Carolyn Ives Gilman’s 2008 Arkfall takes place in her Twenty Planets setting.
An ice-covered ocean world like a scaled-up Europa, Ben has no known native life. Centuries ago, humans settled inside the ice-enclosed Saltese Sea and began their long effort to transform Ben’s oceans into living seas. The Saltese Sea, which is surrounded by mountains high enough to reach the icy surface of the world, is small enough that \their Great Work will have a measurable effect within a few generations. The volcanic Cleft of Golconda =provides the energy that will maintain the new ecosystem.
It’s a hard and demanding life for the human settlers. They cope by cooperating. Courtesy and non-confrontation are the rule. Loud and self-centred people are judged very harshly by their neighbours.
Osaji’s sister Kitani married, leaving Osaji to care for their grandmother Mota. Frail and struggling with dementia, Mota is unable to care for herself. Osaji finds herself resenting Mota (much to her dismay, but there it is) and briefly considers leaving Ben for some other world. But a momentary encounter with a brash off-worlder named Scrappin’ Jack brings Osaji back to her senses. Imagine living with a whole world of such rude barbarians!
The Cleft erupts dramatically, threatening Golconda Station. Osaji and Mota manage to escape in the Divernon , a free-floating habitat. As luck has it, Scrappin’ Jack escapes on the very same free-floater. Already enormously frustrated with life in Ben, Jack is further annoyed to learn that the Divernon has no means of propulsion. They must go wherever the currents take them.
In most cases, the natural currents would bring a habitat back to Golconda. In this case, the unprecedented up-welling has taken them upward, toward the icy surface. That’s bad; the Divernon is not designed for such a low-pressure environment. It gets worse. They are carried through a gap in the mountains and out into the world ocean.
The Great Work has never touched the world ocean. As far as any human knows, the vast sea is cold and dark, without any native life.
Divernon is a self-contained, self-sufficient ecosystem. It should be able to sustain the human life within it indefinitely. Osaji’s incredible journey into Ben’s uncharted seas could last for as long as Divernon ’s systems do … and as long as the humans trapped there can stand each other. One over-worked woman, a victim of dementia, and a loud-mouthed barbarian.
This book’s careful exploration of an alien world reminded me of the Hal Clement novels I read in my impressionable youth. It improves on Clement in that it explores an alien culture as well as an alien world.
Scrappin’ Jack’s scathing assessment of Ben
[quote] The entire goddamned culture is based on passive aggression. Don’t you all know this is a frontier? Where’s your initiative, your self-reliance? Where are your new horizons? I’ve never seen such an insular, myopic, conformist, small-minded bunch of people in my life. This planet is a small town preserved in formaldehyde. [quote]
is not without a basis in fact1. But Ben’s inhabitants have good reasons for acting as they do. They live in very close quarters, cheek by jowl, and they do not have much in the way of resources. There is little leeway for conflict. It takes constant work and smooth cooperation to keep the settlers alive in a hostile world.
Poor Osaji is the most competent, hard-working, and conflict-averse person on the Divernon . She ends up doing most of the work, while Scrappin’ Jack shirks and rants about boldness and self-reliance. Other authors might have made Scrappin’ Jack the protagonist. Osaji is a far more interesting choice of focus for this novel.
Which I enjoyed, by the way.
1: I wonder if Gilman has ever written about a generation ship.