Lee Killough’s 1980 The Monitor, the Miners, and the Shree is a standalone hard SF novel.
Unlike the Galactic Union, the Sodality that has replaced the Union has a strict no-contact rule where pre-spaceflight worlds are concerned. Thus, when the Sodality discovered that there was a previously unnoticed low-tech species on planet Nira, they forced the Megeyn mining company to shut down operations on Nira and leave the native Shree to develop in isolation.
The Sodality likes to keep an eye on developing worlds. Once every five hundred years, the Department of Surveys and Charters (DSC) dispatches a team of scientists to secretly monitor the Shree. Newly minted monitor Chemel Krar is in charge of the latest team. It is her task to ensure that the scientists hired by DSC do not violate the no-contact rule while spying on the natives.
The expedition goes wrong surprisingly quickly.
The first hint that something is up comes almost as soon as the team establishes itself in the hidden DSC facility on Nira. The very first night Chemel notices something flying over the base. Since there are no DSC craft aloft anywhere near the base, it can’t be a DSC vehicle. She does not follow up on this.
The next hint comes when the team dispatches a robot disguised as a flying animal to spy on the Shree. A Shree notices the robot, captures it easily and then proceeds to dismantle it. Not only are the Shree and its companions unsurprised to discover the machinery hidden inside the flyer, the Shree uses Pan terms to discuss the machine. Pan is a galactic language and the Shree should have no knowledge of it.
The third hint comes when agents of the company that has illegally re-opened the mines (the Emre Resources Development Corporation) gas the DSC team and take Chemel and the scientists prisoner. The team attempts an escape, which doesn’t fare well. One scientist is gunned down. The survivors escape but end up scattered across the region, isolated and alone.
Chemel sets out to recover her team and find a way to alert DSC to the illegal mining operation on Nira, all while dodging Thiil, the company goon who killed the scientist and is determined to kill all the eyewitnesses. She has to save her team without drawing Shree attention.
This may prove difficult, as she is almost immediately captured and adopted by a band of Shree.
Today’s obligatory RPG reference: in the beforetimes, I bought into the Deepnight Revelation kickstarterin part because I was curious as to how the product would handle a twenty-year mission. How do you put together a team that won’t be at each other’s throats in a few years?1 This novel raises the same sort of question: how do you select a team for five years of isolation on a backwater world?
The selection process seems to have failed the DSC team. The team members are supposed to have been selected for compatibility, but they’re already sniping at Chemel when they arrive at the planet. Partially understandable: she is a humourless by-the-book commander. Also, she is Virinian and everyone remembers what bossy jerks the Virinians were when they were running the coalition2.
I should also note that Chemel doesn’t seem to have been a good boss in other ways. Her first reaction on seeing an unidentified flying object should have been to get on the t‑coms to call in the DSC. If that weren’t sufficient notice that something odd was happening, hearing Shree using off-world words should have been.
It’s possible one criterion for team selection was “people the DSC won’t miss if they’re off on a field mission for half a decade.”
The DSC doesn’t come off well in another way. They should have noticed the mining operations. Why no monitoring from orbit? The Shree wouldn’t have noticed.
The Monitor, the Miners, and the Shree is playing in the same arena as Little Fuzzy , while also critiquing Star Trek’s Prime Directive. The Sodality seems to believe that it can easily categorize species as advanced or primitive. Some primitive races are seen as advancing (and thus worth protecting from contact) and others as degenerating (in which case contact can be allowed despite the inherent risks3).
The Shree are an edge case. The illegal mining operation has been in place for centuries. The Shree are familiar with off-worlders and desire trade with them. So far, the interaction hasn’t been a disaster. Emre, the mining company, has been fairly judicious in their interactions with the natives. It’s also clear that it has been the encroachment by the mining companies that has pushed the Shree toward self-aware intelligence4.
All of which suggests that the Sodality is wrong when it thinks it can sort alien species into neat bins.
I picked this up back in (mumble mumble) because I was a Killough completist, having purchased both of her previous books, A Voice Out of Ramah (1979) and The Doppelgänger Gambit (1979). This stands out as a Killough I didn’t reread in the intervening four decades. I thought I might revisit it to see if I overlooked something when I first read it. Although Killough’s prose is always competent and there are some nice worldbuilding touches5, the novel is undermined by the contrived plot. Pity. But back then this misfire didn’t keep me from picking up more Killough works.
The Monitor, the Miners, and the Shree is out of print.
1: Relevant in this time of enforced residence with family or roommates. Would you have picked these people if you’d known you’d be stuck with them for a year?
2: To be fair, the person who brings up Chemel’s ethnicity is the same guy who manages to get himself shot by Thiil. Perhaps the author didn’t want readers to be too upset by the death.
Before the Sodality, before the Galactic Union, there was the Virinian Coalition. All of six thousand years ago. Galactic governments come and go, each one reacting to the errors and excesses of the previous one by committing different errors and excesses. The galactics do seem to have learned how to avoid total, history-erasing, collapses. Go them! It probably helps that some of the alien races live a thousand years or more.
Perhaps not coincidentally, Emre employee Tupat, who comes from a species that lives many centuries, takes a very long view concerning Nira and the Shree, whereas his human boss would be content to kick the can a couple of decades down the road. The consequences of the illegal operation should arrive after he retires … or dies.
3: The no-contact rule was inspired by large part by a case in which the Union sold a newly contacted world both the means to trigger a population explosion and weapons of mass destruction. The combination turned the world into a wasteland.
4: The Shree have unintelligent cousins who seem to be genetically identical, but don’t seem to use their big brains to learn tech or languages. We don’t know much about these cousins, as they remain off-stage.
5: The fact that the world has low gravity and a fairly dense atmosphere plays into the plot, while the off-handed revelation that Nira’s star has a binary companion does not. The companion is low mass, dim, and distant.