City of Pearl: III

City of Pearl cover


We’re presumably meant to see the decision to arrange the execution of the offending scientist as the sort of thing Shan Frankland’s recruiter had in mind when insisting that the expedition needed “a government representative there who isn’t afraid of hard decisions” (16). And if the decision isn’t that hard in the end, it’s a shame not only because it simplifies Aras for our consumption, but because it diminishes Shan, who is otherwise probably the best thing about City of Pearl.

An efficient ex-cop, Shan is – according to Eddie Michallat, the expedition’s rather irritating journalist – “not plump big, womanly big, but tall, athletic, hard big”, and deeply, occasionally comically, cynical about human nature. She is a baseline human, primarily, we a told, thanks to the pagan beliefs she inherited from her mother, giving her — in a world where the unaltered are becoming less common than the altered — a “hint of wildness and savagery”. She has a temper, and a brain; and most important, to me, she is a professional. For all her physical capability, called on several times over the course of the novel, she is a serious person who takes her job seriously: a rare enough type in science fiction at all, but particularly distinctive amongst the impoverished array of contemporary female characters. Her self-confidence makes her an effective counter to the eternally mutable Aras, and in fact makes her somewhat irresistible to his matriarch-conditioned brain: he finds her no-nonsense manner distinctly wess’har, and increasingly has to fight the urge to defer to her will.

Shan’s other important relationship in City of Pearl is with Lindsay Neville, who would have been leading the expedition had Shan not been installed at the last minute. Lindsay is young military authority, Shan is older civilian authority; unsurprisingly they have rather different ways of doing things. For Lindsay, death is “nothing personal […] all neat and sanctioned and under rules of engagement. After you’d killed them, you would stand at memorial parades and say what an honourable enemy they were”; while Shan “got to know her targets far too well, and honor never came into it” (211). Their headbutting, and eventual tentative respect, is rather nicely done.

It’s hard to say that Shan’s interaction with the rest of her expedition’s members is handled as well. That she doesn’t like the scientists she has to look after – describing them almost exclusively as “payload” – is fine, but there is never an equivalent of the detente with Lindsay, or even the potential for one. What’s missing – aside from brief diary extracts at the start of a couple of chapters – is the viewpoint of a scientist, which leaves them little more than ciphers, and makes incidents like that involving the bezeri child feeling even more lopsided. The payload are the ones who cause trouble, the ones who – astonishingly – we are meant to believe see sentient aliens as just a kind of animal, the ones who just won’t follow orders, god dammit. They are, in fact, the villains of the piece; which would be more interesting if they weren’t also the novel’s truest Other.


7 thoughts on “City of Pearl: III

  1. I read City of Pearl several years ago, so my memory is a bit clouded, but I do recall being put off by the portrayal of the scientists. The colonists, other species, and military members of the expedition all got complex and layered characterizations; but the scientists were venal, self-involved, and wrong. It was rather disconcerting, for all the reasons you list.

  2. There are hints towards a more nuanced depiction — the “scientists’ oath” at the start of one of the early chapters, for instance. But every actual scientist we meet never seems to have heard of that oath.

    It’s a shame, because there is certainly a place in sf for depictions of venal, self-involved scientists; I don’t want anyone to get the impression that I think scientists are better people. It’s just that in this novel they seem to be worse people.

  3. Though it’s not so much police/soldiers vs scientists, as public servants vs megacorporate scum…

    A side point, following on from the gendering of Aras — what colour do you think Shan Frankland is? A girl on p.217 says “She’s all black” but perhaps that is a comment on Frankland’s wardrobe or mood. Other than the facts that Frankland is strong and imposing, I don’t think she gets any physical description.

  4. Megacorporate: I think that’s a bit of an easy out; it’s not implausible that a hypercapitalist environment could produce an entirely corrupted payload, but (a) I don’t think there’s enough background to put that idea in the front of readers’ minds (absence of a viewpoint, again), and (b) I’m not sure it’s plausible that the payload would be entirely corrupted but the military would be almost entirely pure.

    Shan’s skin colour: I honestly have no idea. As you say, all the descriptions that spring to mind are ones that describe attributes, the “big, tall, athletic” above.

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