What 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.