(cover image from Amazon.com)
Julie E. Czerneda is one of my favorite authors, and Amazon.com shows that I bought In the Company of Others in 2001, shortly after it was first published. But somehow, it must have gotten lost in the shuffle, because I never read it.
I noticed the book on my shelf the other day and thought it was odd that I couldn't remember it. Well, it turned out that I'd never read it. It's a big book (562 pages), like most of her science fiction, so maybe I just never mustered the ambition to start it, I don't know. Certainly, the story grabbed my attention right from the beginning when I did start to read it.
Mankind had succeeded in terraforming multiple planets, and had just started to open them up to the teeming hordes of Earth, when everyone on those planets dropped dead. It was the Quill, apparently - an alien lifeform used by spacers as little more than decoration.
Desperate to avoid contamination, Earth refused to let people return to the home planet. Shiploads of eager colonists were stuck on space stations never designed to support that many people. Most died. Those few stations which still supported life were horribly overcrowded - kept fed by the Earth, but barely, and only with a complete prohibition on reproduction (drugs in the food).
That's been the situation for two decades or more, when an Earth scientist arrives on Thromberg Station looking for one of the residents there. She wants to study the Quill and has an idea of how that might be done. (Any human landing on those planets immediately dies, but robotic probes find no trace of the Quill.)
But the space station is a power-keg already, and her arrival has the potential to light the fuse.
The really neat thing about this story is that there are no villains. It's funny, but even the people you might expect to be at least petty villains aren't. There's plenty of conflict, and even some violence, throughout the book, but every character in the story is a pretty decent person. It's just that the situation is impossible.
Hal Clement was famous for saying that he didn't usually have villains in his stories, because the universe made a "perfectly adequate villain." [He also said, "Speculation is perfectly all right, but if you stay there you've only founded a superstition. If you test it, you've started a science." That has nothing to do with this book, admittedly. It's just one of my favorite quotes. :) ]
Well, this is similar to that. It's hard to point fault, but the situation is still terribly dangerous. Everyone is doing his best, but people are still going to die. And when there's this much fear, it's almost impossible to trust people you don't know, because other people have different priorities than you do.
The other thing I loved about the book was the cultural differences among human beings stressed nearly to the breaking point. The aliens are almost an afterthought. Sure, they're the reason for everything, but for most of the book we know nothing about them. Indeed, that's why this research is so important.
But on the space station, things look very different. They're surviving, but barely, and not without cost. Again, the people are all pretty decent - surprisingly decent, you might say. (A lesser author would have gone with the cliches. Not Czerneda.) But there are reasons why they do things the way they do.
I loved this, and I really enjoyed the book as a whole. I must admit that I found the solution to the alien threat implausible. And the romance was rather implausible - certainly, too sudden - I thought, too. But those were minor issues. The strengths of this story far outweigh its weaknesses.
Note: My other book reviews are here.