died. Sad. Especially for those of us who knew her.

I agree that although there are dangerous things in the book, there's no person-on-person violence, which alone would make it a rare item, especially among SF books about settling a frontier.
Brian Mac
9. S.M. Stirling
Ethnicity: it struck me that there really wasn't any in Mirabile. People -played- at it, but they weren't really -different-. 'twas sort of like my nostalgic affection for Conan Doyle historicals.

Actually, that's not unrealistic.

Difference requires isolation, either geographical or social. If you mix people together and they don't have any social segregation or prejudices, eventually both genes and memes will even out, though it may take quite some time. People will look pretty much alike and share most culture.

Sharply contrasting ethnic identities in the same society mean either fairly recent origins, or some sort of really strong taboo structure, of the sort that kept/keeps Orthodox Jews separate from the surrounding social environment.

Violence: there are problems with the way violence is commonly depicted in a lot of contemporary fiction, from the airport-adventure level through MS-lit. I think one of the reasons is that so many of the people writing it have little or no routine experience of it.
Steve Taylor
10. teapot7
I would like to have liked these stories - other people did, and they seeemed to make a good case for them - but I could never get past the biology.

I just couldn't swallow the idea of creatures being deliberately pre-loaded with a bunch of other genomes, not just as sensible biology, but as a thing people would choose to create. Odd really, given how many other oddball sf ideas I've happily accepted over the years.
Brian Mac
11. jmb
I loved these stories - and I really wish I could find the book (or get it as an ebook?) but it is sadly out of print these days. As a molecular biologist, I found the genetics to be speculative-crazy, but just possible enought to pass muster. When first read this, I wanted - with a great and over-arching desperation - the gene read technology. I was involved in a hideously laborious gene sequencing project, so it really spoke to me. The ecology was quite sound, too, in terms of what is needed for a stable population, and the understanding that despite all amazing chimeras (and props to Ms. Kagan for using that word correctly) , humans were also an endangered species on Mirabile.

I also really loved the later-in-life romance between Mama Jason and Leo.

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