To quote Wikipedia (because if Jim’s site has a bio section, I am missing it):
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.
Ascending is the fifth book in James Alan Gardner’s League of Peoples series.
To quote its protagonist, the transparent glass woman Oar:
This is my story, the story of Oar. It is a wonderful story. I was in another story once, but it was not so wonderful, as I died in the end. That was very most sad indeed. But it turns out I am not such a one as stays dead forever, especially when I only fell eighty floors to the pavement.
Oar’s people are physically immortal, but their minds, sadly, are not. Given time, they lapse into catatonia, living but inert. There is no way to cure the condition nor is there any way to avoid it except dying.
Far from the glass people of Melaquin, the interstellar human realm, the Technocracy, is in turmoil, thanks to the actions of Festina Ramos (as explained in a previous volume). Uclod, a Technocrat businessman of negotiable morality, visits Melaquin in his search for evidence that will help Ramos by confounding her enemies. Oar decides to deal with her multi-story trauma by helping Uclod and Ramos.
Oar gets further incentive when the mysterious Pollisand appears. Claiming to be vastly more advanced than Oar, the Pollisand also claims to be responsible for Oar’s unexpected survival. The Pollisand didn’t save Oar for altruistic reasons, but he can at least offer this: if she does as he asks, Oar will find the cure for Tired Brain. Or die. Either way, her problems will be over.
Uclod has not been as undercover as he had hoped. The ancient and mysterious Shaddill, benefactors to so many of the known races, are very curious to see what it is exactly Uclos has discovered. Or rather, they are determined to ensure he does not share what he may have learned: the reason why the Shaddill became the galactic community chest. A secret whose revelation with have consequences the Shaddill are eager to avoid.
Galactic gangster and a naive rustic unburdened by modesty or a realistic grasp of the situation she is in against virtual gods seems a one-sided match. And it is …just not in the way the Shaddill expect.
The League of People series is pretty up front about its model of evolution, which is something called orthogenesis, “an obsolete biological hypothesis that organisms have an innate tendency to evolve in a definite direction due to some internal mechanism or driving force.” Phrases like “a being seventy-five trillion rungs higher than you on the evolutionary ladder” and “a super-evolved creature” are uttered with no thought to weeping biologists.
Of course, we can possibly salvage orthogenesis in this particular context. There’s at least one super-intelligent race, the Shaddill, pushing what they regard as less sophisticated species in a specific direction. Perhaps the ascended races are doing the same thing.
How the League of Peoples (the galactic government above the mostly human Technocracy: Ottawa to the Technocracy’s Winnipeg) works in practice is not clear. They enforce peace, of a sort — no wilful murderers travel between stars without getting zotzed — but they also turn a blind sensory organ to some egregious, systematic abuses technically short of murder. Their system seems so easily gamed it makes one wonder if they are covertly encouraging gaming.
The naive and supremely-satisfied-with-herself Oar was comic relief — at least until she died tragically (a not-infrequent fate for likeable supporting characters in Gardner’s books.). Before her death, she was something of a manic pixie dream girl, unburdened by self-doubt or by any concern about how little she knows of the greater universe. Given that this is a grim meathook universe, her optimism is refreshing.
Comic SF is a rare thing for some reason. Perhaps too many SF fans are too obsessed about being taken seriously to risk the odd smile or quiet chortle1. At least, that’s my explanation for why Gardner’s books are not better known and why this series functionally came to an end when Harper-Collins dropped it. While it is unlikely (for reasons explained on Gardner’s site) that there well be more League of Peoples books, at least we got the seven books in the series.
1: A lot of what passes for funny in science fiction is dreadful tosh like The Red Tape War, The Flying Sorcerers, and Doon. This may have poisoned the well.