Something in the Wind

Radiant — James Alan Gardner
League of Peoples, book 7


To quote Wikipedia:

James Alan Gardner (born January 10, 1955) is a Canadian science fiction author. Raised in Simcoe and Bradford, Ontario, he earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in applied mathematics from the University of Waterloo.
Gardner has published science fiction short stories in a range of periodicals, including The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction and Amazing Stories. In 1989, his short story “The Children of Creche” was awarded the Grand Prize in the Writers of the Future contest. Two years later his story “Muffin Explains Teleology to the World at Large” won a Prix Aurora Award; another story, “Three Hearings on the Existence of Snakes in the Human Bloodstream,” won an Aurora and was nominated for both the Nebula and Hugo Awards.

Radiant is the seventh and thus far final volume in James Alan Gardner’s League of People’s series. Readers who want more books should make that known to publishers.

Youn Suu’s mother wanted the genetic engineers to ensure that her daughter would be a beauty who would satisfy her mother’s very demanding standards. Instead, Youn was born with a face that was, shall we say, less than conventionally beautiful. How inconsiderate of her!

The Technocracy has a use for people like Youn. The Explorer Corps is always looking for new recruits, particularly unsightly or unpopular people whose demise will be regretted by nobody. That’s because the hazards of exploration are matched only by the brevity of Explorer lifespans. Youn was fated from birth to become an Explorer or as they are better known, an Expendable.

When the Pistachio of the Technocracy’s Outward Fleet responds to a distress call from planet Cashleen, Explorer Third Class Ma Youn Suu has the honour of heading down to the surface in person. The situation is exactly what any expendable would expect: a trap. The godlike Balrog, a hive mind composed of a myriad of spores, needs a host to carry a small fraction of it. Youn soon finds herself infested with Balrog spores.

The good news is that League laws forbid killing sentient beings, so terminating Youn is a no-go. Nor does the Balrog have any intention of deliberately ending Youn’s life. Indeed, it seems that it may have greatly extended her lifespan. The catch is that League law doesn’t prohibit the Balrog from consuming as much of Youn as it can without quite killing her. The law also says nothing about the Balrog manipulating Youn’s neurochemistry to ensure that Youn is the person the Balrog wants her to be. For the rest of her life, Youn will never be able to determine which of her thoughts are hers and which are forced on her by her passenger.

Youn barely has time to adjust to her new normal before she is commandeered by the notorious Admiral Festina Ramos and sent on an urgent mission to planet Muta. Muta belongs to the Unity, a rival polity of the Technocracy. Alas, when Muta falls ominously silent, the Unity has no ships in the vicinity. Pistachio is close enough to respond.

Muta is a pristine paradise world, the sort of planet that should have been snapped up long before humans arrived on the galactic stage. In fact, a number of aliens had previously settled the world. None are now resident. Ramos and Youn confirm the obvious; the Unity colonists have suffered the fate of all foolish enough to try to settle on Muta.

At first, this fate appears to be simple extermination at the hands of a long dormant but still functioning defence system. In fact, the truth is far darker. The missing colonists haven’t been killed; they have been damned to endless torment. Unless Youn and her allies are extremely cunning, it will soon be their turn to join the legions of the damned.


You may be wondering why I am reviewing a James Alan Gardner novel so soon after the last one. The answer is simple: by chance, all the other books I reviewed this week were about women in space (or women who wanted to be in space). It turns out this is a theme very few Waterloo Region authors have embraced. Either the protagonists are women, but the book is set on Earth or a secondary world OR the book is set in space, but the protagonist is a man. Gardner seems be the one author who combines both themes.

(I realized after sending this out to my editor that Julie Czerneda
had written several books that were just what I wanted. Too late. Too
bad. I should have checked my list of Waterloo region books more

You may also be wondering, as Captain Kirk once did, “What does God need with a starship?” The Balrog is essentially indestructible and its abilities include interstellar-range teleportation. There is a simple answer for that too, but it’s a giant spoiler.

Even for a setting that celebrates orthogenesis, Muta is particularly orthogenesis-ish. In this setting, habitable worlds march through the same stages in the same sequence:

 Muta was still in its Triassic period, (…)
In comparative evolution terms, the beast was Muta’s version of a pseudosuchian — a bipedal reptilelike land animal whose descendants would evolve into dinosaurs.

In the real world, this wouldn’t make much sense. After all, details like the arrangement of continents resulting from vast geological upheavals, not to mention the occasional asteroid impact, have favoured some species while eliminating others.

[All credit to]

It seems extremely unlikely that alien worlds would repeat exactly the same sequence as Earth: snowball Earth, Cambrian Explosion, Siberian Traps, and so on.

In this series, this oddness is due to the god-like beings, the ascended, that plague The League of People. The gods are experimenting with the lower races. They decided to run a million experiments in parallel to see what would happen.

It’s hard to believe that, in these enlightened days, when every true SF fan undoubtedly rejoices in the field’s increasing diversity, that any author writing now would feel the need, as Gardner does, to explain why their future isn’t some bland, homogenized world, one in which every race and faith personally unfamiliar to a white middle class writer has been … absorbed into some Borg-like melting pot, dwindled away in a way that is in no way the fault of people like the author, or swept into some quiet, unlit corner where they won’t bother anyone. But that’s where the world was in the long long ago of 2004.

It’s a shame that the League of People series ended with this instalment (at least so far). The revelations in the last two books re the meddling of the ascended deserve a follow-up. I can only assume that the failure to publish such a follow-up is due to random malice of part of the publishing industry. I protest! [waving cane vehemently]

Radiant is available here (Amazon) and here (Chapters-Indigo).


  • Robert Carnegie

    Orthogenesis (my spell check objects, you have it two ways at time of posting): for five-sixths of Earth's existence up to now, there was nothing alive here but slime. But maybe several different types of slime in succession, different in very important ways. Such as (1) producing oxygen gas and (2) tolerating it. It may take a snowball phase to get out of the slime era - or it doesn't really end, we just stop noticing it. Likewise alternate-history sci-fi where (forgetting birds) the dinosaurs aren't killed... so then they're still here. Only one way forward for evolution - at nameable geologic "period" resolution - but no guarantee of moving at all.

    So do most stars have only-the-slime planets, for most of their starhood?

    Before the asteroid narrative, and before 2004, we assumed that dinosaurs evolved to be bigger and heavier and, as I remember it, died out just because of that.

    James White's space multi-species "Sector General" hospital classifies patients on an "evolutionary" scale which, with some stretchiness, contains all possible living things, from A to T. Humans are D. Insects are G, I think, which puts us in our place. Fish are A, and sapient plants, when discovered, led to a rethink and a compromise of fitting them in at AA. Doctors perform the trick after a rather bad accident of viewing a detached body part and fully classifying the owner. Humans specifically are in full DBDG, which identifies all limbs and organs, but bears - including Paddington and Womble types - are also DBDG. Also most species call themselves "human" and their home planet "Earth", in different languages of course.

    That setting misunderstands evolution, I think, since each sapient's built-in weaponry (you know, fingernails, etc) is described as how they became dominant in their environment and then intelligent. I may be wrong but I think in the real world, good natural weapons are what you have -instead- of intelligence.

  • Magewolf

    Humans have a fair amount of built-in weaponry of which fingernails are pretty much the least impressive. We are unparalleled at throwing things and rank highly in long distance running compared to anything else on Earth.

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