By Cheryl Morgan
When I saw the short list for this year’s Endeavour Award I was impressed with the quality. There are a lot of good writers living in the Pacific Northwest, which is the official catchment area for the Award. I have read Two Trains Running by Lucius Shepard and The Secrets of Jin-Shei by Alma Alexander, and I knew them to be good books. Patricia McKillip was also on the short list. To be honest, I would not have predicted The Child Goddess by Louise Marley as the winner. But then at that time I hadn’t read the book.
Having now done so, I can see why Marley’s book won. It is a classic piece of science fiction of a particular type that traces its ancestry back to Ursula Le Guin. Something odd is found in the society on a far planet, and the heroes of the book solve the mystery of that oddness.
Some readers may find Marley’s book a little dated, but I think a better conclusion is to recognize that much of the Pacific Northwest, at least along the coast, which is where most people live, is what Americans might call "blue state" country. It is inhabited by people who did not vote for Mr. Bush. Let me explain.
The set-up of the book involves a group of engineers from Extra-Solar Corporation (ESC) who have been sent to build a fuel refinery on a distant and, as far as anyone knows, uninhabited planet. Doing some routine survey work, they spot smoke coming from a small island and investigate. Given that they are engineers, and have no training in diplomacy or first contact, the results are inevitable: they are attacked by the natives, and kill one. Worse still, the "natives" are human children.
Now, had the engineers in question been employed by Haliburton they might simply have slaughtered the rest of the kids and covered the whole thing up. End of story. But in Marley’s future even the bad guys have some sense of morals. They rescued (or kidnapped) a child they had injured, took her back to their base and nursed her to health. Which just goes to show that shooting everything in sight is not always the best policy, because once the camp doctor had got a good look at the girl he realized that she was potentially very valuable indeed.
Valuable in what way? Well, Marley didn’t get round to telling readers that until page 125, but someone at Ace decided they would sell more books if they blew the whole plot in the back-cover blurb so there’s no point in keeping it a secret. ESC might have found the remains of a lost human colony, but they have also found Neverland — the island of kids who never grow up.
The problem for Dr. Adetti is working out why this happens, so that he can patent and exploit the anti-aging mechanism. Unfortunately there’s a reason why Adetti is the camp doctor for a bunch of construction engineers — he’s not very bright. The sole smart thing that he does is tell his boss back on Earth. And Gretchen Boreson is both smart and utterly ruthless.
What Boreson needs is a convenient patsy who can be persuaded to help look after the captured child and absolve ESC of any wrongdoing in the eyes of the Earth public, while giving Adetti time to work on the problem. She fixes on the recently founded Catholic Order of Mary Magdalene, a group that has ambitions to be the female equivalents of the Jesuits but is currently still finding its feet. Boreson should have known that the female of the species is more deadly than the male. And if she had dug hard enough she might have discovered that this Mother Isabel Burke she has been offered is also a very close friend of Dr. Simon Edwards, the chief investigative pathologist of World Health, who is absolutely the last person Adetti wants peering over his shoulder.
Isabel and Simon, then, set to work unraveling the mystery of Oa, the girl who can’t grow up. Their quest is given an added dimension through the twin threats to their relationship provided by Isabel’s vows of celibacy and Simon’s unhappy marriage. Her skills in anthropology combined with his in medicine eventually solve the puzzle and bring the story to a conclusion.
Books like this tend to center around the fact that the heroes never think to ask the right question until it is almost too late. If the reader manages to guess the truth early on then the heroes end up looking stupid. I thought Marley did pretty well, though I did read the book in a couple of days. Those of you who take longer over it may manage to work it out.
The best bit of the book, however, is the characterization of the villains. Dr. Adetti is a stupid but ambitious man who falls into villainy because he is way out of his depth. Boreson is single-mindedly focused on her own needs (in particular the fact that she is dying from a degenerative disease of the nervous system). They are very human villains, and all the more believable because of that.
If I have a criticism it is that not enough attention was paid to matters of religion. It becomes clear during the book that the un-aging children were regarded as demons by the original colonists and badly treated as a result. Isabel is also badly treated, by members of her own faith who disapprove of women priests. And then there is the whole celibacy thing, which Isabel just about manages to explain in her own terms but still doesn’t make sense to anyone who isn’t religious. I felt that more could have been done with all this.
Also Marley’s Australian geography is a little suspect, but not many people will notice that. Of course having an Australian character called Foster is about on a par with having an American character called Ronald McDonald, but it is surprising how many people around the world believe the Fosters advertising.
In summary, The Child Goddess is a fine example of a well-loved style of SF that I suspect still has a large following. I can understand exactly why it won the Endeavour Award, and I recommend it to fans of anthropological SF everywhere.