The Color of Distance, Amy Thomson (1995)
Review by Cheryl Morgan
The Color of Distance is about an Earth biologist on a survey mission who crash lands in the jungle of an alien world. By the time Juna is able to get to a working radio her colleagues have given her up for dead and are on the way to the jump point. They don’t have the fuel to return immediately, but promise to come back in a few years time. Juna is left to survive by herself, and it isn’t going to be easy.
To start with, humans are severely allergic to just about everything on the alien world. Without her environment suit, Juna will go into anaphylactic shock very quickly. Fortunately, Juna has discovered an intelligent life form. They might be able to help her survive, if she can just learn to communicate with them.
The Tendu look a bit like large tree frogs. As with many Earth frogs, they can change their skin colour. What started as camouflage and simple colour signals has evolved into a sophisticated symbolic language, presumably along the lines of Egyptian or Mayan hieroglyphs. Tendu don’t have the vocal apparatus to talk, and Juna can’t change her skin colour. So much for the Star Trek universal communicator.
Once communication is underway there is Tendu society to cope with. Like human forest dwellers, the Tendu live in harmony with their surroundings, taking just enough from the forest to survive and ensuring that it will continue into the future. That makes them very keen on population control which, if you are a frog and lay 100 eggs each time you get pregnant, is an interesting problem.
By now you should be starting to see that Amy is not just writing about aliens. In the very best traditions of SF she is helping us look at human problems by creating an alien society that throws a completely different light on the issue. The environment and population control are issues that tend to bring out the worst in human thought processes. We need books like this that help us look at the big questions in a new light.
The other thing that a good first contact novel must do is present an alien society that is both different and believable. Once again, Amy is right on the button. As far as classical technology goes, the Tendu are nowhere. There’s no use for a wheel in a rain forest. They have managed to invent the spade, the blowpipe and the fishing net, and that is about it. Biotechnology, however, is another matter entirely. The Tendu have venom spurs on their wrists which were presumably originally used to stun or kill prey, but are now capable of delivering any chemical the Tendu bodies are capable of synthesising. Their medical skills are light years ahead of humanity. To them, any creature that can’t cure a cold when it gets one is a hopeless primitive.
As you might guess, Juna survives her exile, and the final section of the book is devoted to the return of the human survey ship. It has taken Juna four years to understand the Tendu. Now she has just a few days to help her fellow humans do the same. And given humanity’s track record with foreign cultures, doing so might just be condemning her froggy friends to slavery or extinction.
This review originally appeared on Emerald City.