The Sims Bancorp had lost the franchise to the planet and was abandoning its colony. Seventy-year-old Ofelia had no interest in leaving. She had gotten a scholarship to a secondary school as a child on her home planet, but her father had her brother attend instead of her, and ever since then she had lived a life of conformity to social convention. She had married, gone to colony with him, and had children, although now her husband was dead, and her remaining son and his wife were not at all interested in nurturing her interests. Besides, the company was going to charge them for her transport, since she was old, out of contract, and not useful. And there old people had a high chance of dying in the cryotube anyway. However, refusing to go was not an option; they would just ship her to the new colony by force. So she agreed, helped everyone with the transition, and then hid out in the forest for a few days until they left.
She spent her first year doing the quiet domestic chores of tending the gardens, feeding waste into the machine that made electricity, and making the occasional repair. But mostly she spent the year learning to be herself. Initially she went around town naked, just because she could, and because it was seen as uncouth, but the novelty wore off. She discovered that she liked loud, patchworks of color, and she made herself several garments to her taste, and started making bead necklaces. She started annotating the dry logs of the years with details of what happened to individuals in the colony. And she successfully weathered one of the hurricanes that came directly through.
One day she was in the community center, where the sewing machines, fabricator, and power plant were, and she heard voices on the intercom. As she had anticipated, another company had bought the franchise, but it dismissed the heat signature of the operating power plant as the previous company forgetting to power it down before leaving and ignored the old colony. In fact, they thought that Sims Bancorp’s decision to locate the colony in the path of seastorms was partly why it failed. But the new colony failed immediately. The area it landed in had some creatures which attacked it, since the colonists thought the planet was uninhabited, they had no weapons and were destroyed within a day or two. But Ofelia knew they would be back.
From the People’s perspective, the sky-scorchers had landed in their clearly marked nesting site, and had destroyed it, so for this aggression they destroyed the sky monsters who did this. There was much discussion after that. The machine enthusiast started thinking about the possibilities of the monster’s sky machine, and they knew that he would disappear for a while until he came back with a machine nobody had ever seen. Similarly, a youngling thought they should investigate the legends of another sky-scorching and see if there were other of these monsters. The elders decided that the younglings should leave on their investigation, and some, on reflection, after initially being unenthused about the desert and the marshes in-between, thought it might be a good adventure and joined them.
Ofelia had some suspicions that maybe the killer natives were around, but saw nothing conclusive until the next seastorm. When the eye passed over she went out and looked at it, because the clouds at the edges were beautiful, especially if it happened around sunset. But she knew it was dangerous. As she was returning to her house, she saw a creature hurt in the ditch, and then several more. Knowing the other half of the storm was very close, she opened up one of the houses and motioned desperately for them to come in. After a bit, they all ran inside, where they all huddled with Ophelia in a bed all night as the storm raged.
Ofelia was afraid of them killing her, but as they did not seem to be doing it, she kept going about her daily business. The creatures were curious and generally got in the way similar to children, and since she had no other way of communicated with them, she communicated with them as she would children. She had spent time with a lot of children in her life, and was pretty good at it. These creatures, however, seemed to pick things up pretty quickly. After their initial anatomical curiosity about her, she made them understand that the bathroom was private, and they generally caught on that she did not want them in her house unless invited. They really liked eating ice from the freezer, though, and frequently opened it up, to her annoyance.
After an initial report was sent back, one of the singers arrived, who could properly learn the monster’s ways. To Ofelia’s perspective, the singer was older and definitely higher status. When one of the younger ones opened the freezer, the singer promptly slammed it closed (since he had by that time understood that Ofelia objected to it being open all the time), and they did not do that again. He was also quite good at learning her language. Ofelia had to get good at deciphering his attempts and English (which is probably hard with a beak), but they were quickly able to have some form of communication. Ofelia still was not sure if they were going to kill her, but since they had had plenty of opportunity and had not done it yet, no point in worrying.
After interacting for a while with Ofelia, before the singer came, one of the younger creatures reflexively said that she was a nest-guardian, which they took as a tentatively hypothesis. On the day that Ofelia met the singer she was wearing a dress with lots of eyes on it, and since she was old, and eyes were one of the symbols of nest-guardians. She also taught them, taking them to the children’s classroom to show demonstrate with a model motor how the machine created electricity (the singer could feel the power navigation-stones in the machine), and then she taught them using the children’s books. Ofelia also taught the mind, which was one the things nest-guardians did, so the singer concluded that everything pointed to her being a nest guardian. One of the creatures was about to give birth, so the singer (whom Ofelia had labeled “Bluecloak”) asked if she would be a nest-guardian, although he did not have many English words at this point, so he asked her to be “click-kee-kerrr” and although she had no idea what responsibilities that would entail, she agreed.
About this time they were in the center when they heard transmissions through the transponder again. The humans returned to orbit. Ofelia had made it clear to the creatures that they would return, who saw that clearly the monsters had the capacity to create powerful weapons. The humans landed a ship, and it was clear to her that one of her responsibilities was protecting the young, so she walked over to the shuttle. The humans had sent a scientific team (and some military guardians), and the leader was rather imperious. But the creature was about time and said in no uncertain terms that now was not a good time to land and walked off to deal with the birth. The team was not very happy about it, but they agreed to stay in the lander until the time was better.
