By John Michael Greer
259 pp. Founders House Publishing, Dec. 2021.
Paperback, $15.99; eBook edition, $5.99.
John Michael Greer’s new novel Journey Star, like his other fiction to date, delightfully resists categorization. It is simultaneously a work of climate fiction, a first contact story, a space-faring adventure and an all-around epic piece of entertainment. It revels in classic science fiction themes and tropes while also building on them in brilliant ways. And it deals with challenging questions such as how best to manage potentially harmful technologies, and whether the redemption of humanity’s home world would be worth pursuing even if its pursuit could lead us down a tyrannical path.
The book is a sequel to Greer’s equally accomplished 2009 novel The Fires of Shalsha (which, incidentally, was his first novel, originally written in 1985-86). Both books depict a future in which Earth has been made uninhabitable by runaway climate change, and humans now inhabit about a dozen colony worlds spread out over numerous solar systems. Some of these colonies have managed to keep in touch by virtue of having a shared solar system, though this doesn’t appear to be the norm. It seems most colonies are located in different systems, meaning that due to the difficulties involved in crossing the voids of interstellar space, they’ve had no contact with one another over their entire histories thus far. They’re as isolated as a dozen salt grains scattered across a continent.
Our setting in both novels is Epsilon Eridani II, commonly known as Eridan. It’s a world of abundant mineral resources, meadows of violet-colored moss, 600-foot-tall blue-leaved trees and primitive invertebrate creatures reminiscent of Earth’s earliest land animals. Eridan’s human society is unlike any before it on either Earth or Eridan. In its traditions, symbols, dress, cuisine and many other areas, it is heavily influenced by Japanese medieval society. Yet no one on Eridan speaks Japanese, or for that matter any of the other ancient languages of Earth. Nor is Eridan’s technology limited to that of medieval Japan; it also includes an assortment of technologies from our own time as well as some entirely new technologies that are mental in nature (more on these later).
Human settlement on Eridan is constrained by the incompatibility of the planet’s biochemistry with human nutritional needs. Eridan’s fauna is non-amino acid-based and thus produces no protein. Most of its flora is likewise of no nutritional value to humans. Consequently, most of Eridan’s human denizens subsist on vat-grown meat and hydroponic vegetables. These are grown in self-sufficient, renewably powered, concrete structures called Shelters, each of which houses several thousand people. Residents of these Shelters are known as “Shelter folk.” Outside the Shelters lives a race of tribal nomads called the outrunners, who are forced to prey on both Shelter folk and one another. The protectors of the Shelter folk are an elite order of mystic warriors called the Halka. The Halka are like samurai who carry guns and grenades instead of katanas.
Journey Star is the name of the ship that brought humans to Eridan. The trip took multiple human lifetimes, and it has now been an additional three centuries since Journey Star’s crew made landfall and began settling the planet. Sixteen years into its history, Eridanian society was taken over by a totalitarian regime known as the Planetary Directorate, which was determined to reestablish an industrial base on Eridan as quickly as possible, no matter the human cost. Thus, the Directorate’s reign saw millions die in slave labor camps while the rest of the populace suffered famine, poverty and mass-casualty drone strikes. This murderous regime was toppled by insurgents who used one of the Directorate’s own nuclear weapons to take out its capital city of Shalsha.
That was more than two centuries ago. Since then, life on Eridan has been governed by a strict set of rules called the Six Laws, which forbid, among other things, violence, weapons of mass destruction, communities of more than 10,000, social hierarchies and damage to planetary or regional ecologies. These laws have made people highly selective in their use of early-21st-century technologies. Internal combustion engines, for example, are used only minimally and weapons are limited to a maximum effective range of one kilometer. The Six Laws have also brought Eridan a degree of peace and freedom previously unheard of throughout the entirety of human history. They are enforced by the Halka and are punishable by death.
In the previous novel, Eridan’s long peace was broken by an attempted revival of banned Directorate-era technology. This new novel takes place two decades after that conflict. It begins with the Halka having eliminated the other main threat against human life on Eridan—namely, the outrunners, who have now all been driven to either extinction or assimilation. This creates a dilemma for the Halka: How can they remain relevant when their services as protectors are no longer needed? As if this quandary weren’t enough, the Halka, along with the rest of Eridan’s people, soon find themselves questioning their entire place in the universe with the discovery of a troubling space anomaly. In short, Eridan now finds itself at multiple historic crossroads, the implications of which are engagingly explored in Journey Star.
