Reclamation, Sarah Zettel

Reclamation, Sarah Zettel (1996)
Review by admiral ironbombs

Millenia ago, mankind seeded the galaxies with colonization “cradles,” forming a vast space presence. But as time passed, these colonies grew, interacted with alien races, developed, and Earth was lost to the mists of time. Now, two factions have emerged. The first are the Unifiers, hoping to bring all elements of the Human Family back together, and one day to find their Evolution Point. They’ve also taken over an ideal artificial world constructed by some forgotten precursors. Next are the Rhudolant Vitae, an ancient branch of humanity with a strict, static caste system which has come to dominate the galaxy through trade and political intrigue. The Vitae consider themselves humanity’s firstborn, and are looking for their Home Point, a planet which was lost to them back in their early years. The two sides are at odds, but are not in open conflict, restricting their agendas to intrigue and espionage.

Meanwhile. Protagonist Eric Born was a priest on one of the many colonization worlds, a primitive backwater named the Realm of Nameless Powers. This is a planet which has no open areas nor open skies between its craggy canyons—and has many creation myths surrounding evil, manipulative Skymen, the reason why the sky is blocked out and why its people have strange psionic-like powers. Thanks to outsider interference, Eric Born turned his back on his archaic religion; the heretic priest abandoned the primitive Realm and went off-world, becoming a smuggler and data pirate selling his unique talents to the highest bidder.

While operating for the Vitae, he’s brought in to help interrogate a prisoner captured from his former home – Arla Stone in the Wall, who was being lifted off-world to assist the Unifiers in bringing the Realm into the Human Family… until she was captured by the Vitae. As things turn out, they band together and escape; when Eric looks into this situation, he unravels a mystery far greater than anticipated. Arla – and himself – are genetic constructs, whose shortened DNA strands are linked to the Vitae’s. Their entire planet is an artificial creation dating back millenia, constructed by unknown engineers. Their creation myths may have a kernel of truth to them. And the Realm may reveal the origin of both the Human Evolution Point and the Vitae Home Ground.

The two key words here are “space opera.” The scale is enormous, the plot intense, the mysteries deep and complex, the world-building… well, a bit vague, but while there’s a lot painted in broad strokes, the detail work – such as the alien Shessel and the Vitae, the Unifer/Vitae agendas, the Realm’s culture and history and mythic creation story – is well-done. When so much is going on, some vagueness isn’t a bad thing, and there’s a ton of awesome concepts in the book. So, space opera. With a heavy undercurrent of mystery: not just the mystery behind the Realm and why everyone wants it, but Vitae espionage, and the intrigues of multiple factions, keep the plot complex. Allegiances are ever-shifting, and more often than not you’ll find that a character is a double-agent or has an agenda of their own.

This would be perfect, if only the author handled the plot, the characters, and their relationships with clarity. Zettel hits the ground running and doesn’t relent, and I found myself tangled in the novel’s web-like plot; Zettel throws more characters into the mix than is necessary, feeling like she was introducing new characters every chapter without any prior indication of who these people are. Their motives, goals, backgrounds, and relationships aren’t spelled out in the slightest – you learn these things by seeing what happens, not by the author telling you even after things have happened; it requires an attentive reader to parse out motives and relationships from the dialogue and the characters’ actions. For example, at least twice I was several pages into a new character before I realized they’d either shown up earlier, or that other characters had made oblique references to them. That lack of clarity was irritating; it made the book feel rushed when what it needed was room to catch its breath. A neat trick, since it also felt a little too long and slow to me.

There’s also a few nonsensical choices made later in the book – the worst deals with Arla’s family, who pop out of the ether two-thirds into the book without having been introduced or mentioned before. (I knew Arla had children after some early chapters, but I’m referring to her husband, a bunch of other children, and Arla’s divorce proceedings.) I’m not sure why they even exist other than to free her up legally to be Eric Born’s love interest, since they didn’t add much, came out of the blue, and most of their point was to pad out a book that was already bloated with complexity. And the ending leaves numerous plot-threads unfinished, which was a letdown – characters from earlier never reappear; the majority of the factional intrigues, and even entire factions, start to cease in the book’s fourth quarter.

Readers used to “harder” science fiction might balk at some the fantasy-esque leanings. After the first few chapters, the plot is focused at the Realm of the Nameless (since both the protagonists come from there); as a lost colony world stuck in primitive barbarism, with a mythic history, strict caste system, and baroque nomenclature, it reads more like fantasy. When the tech comes around, it’s pretty out there: the protagonists have some special powers tied to their genetics, which are extreme even considered against the psionic powers I’ve seen SF touch on. Eric Born can “interface” with machinery and run the deepest, most secure data-nets without any cyberpunk-style machine interfacing, has minor telekinesis-type powers, and can disable people with a mere touch. Arla is a human datastore who can interface with the far-future equivalent of USB flash drives.

There’s also a lot of post-cyberpunk technology running about – there’s a rogue AI who, because of the lack of real-time cross-galaxy communication systems, has to ride the branching data-flow from Point A to Point B to get to another computer – but while it feels like a product of the mid-1990s, it doesn’t feel as dated as it could be. In part, that’s because Zettel avoids the specifics Hard SF would lust over, because they would have been made obsolete before the end of the decade. Sure, characters use physical media, but at least it’s not floppy disks. (And if you talked about the glories of touchscreen tablets utilizing cloud computing back in 1996, they would have burned you for a witch.)

What we’ve got here is proper space opera: epic scale, sweeping scope, impressive setting ideas, complex and dominant mysteries waiting to be explored. The front cover sees Poul Anderson putting it “in the grand tradition of Asimov and Heinlein;” it is, at heart, an old-school science fiction adventure tale, albeit closer to Anderson’s works than the other two. Yet one inspired by the newer-generation of post-Star Wars space opera scribes—David Brin, CJ Cherryh, Vernor and Joan Vinge – with a heaping of post-cyberpunk techno-fetishism. If you’re a fan of any of those authors, space opera, or SF with mysteries attached, you should find Reclamation appealing. The flaws – uneven pacing, character bloat, dangling plot threads, rushed ending – are typical for a first novel, especially one this ambitious. It’s a mixed reading experience, and while I didn’t fall in love with it, I found a lot to like within its pages. An enjoyable if undistinguished space opera, conceptually savvy but lacking in its execution.

Sometimes I feel I’m being too harsh on a book, and this is one of those cases. Reclamation has a lot of first-novel-syndrome issues that detract from the reading experience. But when I got into it, the book breezed along, and I kept finding myself partway through a chapter well after I’d planned to stop reading for the night. Don’t expect a perfect novel, because that’s not what you’re going to get. You’ll need to overlook a number of flaws to truly enjoy it, and I could only get over some of them.

This review originally appeared on Battered, Tattered, Yellowed & Creased.