Ofelia opened up one of the houses and tried to figure out what the pregnant creature needed for a nest. It was eventually sorted, and the creature was able to have a cozy birth process. Ofelia was ushered out, and invited back later to view the babies, and was given each one to hold. The babies took a liking to her, which continued as she taught them and interacted with them.
Afterwards, the scientific team eventually asked her a few questions, but did not involve her in anything besides that. What little she said about the creatures was dismissed as not possibly right. They spent time watching and analyzing, but not understanding, partly because their scientific training did not include interaction with other intelligences (since none had been encountered before this), but partly because they knew an old, uneducated woman could not possibly have any useful knowledge about the creatures, dismissing her just like everyone else in her life had dismissed her. And the leader of the team made it clear that she could not stay.
The creatures, however, saw things differently. One day Bluecloak took her to the forest and explained everything to her. He explained his role as singer-to-strangers, who seeks to bring the drumming into the left hand of agreement. He explained that nest-guardians nurtured the mind, which she clearly did. He told her about their customs, and that while their tribe was nomadic, others had built cities and even some machines. He explained that one of the roles of nest-guardian is to determine the binding agreements with other tribes. She was a trustworthy nest-guardian and valued them, so he told her that it was only through her that the People would come to an agreement with the humans; they would not negotiate with anyone else, and whatever she agreed to they would abide by. But it had to be her, and it had to be soon, which both made her feel extremely valued and also very nervous.
The team, especially the leader, was not going to accept that idea if she just informed them. So Ofelia invited the team to dinner. She also chatted up the two guards and brought them some fruit juice which she anticipated they would ferment. The day of, she made them some pastries and told them that the team would be busy for the evening, but would return by midnight. They had dinner at her place, then she led them to the community center. After they went in, the creatures locked the door. She took them to classroom and showed them the babies and the water-powered generator that the babies had built in the sink. The team was very impressed, and the leader was jealous that they were obviously a rather more intelligent species than humans. She informed them that she was there to tell them about the agreement that the People wanted to make, that she was their only authorized representative. The leader did not take this well at all, and grabbed one of the babies and threatened to strangle it. He forced Ofelia to crawl over to him, but when he went to kick her, she grabbed his foot, which pulled him a little off-balance, while the baby bit him, he dropped it, and four knives suddenly came out and slit his throat.
Ofelia had decided that Ori was open-minded enough that he good to work with, and suggested to the assistant leader, Kira, a somewhat uptight, ambitious woman, that she since she obviously like Ori that she should not let the young, sexy linguist make any moves after she got over her vocal grief for the late leader. Kira would stay and have children with Ori, so Ofelia might as well learn to like her. Ofelia also set up a program where older women could apply to come to the colony, and if they were judged to be good nest-guardians, they were introduced to the their role and brought over to the colony. The People proved to be very inventive, and the program was financed by the sale of their inventions. And so an old woman who had never been shown any interest by her society became sole liason with the first alien race humanity encountered, and got to do things her way, a humane way, much to the regret of the males.
Remnant Population is an interesting exploration of cross-cultural communication. Treating an alien race as beings that could understand, and interacting the same way as with children—gestures, words, and expecting them to do things (like handing them a squeegee and gesturing that they should clean the water they tracked in)—seems reasonable. It certainly makes for interesting an humorous reading. I’m not sure how well gestures would work with, say, an octopus, which is about as alien as I can think of; even though they are intelligent, would it have any context to understand opening a door and gesturing inside? Or are some things universal? And anyway, if there’s a storm and an open door, maybe the gesture isn’t needed?
The plot is about Ofelia, a old woman with no perceived usefulness, being revealed as a person of great importance: a nest-guardian, one who protects, nurtures, and teaches. However, it seems that the book is more deeply about a woman who has always subordinated her identity to what society—and men—have required of her, discovering herself. She discovers her interests, her value, and then leads out her values, resulting in flourishing of her new community. Being both male and someone for whom the idea of conforming myself to other’s expectations makes no sense, I found the struggle over expressing herself somewhat tiring (fortunately it is combined with a Robinson Crusoe building a life for yourself). I get the impression, though, that a not small number of women seem to struggle with conforming to society’s expectations versus living out who they are, so while I would not give it the glowing praise that Anne McCaffrey gives on the front cover, I am willing to give it the benefit of the doubt since I am probably not the target reader.
One could make a case that the book is subtly feminist: Ofelia certainly lived in a patriarchy, and the men are one-dimensionally dismissive. It feels feminist somehow, but Ofelia also struggles with the women in her life, too, so I am not entirely convinced. At least, if it is feminist, Moon prioritizes story over ideology, as it should be. One need not agree with Christianity to enjoy Narnia, and one need not be feminist to enjoy Remnant Population.
Certainly Moon has created a unique—and sensible—look how inter-species communication might work. The Star Trek Federation talks about it, but you only ever see them avoid doing it. Other interactions—admittedly written by men—devolve into conflict, so it is nice to see a successful interaction. Also, success is a harder story to craft, since a story needs some sort of conflict, and inter-species conflict is the primrose path. It is also nice to see a story with someone old in it. Few stories are about old people; at best they are the wise mentor that must leave or die in a coming-of-age story. Unlike Death Comes to the Archbishop or To Live, which are old people’s reminiscences, Moon portrays a vision that gives old women meaning, and purpose, and paints a picture of why old women are valuable to society. Written in a simple style, this is a layered book, and just a good story.