Lear's Daughters by Marjorie B Kellogg

Marjorie B Kellogg is an author I'd literally never heard of until my lady was completely captivated by Lear's Daughters, and as with many books that captivate my lady this made it a must read for me. I suspect due both to the fact that originally her books were published under the name of M Bradley Kellogg, and the fact that she shares her name with a writer of general fiction she's not as well known as she could, or judging by the quality of Lear's Daughters, should be.

Lear's Daughters is the 2009 updated version of a duology published in the eighties, The Flame and the Wave and The Rain of Fire, updated both in terms of themes, characters and writing, and with some more modern views on science and climate control contributed by William B. Rossow. What is the most important fact however, is that Lear's Daughters is an amazingly good story.

As the book opens, the terran expedition is several weeks into their mission on planet Fiix. For some members of the expedition such as jaded anthropologist Megan Levy and the idealistic biologist Susana James, the primary purpose is the study of the Sawls, Fiix’s seemingly primitive cave dwelling culture. For some  such as young linguist Ebiar Stavros, the exploration of Sawl culture goes further than simple study, becoming a search for belief and meaning in his life.

For Emil Klausen however, the Sawls mean nothing since the only important thing on Fiix is a mining claim to a valuable source of lithium which will further enrich the wealthy mega corporation he works for.

The setup of a human expedition on an alien world of course dates back to H. G. Wells or earlier, and to anyone familiar with sources from Doctor Who to the film Avatar, the conflict between scientists studying an indigenous alien society and greedy prospectors bent on exploiting natural resources at any costs is a familiar one.

There are several factors however which make Kellogg's take on this conflict truly fascinating. The first, and one which will be noticeable right from the get go are her characters. While some of Kellogg's characters are perhaps born from familiar moulds, or at least begin that way, from the grasping industrialist to the naive young doctor, I would in no sense describe them as simple or one note. Even the book's tertiary characters have journeys to undertake, and nowhere is her characterization in any sense static, or even predictable.

Conflicts, relationships, alliances and changes from romance to revelation, all are played out in exquisite detail against the backdrop of a truly alien planet, and an unfolding set of discoveries which are all the more satisfying for the fact that we learn and react right along with the characters, indeed rarely have I seen an author (especially one writing in such a fantastic setting), create characters with quite this level of realism or complexity, whether human or Sawl. This especially goes for the book's villain, since Clausen represents something I've rarely seen in literature, a villain who is completely and totally despicable, yet worryingly and frighteningly believable, indeed just as believable as the well meaning but often childish Suzanna, or the brilliant, yet erratic Ebiar.

Another major factor which distinguishes Kellogg's story, is her setting. Fiix is in many ways a truly alien world; a world where the weather can alter at a moments notice from blizzard, to monsoon to drought, where plants grow in seconds and most wildlife is poisonous, even the sky is green. Fiix however is more than just a show off of exotic studio sets, due to the most complex and alien thing , the Sawl culture itself.

Kellogg is very careful to spend a considerable time at the start of the book introducing us to the Sawls and their society; Both individually through some extremely likable Sawl characters from the enthusiastic young priest Liifar to the empathic surgeon Ghirra, and more fundamentally through anthropology, language and cultural practices. I have rarely seen a writer who cannot only create a very subtle and detailed alien culture and immerse the reader in it quite so completely, but also make the reader care about the fate of the culture and the people involved, even while maintaining its distance and distinctly alien quality. Indeed, it's notable, especially over such a long book how Kellogg manages to maintain so much mystery about the Sawls, the world they come from, and yet at the same time make both us and the human cast familiar enough with Sawlish life to feel highly connected to the Sawls and what they experience. When, in a later section Ghirra remarks to Susana that she and the other humans understand the Sawls through living and experiencing their hard life with them, I felt his comments applied equally to myself as a reader. I also love the way Kellogg is able to depict a society with beliefs and practices quite different to the ones we're used to, and yet one which is not entirely dominated by those beliefs to the point that her Sawlish characters stop being people or the very realistic details of everyday Sawlish life become opaque, don't expect any supernaturally wise shaman, virgin sacrifices or pantomime corrupt priests here.

Aside from the Sawls, I can say the hints we get as to the condition of the polluted, over populated earth dominated by mega corporations who were mostly above the law, and the desperate run to colonize and acquire resources make a highly compelling background, especially because Kellogg never indulges in preaching or moralizing, even though that vision of a future earth worryingly now seems rather closer than it might have done back in the eighties when the books were originally published.

