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Freedom's Ransom: book four in the Catteni sequence

by Anne McCaffrey

(Bantam Press, £16.99, 320 pages, hardback, published 2 May 2002. Corgi, £6.99, 368 pages, paperback, published 6 March 2003.)

The previous three books of Anne McCaffrey's Catteni series have seen a disparate group of people being abducted from an invaded Earth, dumped on the penal world of Botany, establishing a cover scanworking community there and overthrowing their alien oppressors. Now the Botanists, led by Kris Bjornsen, a human from Colorado, and Zainal, a Catteni abandoned on Botany by his own kind, go to the Catteni trading world of Barevi to win back some of the looted mechanical supplies the human race needs in order to get itself back on its feet again.

At one point in the novel, the intrepid Botanists tractor a Terran communications satellite into their hold, to get some idea of the materials they'll need to acquire in order to patch up Earth's telecom network. When it transpires that the satellite is mechanically compatible with just about anything, one of the characters, "pushing a triumphant fist in the air," exclaims "Plug in and go!" And that's what Freedom's Ransom is -- the "plug in and go" of science fiction. It's sci-fi by numbers, the easy lis'nin' of space opera. The prose is uncomplicated, the story a series of dots to be joined, characterisation an occasional adornment to be used once to make someone seem interesting, then discarded. I imagine that, by having not read the first three books (which are helpfully summarised in a brief preface), I've missed out on all the fireworks that have made this series worth following. In which case Freedom's Ransom would be a kind of extended afterword.

For example, I've missed out on the intriguing otherness of the alien Catteni, which would have made them such a hook in the first book. Here they're indistinguishable from any Southern American human in speech patterns and behaviour, and I was halfway through the book before I was given any visual description of them. It seems that what marks them out from other bipedal life forms is their green skin and large jaws. Their reproductive system, however, is perfectly compatible ("Plug in and go!") with human genitalia, and indeed Kris and Zainal are, by the time Freedom's Ransom begins, a couple. I find aliens whose alien traits extend as far as surface facial features and no further -- humans in "alien" costumes, in effect -- bad enough; but my disappointment is only exacerbated when an author decides, purely for the sake of interplanetary diplomacy, to push their human and alien characters into a sexual relationship. Logistically, my mind just won't accept it. ("Oh, Zainal! Your jaw is so ruggedly green and enormous!") It's stretching the boundaries of belief, but not in a good way.

I've also missed out on the fascinating laying of cultural groundwork between the human Botanists and Zainal's family, from the tentative first steps to the long, arduous establishment of common ground between the two species. At this late stage, everybody behaves human, eats human food, drinks human coffee (coffee seems to be an obsession of McCaffrey's, judging by its absurd prominence in the book), speaks English, and so on. McCaffrey justifies the ease with which the Catteni have learned English (and, indeed, with which the humans have learned the Catteni language) by asserting that an alien word "sounded the same from Catteni lips as it did from Terran". This is surely a unique phenomenon in linguistics (although, your reviewer humbly notes, it may only apply to the word "coffee"); in the sentence immediately following, McCaffrey notes "that the Kenyans called it kahawa", giving the lie to her own claim. And yet Zainal and co spout English colloquialisms with the greatest of ease (and the occasional variant on the old French-stereotype catchphrase, "'Ow you say?").

Most regretfully, as this directly impacts upon the present story, I've missed the explanation of why a fleet of Catteni traders would have come all the way to Earth to pillage tyres, car batteries, mobile phones and other such apparatus, in spite of the fact that they've no use for it, and no market for it back on Barevi. McCaffrey tells us that the Catteni are acquisitive by nature, and that Earth was most probably looted just for the sake of it, although this may lead the cynical reader to replace "it" with "setting up this book". More surprising than this gratuitous looting is the fact that humanity hasn't even attempted to find a way around it. Earth simply remains at a technological and social standstill until such time as its brand-name accessories can be returned to it.

There are other aspects of the story that bother me. There's a thriving Catteni slave trade, which more plausibly explains why Earth was invaded in the first place; but this makes it seem all the stranger that a load of healthy young humans (and one Catteni), perfect slave material, should have been heedlessly dumped on an hospitable M-class planet with edible native life and rich natural mineral resources three books ago. Why waste a good, colonisable planet on unwanted slaves? More damningly, there's the constant convenience that follows the lead characters. Our heroes have only to decide on a course of action, and within a matter of pages they've seen it through without a hitch. This makes for bland reading, to say the least. At only one point does it seem possible that the Botanists' plans might actually go awry; that point is around page 300, and it's a bit late to start spicing things up then.

Overall, mediocre. I'm sure McCaffrey's written better novels; I'm sure that by reading the fourth part of a tetralogy I'm doing the author no favours. McCaffrey's reputation alone would suggest this. The universe must simply have blinked while she was writing Freedom's Ransom.

The Botanists have a motto: "We dropped, we stay". I decided to introduce Freedom's Ransom to the wall; it dropped, it stays.

Review by John Toon.

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