Beyond the Gates, Catherine Wells

beyondBeyond the Gates, Catherine Wells (1999)
Review by Paul Kincaid

There is a rumour to the effect that science fiction is a fresh, forward-looking, innovative literature. This is, of course, all false. Science fiction is old and weary, forever picking over its own bones, preferring some petty variation on what has gone before to anything approaching novelty. Beyond the Gates by Catherine Wells is an object lesson in how to wring as much variation as possible on a tired theme without once daring to be new. Wells’s previous novel, Mother Grimm, was a finalist for the Philip K Dick Award; for the sake of the award one can only hope that her talent has taken a nose-dive in the interim, or else the judges faced an extraordinarily lean year. Certainly there is nothing in this new book that might excite the interest of a judge.

Which is not to say that this is a dramatically bad book. It is highly competent, smoothly written, hits all the right buttons in more or less the right order; if there is a formula for a novel that will be pleasantly entertaining to the many and not too upsetting to the few, then Catherine Wells has found that formula. If her prose singularly fails to reach any of the poetic heights that her chosen manner of storytelling would seem to demand, then at least it contains no outright horrors. The trouble is, the whole thing is too smooth, there is nothing to snag in the memory, five minutes after closing the book you would be hard put to name anything which distinguishes it from a thousand other novels ploughing more or less the same furrow.

This is the old, old story of science versus religion; and as practically always happens in science fiction the odds are stacked in favour of science. Science, after all, provides the drama, the motivation, the charming central character; all religion does is serve as the force of repression and provide the baddies who are trying to hold the good buys back. Ah, but that doesn’t begin to do justice to the planet-building-by-numbers that Wells is practising here. Let’s see: you have an entire planet given over to one religion; and since the planet is largely a desert world, the religion is inevitably a clone of Islam. Since this is Islam in all but name, then there must be unthinking obedience to strict rules of religious observance, and of course an oblique way of phrasing everything, that Americans seem to think is de rigeur when presenting a Moslem-like religion. Since you have unthinking obedience to strict rules, then the people who enforce those rules, the mullahs (they’re not quite called that but that’s what they are), must be corrupt and are keeping a big secret from the world. Since the religious masters are corrupt, then it is the absolute duty of science to be heroic and defy convention and chase knowledge come what may. And since this is another story of how good science inevitably defeats bad religion, the results of that pursuit of knowledge are of course unfailingly positive: science would never introduce anything dangerous that might upset a peaceful and prosperous world, no siree.

In this instance, science is represented by Marta, a graduate student who discovers a dead dinosaur on one of her field trips. The only trouble is, there isn’t supposed to be anything like a dinosaur in this planet’s native fauna. So she organises another expedition, this time bringing in a scientist from off-world, who turns out to be cowardly, impetuous and more concerned with personal glory than the service of science. Unfortunately, Marta’s sponsor has a rival, who organises a rival expedition with a rival off-world scientist. This scientist turns out to be not only the galaxy’s greatest expert in his field, but also a super-competent soldier, the sort of muscle-bound figure who could win a war singlehanded and not break into a sweat (science fiction writers sometimes seem to have a very peculiar notion of what scientists are like). Of course, Marta manages to outwit the super-soldier, but this is only the start for their discoveries lead them to the forbidden continent (there always has to be a forbidden continent), which the not-quite-mullahs have always claimed is barren. What secret are they hiding? Will the self-serving scientist reveal his true colours and put everyone else at risk as a result? Will Marta and the super-soldier join forces and make the great discovery that changes the world forever?

What do you think?

This review originally appeared in New York Review of Science Fiction 140, April 2000.