Searching for Paradise
Under the Canopy
By Barbara Paul
Barbara Paul’s 1980 Under the Canopy is a stand-alone science fiction novel.
Gaia is the Interplanetary Union’s outermost and least significant world. The only IU official on the whole planet is Margo Kemperer, who finds herself in that lonely position due to the death of her boss and a short-lived interstellar civil war that cut off communication for a time. Margo does her best to keep her little patch of Earth civilization functioning.
The insurrection having ended, colonial headquarters dispatches Stephanie Leeds to Gaia, there to assist Margo. What senior bureaucrat doesn’t want an underling or two? Had Margo suspected the problems that Stephanie would cause, she would probably have refused the reinforcement.
The two women don’t hit it off. Stephanie sees middle-aged Margo as a failure, a pitiful social climber who has somehow convinced herself that running a single station on an isolated, backward colony makes her the equal of true achievers. Margo finds herself supervising a young woman with boundless and unjustified self-confidence. Stephanie was educated at a (presumably second rate) colonial school. Not a pukka sahib at all.
Margo believes that since Earth is the most technologically advanced world in the explored galaxy, it is the human duty to elevate the less advanced races to the human level. At the same time, aware that she needs the active and willing participation of the natives, she has been careful to learn the local language and customs. She tries not to offend.
Stephanie has arrived armed with a firm belief in the rightness of the IU, backed up by complete ignorance about Gaia and its people. She wastes no time inadvertently offending her personal staff in the name of equality. It’s a poor start for Stephanie’s tenure, a harbinger of what is to come.
Again and again Stephanie proves herself unsuited for her role. She is ignorant, uninterested in learning native languages and ways, utterly confident, and blindly impulsive. The question isn’t whether Stephanie will be sent home in disgrace, but whether she will survive long enough to be fired.
We never learn why some IU worlds tried to leave the IU, only that they tried. (Margo is sure that they lacked the resources for viable independence.)
Margo has succeeded on Gaia in large part because she’s alone on one small post and has coped by learning to live with the locals. She’s almost more of a trader in off-world goods than an administrator with a lot of power over Gaia1.
She never strays from the post because Gaia is an inhospitable tropical jungle planet. Humans don’t fare well out in the bush. Supplies and clothing grow moldy. The bush is full of ravenous predators and venomous plants and animals. No off-world settlers will be coming to claim this unfriendly planet for their own2.
This novel may seem like a sunny take on colonialism. That’s because it is3. The author sets the stage with two kinds of native Gaians: the reasonable, cooperative, and eminently educatable Gaians with whom the IU trades and the little people who live further out in the bush. The latter are pitiful savages doomed to slowly vanish. But that’s just the way it is, nothing can be done4.
Readers used to SF that traffics in cosmic-level conflict may be surprised that there’s no such drama here. The only things in question are Stephanie’s job, her self-image, and her probable lifespan5. Gaia will remain a peaceful colonial backwater and Margo will continue as its administrator.
On the one hand, it’s something of a subversion that Margo, a middle-aged woman whom her distant colleagues view as a pompous joke, is in fact extremely good at her job. Whenever Stephanie and Margo disagree, Margo is always correct.
On the other hand, “young idealist turns out to be a hypocritical6 idiot7” is a tried-and-true stereotype from which the novel rarely wavers. The entire plot is a long humiliation for Stephanie, who by the end of the book has been poisoned several times and who spends a fair portion of the novel wandering half-starved and stark-naked though the jungle.
Oh, well. At least the book is short.
Under the Canopy is out of print.
1: Poor Margo does find herself tasked with making some unpleasant decisions. Her bosses wash their hands of the matter.
2: Gaians are just as much disinclined to roam. Of the twenty Gaians who were sent off to IU universities, nineteen died of unknown causes. Gaians concluded (reasonably) that leaving Gaia would be a death sentence. The lone survivor of galactic education, a doctor, speculates that the students may have died because they were infected with intestinal parasites kept in check by their Gaian diet. Go off-world, adopt a different diet, and their parasites would kill them. Few Gaians are keen to test this hypothesis.
3: Other tropical planets absorbed by the IU were less fortunate than Gaia. IU imports led to soaring populations, clear cutting jungles for cropland, and subsequent ecological collapse. Which would actually explain the civil war.
4: One also notes that the author’s earlier novel, Pillar of Salt, is also essentially colonialist (or even genocidal): it posits that lesser cultures have to accept their extermination (gradual or otherwise) at the hands of more advanced civilizations.
5: Stephanie is consistently thoughtless and reckless. She’s warned about a local toxin and poisons herself with it just a short time later.
6: Stephanie believes that she is a true egalitarian. She holds that it is wrong for one person to serve another. This does not stop her from being angry when her native servants don’t immediately satisfy her whims.
7: See also Imi, a Gaian hanger-on at the post; he’s a charming but shiftless cad. Margo accurately assesses him as hopelessly lazy. The town thinks he is a parasite. Stephanie thinks he’s boyfriend material.