Greer is a masterful world builder, and this world is so believable and fully realized that I felt as if I were inhabiting it along with the characters. I especially appreciate Greer’s attempts to offer plausible scientific rationalizations for the stark differences between Eridan’s biology and ecology and those of present-day Earth. In explaining why Eridan’s plant life is blue and purple rather than green, for instance, he draws on the real-life science of photosynthetic pigments. His explanation for why Eridan’s fauna lacks protein is equally compelling. Moreover, the very fact that humans are unable to live off the land on Eridan without resorting to cannibalism is entirely grounded in real-world ecology. It illustrates the folly of expecting to be able to thrive in an ecology other than the one in which one’s species evolved to thrive.
Not everything about Eridan is grounded in modern mainstream science; some of the planet’s features are beyond our ken as early-21st-century Earthlings. A case in point is the dwimmerroot, a rootstalk that confers psychic powers on those who ingest it. (This is where the aforementioned mental technologies come into play.) Thanks to the mind-altering properties of dwimmerroot, members of the Halka order—who consume the root as an initiation rite—are able to mentally confer with one another by joining their minds into a single “groupmind.” They can also instantaneously transmit minutes’ worth of thoughts or instructions from mind to mind. Dwimmerroot leads some to have psychic visions, and others to become “mindhealers” capable of using their minds to rid others’ of psychological trauma. The depth of detail with which these mental technologies are imagined and described transcends any need for a scientific explanation.
One of the great virtues of this story is its moral ambiguity. It has no heroes or villains, really, and the two groups we were most inclined to regard as villains in the last book—the outrunners and the Directorate—are shown in this one to be worthy of our sympathy, or at least our understanding. The outrunners preyed on Shelter folk because it was that or starve. The Directorate’s leaders chose the path they did because their psychic visions showed them that every alternative was even bleaker. On the flip side, it turns out the Halka’s status as a force for good is more problematic than it initially might have seemed. Nowhere to be found in this story are the obvious good-guys-versus-bad-guys scenarios of lesser novels. Instead, we’re a little on everyone’s side.
Journey Star’s main characters are all well developed, but the two standouts are an orphaned outrunner girl named Asha and the Halka woman who adopts her, Carla Dubrenden sen Halka. As the last surviving member of Eridan’s last free band of outrunners, Asha is grieving the loss of her former companions and way of life, while also struggling to find her place in a new world that is utterly foreign to her. Even though Carla was directly involved in the assault that left Asha without a family, Asha is philosophical about what happened and doesn’t blame Carla. But Carla feels a need to atone. A touching bond develops between these two, with Carla caring for Asha at first and then Asha doing the same for Carla as the need arises. As their private drama unfolds, we also watch two wildly divergent cultures come together and enrich each other.
Shalsha and Journey Star are significant departures from Greer’s typical science fiction (aka “sf”) writing. In the worlds of his other sf novels and stories, the hard sf narrative devices on which the present tales depend (interstellar travel, geoengineering, the colonization of other worlds) are impossible. Star’s Reach, for example, is about accepting that humankind’s dream of one day visiting or being visited by intelligent extraterrestrial life is most likely a fantasy. (The interstellar distances are just too great for either us or the aliens to have a realistic chance of bridging them.) In short, Greer’s other sf is literally of a more down-to-earth variety; to quote a phrase he often uses, it deals in “the kind of futures we’re actually likely to get.” As much as I admire this more realistic brand of sf, I also love seeing Greer stretch himself into the weird and wonderful “what if” territory of golden age sf.
You don’t need to have read Shalsha to follow Journey Star, as the new book tells its own self-contained tale and fills in newcomers on much of the first book’s lore and storyline. As for the new story, the only other thing I’ll give away is that it abounds in adventure, spy thriller-like intrigue, thought-provoking legal and moral debates, satisfying answers to a number of the first book’s burning mysteries and the stunning moments of conceptual breakthrough for which great sf has long been known. The net effect is a novel that succeeds in recapturing the original’s essence while also taking it in absorbing new directions.