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Remnant Population

by Elizabeth Moon

(Orbit, £6.99, 360 pages, paperback, published 7 March 2002.)

When her colony world is abandoned by the cover scancorporate sponsor whose bad decisions caused the colony to fail, Ofelia Falfurrias decides to stay behind. It's not as if anyone will miss her -- at her age, the company practically expects her to die in transit. She'll be able to grow enough to feed herself with the garden vegetables the other colonists leave behind, make use of the machinery the company can't afford to remove, and live out her last few years in peaceful solitude. Besides, other people have been telling her what to do her whole life; it's about time she got to do what she wants to do.

Then one day, over the colony radio, Ofelia hears a new colonisation party land further to the north -- and get wiped out by an intelligent native species nobody knew existed. Suddenly she doesn't have the planet to herself any more. And when the locals discover her settlement some time later, Ofelia becomes the first human to make contact with an alien race. She might also be the last, if Earth decides to come looking for retribution ...

Remnant Population is a charming character study, and a poignant examination of the role of the old woman in society. This latter aspect may seem surprising given that the protagonist spends much of the book in the absence of human society, but that's pretty much the point: we've forgotten how to treat our old women, erstwhile babysitters, teachers and matriarchs. The indigenous species hasn't, and they benefit from the indifference Ofelia's family and neighbours have shown her. Ofelia in her turn gains an admittedly strange band of new friends, and a purpose hitherto lacking in her life.

Moon fleshes out Ofelia's character through deft use of backstory, viewpoint observations and interior monologues. It's hard not to imagine Ofelia's voice narrating the story. The natives' point of view is also excellently rendered, believably alien but still easily accessible. Other characters vary. The other colonists, although little more than a series of cameos, are sufficiently well sketched to convince. The survey party who arrive later on to establish first contact -- only to find that Ofelia has beaten them to it -- are somewhat more off-the-shelf characters, not so well defined. In fact, the novel overall dips a bit towards the end; having strolled along at its own comfortable pace for a couple of hundred pages, it suddenly accelerates into a finale that seems too hastily thrown together. The good news is, up until that point there's very little to complain about.

Above all, Remnant Population is different. How many SF novels have you read whose major protagonist is a grandmother? That's not the only reason this book deserves your attention, but it's as good as any.

Review by John Toon.

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