Joan Slonczewski’s 1980 debut Still Forms on Foxfield shows us a distant world and an interesting conundrum: how can a tiny community resist assimilation into a greater society with incompatible values when violence is not an option and their isolation has been breached?
In 2022, fearing the coming nuclear destruction of humanity, a small community of Quakers purchased Plowshare, an interstellar ramjet, and set out for the potentially habitable world orbiting Tau Ceti. There they found a world they called Foxfield, a world with incompatible biochemistry and a day forty-two hours long. They also discovered the native Commensals, communal beings willing to coexist with the Quakers. Despite the odds against them, the settlers have survived and even flourished, in large part thanks to the Commensals’ assistance.
Once arrived, they heard nothing from Earth. The silence hinted at dark events transpiring while they were in transit (the ramjet’s fusion rocket made communication with Earth impossible). War must have come to Earth, the settlers surmise. Survivors, if any, must be incapable of communication.
Four generations after settlement, Allison Thorne, one of the small population of technicians trying to keep the precious machines from Earth running, is surprised to receive a message from space, from United Nations Interplanetary Starship 11. Humanity on Earth did not perish, it seems, and, judging by the starship now in orbit, they have a technology of an even higher order than they did in the 2020s. Thanks to ancient legal agreements predating the launch of the Plowshare, the United Nations Interplanetary also has a legitimate claim to Foxfield as well.
Earth’s population is two hundred million and growing. Foxfield’s human population has yet to reach one thousand. Outnumbered so greatly, do the Quakers have any hope to avoid being overwhelmed and assimilated?
At first, re-contact goes reasonably well. The UNI would prefer to incorporate the Quakers into the UNI plans with a minimum of fuss. They insist that they consider the Quakers their friends; they offer access to terrestrial information networks and the advanced technology the settlers need to keep their ancient infrastructure going.
It does not take long for the façade of amity to fracture. Most of the Quaker community is deeply religious; religion on Earth is a historical curiosity, something preserved by well-meaning cosplayers. The Quakers make all decisions by consensus; Earth is determinedly democratic. The Quakers, while liberal by 20th century standards, arrived there through a slow and deliberate and still ongoing process, whereas the often shocking mores of Earth underwent revolutionary transformation after the war. The one thing the two worlds have in common is a lack of experience dealing with people so starkly unlike them.
Alarming facts come to light. The UNI claimed its arrival in the Tau Ceti system was recent; in fact they’ve been quietly spying on Foxfield for decades. The UNI has offered tempting new services without mentioning the obligations that are the price of those services. While the UNI claims to reject the warlike ways of the past, they are pragmatists with access to powerful technology. In other places, worlds whose biospheres proved incompatible with terrestrial life have been wiped clean of native life to make room for terrestrials.
The existence of the Commensals makes a fraught situation worse. Whereas the Quakers might be assimilated, Commensals are powerful, enigmatic, and above all, alien. They are a perceived threat that could convince the UNI to burn Foxfield down to the bedrock.
In several SF novels published in the 1970s and 1980s, the inevitability of nuclear war is assumed. Escape will require flight to another world. This is the premise of O’Donnell’s Mayflies, Hogan’s Voyage from Yesteryear, and of course, Still Forms on Foxfield.
Another detail hints that this book was written in the 1970s: at one point, the Quakers point out Richard Nixon wasn’t a practicing Quaker. In a book set about 150 years after Nixon’s fall. A book set on a world more than twelve light years from Earth. That’s a little akin to a modern Conservative suddenly feeling the need to distance themselves from the Pacific Scandal of 1872–1873.
However, these points aside, this novel has not aged anywhere nearly as badly as it could have. In particular, Slonczewski tries very hard to imagine what a world with ubiquitous networked communication could be like and succeeds to a greater degree than many of her contemporaries did. Settlers on the UNI (and citizens back on Earth) can easily look online for the answers to any question they can frame, or contact anyone to whom they want to talk. The overall effect is surprising modern for a book written when only a few scientists and geeks had access to ARPANET and Atari 400s were considered cutting-edge technology.
The UNI polity is an interesting mix of positive and negative characteristics. They eschew nuclear warfare, but burn worlds to clear them for settlement. They believe they have transcended many of the mistakes of the past, but casual conversations show them to be just as dismissive of particular ethnic groups as anyone in the past, They are just as inclined to see forced assimilation as a favour to the assimilated, just as inclined towards paranoia directed at the unfamiliar. They are champions of (some) liberties who will nevertheless attempt to sterilize an unsuspecting woman for her own good . They’re not the usual run of clearly malevolent, warlike autocrats that other authors have imagined for stories like this, despitefor all the headaches the UNI causes the Quakers
I am not sure I care for the eventual resolution of the novel … but the, there may not be any really satisfactory outcomes for a scenario like the one Slonczewski presents. Either the Earth sweeps in, forces the colonists to adopt Earth ways, and it’s all over for the Quakers until the inevitable Truth and Reconciliation Hearings a few decades down the road. OR, the Quakers find some way to convince Earth to leave them alone, which is likely to require a fairly contrived set of circumstances. Slonczewski tries to steer between Scylla and Charybdis ; she drafts a scenario that isn’t a simple black and white. The UNI crew are not all bad and the Quakers are not all good.
Still Forms on Foxfield seems to be very out of print.
1: They have artificial wombs, so there’s no need for women to risk childbirth.
2: My apologies to any of John Scalzi’s fans reading this. Between Scylla and Charybdis is a mythological reference.