Speaking of the book's length, one rather unique fact about Lear's Daughters pacing, is that Kellogg is careful to tie it to one of the book's very centralized themes, that of weather. The Sawls believe that the weather on Fiix is the result of a game played between two warring goddesses, Lagri, goddess of fire, and Vala Ired, goddess of water; with weather that can change at the drop of a hat, the life of the Sawls is very much based upon this game, as indeed is the flow of the action in the story and the speed of events. At the beginning for example, we join the expedition snowed in by a blizzard with tempers running short, there then follows a brief violent period of monsoon weather, before a rather longer section in which the expedition shelter in the caves, learning about Sawlish culture, a section which ends abruptly with an end to rain and a new planting that feels as fresh to us as readers as it does to the people coming out into the sunlight.

I am not sure if Kellogg intentionally tied the pace of her action to the book's prevailing theme, or if it just happened naturally with the part that changeable weather conditions play in the plot, however this created a story which both my lady and I found absolutely compelling (I got through the entire 27 hours in about four days).

Stylistically, Kellogg's writing reminded me somewhat of Robin Hobb's in that her focus on very believable, well rounded characters, sensory details and aspects of the world slowly crafted a complex picture, stroke by stroke. I almost feel now that I know what it's like to run my hands over Sawlish ceramic sculpture or trek through the desert for days on end feeling sticky and uncomfortable; getting completely sick of less than appetising Sawlish travel rations. Also like Hobb, Kellogg is able to write her conflicts with a particularly gritty, low grade realism, indeed the idea that one man could hold the rest of his crew and a whole planet hostage simply by being the only person with a high tech weapon has a frighteningly logical cast to it, as do the reactions of the rest of the crew and the realisation of just how dire the situation is.

This care in style indeed does present perhaps one of my very few minor criticisms of the book, since Kellogg is so careful to present us with several complex characters and their perspectives, there were a few sections were switching between characters did somewhat drag the flow of the narrative, especially if I was waiting to see what somebody else was doing, particularly since often Kellogg includes small sections which simply show a character's' reaction or thought process without too much by way of direct progression of events, (indeed the length of chapters varied rather wildly). Then again, keeping readers on the edge of the seat waiting to see what will happen to a book's characters is one of the hallmarks of a good author, and the speed at which first my lady and then I devoured this book should illustrate just how compelling the structuring of Kellogg's plot is. I also did find on occasion that I was waiting for the penny to drop regarding putting some facts about the situation on Fiix together, though my lady did point out that I do have the benefit of a lifetime of reading science fiction to help me, where the terran crew on Fiix did not.

One respect however where Kellogg's writing does differ from, and indeed rather surpasses Hobbs, is her use of poetry and phrasing, since while not being as flowery as some authors, Kellogg does use metaphor and theme in a very subtle, blended way along with her slow unfolding of the world to ornament the picture she is creating, even as her characters react and change to that picture. Though most sources (including the book's jacket), will site the ecological theme as a major one, there is actually a lot more going on in Lear's Daughters than just a dour cautionary fable of environmental collapse. The themes of religious and scientific understanding, life and death, the rightness of interference with other cultures and above all how different people react and change to a stressful new situation, all are major, if neatly understated ideas in the book depicted with subtle care. Even the book’s two very minor sexist statements, such as one occasion in which a furious Susanna laments not being a man since she's not able to punch someone struck me more as the attitudes of her characters than any sort of prevailing attitude on the part of the author.

One thing I particularly admired in the book was its ending. Kellogg gives us enough information to be satisfying, but not so much as to negate all the mystery she creates, indeed how certain information is interpreted and the exact nature of several aspects of the world of Fiix are actually left as differences in view between her characters. There was one minor aspect of the book's ending involving the villain's plans which I admit did strike me as a minor cop out, particularly since the cast fail to check the results of set plan and just assume the worst without actually checking what has happened. However since by that point I was so attached both to the main cast and the Sawlish culture as a whole, I really didn't mind this too much and was mostly glad that things worked out the way they did, something I actually wasn't certain of.

The word "epic" is a rather overused one these days, especially because it is frequently used as an emotive way to skate over inequities in plot, consistency or characters. Lear's Daughters however is "epic" in the truest sense (and doesn't have problems to excuse). It is simply the tale of a set of very human people, a long way from home in a very alien world, set against massive, unfeeling natural forces and the worst aspects of human avarice. Rarely have I read a book which is quite this compelling, a book where the style, the setting, the subtle display of ideas and presentation of an alien culture come together to form a very complete and awesome whole.

If you're looking for science fiction that is truly able to transport you to another world and show you how very everyday characters react to that world, Lear's Daughters is absolutely a must read, indeed I'm extremely sorry that Kellogg is as little known as she has been, since judging by the quality of Lear's Daughters, she really deserves a place among SF's greatest.

10/10 The weather today will be war with a slight chance of apocalypse

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