In County’s (Oasis at the Bottom of the Sea, 2015, etc.) sci-fi yarn, a scientist on a deep-space mission to exploit a distant planet discovers that alien plant groves may be sentient, intelligent, and hostile.
On a future, overpopulated Earth, exobiologist Cassie Clearwater, the granddaughter of a Seminole shaman, joins the first interstellar space expedition. The ship, called the Far Traveler, uses a revolutionary, superfast propulsion drive, provided by the powerful MicroWeight Corporation, to visit a habitable planet 12-and-a-half light years away. Its profile suggests diamond-rich geology and colonization potential. Cassie must establish whether the alien life there is intelligent, which would render the world off-limits. But there’s greed and subterfuge afoot on the Far Traveler. Even Cassie conceals a secret—her pregnancy by fellow astronaut Jonas Jefferson, son of ruthless MicroWeight tycoon Tobias Jefferson. After landing, the team does find diamonds—but also groves of mushroom-shaped growths and burrowing creatures that spit powerful acid. When something pulls Jonas into a mudbank, the remaining humans prepare for hostilities. The narrative then shifts to tell the story from the perspectives of the alien plants. They are indeed sentient, with a rich heritage to match that of humanity, whom they regard as grotesque “monsters.” When Jonas reappears, resurrected and altered, only Cassie is brave enough to avert a tragedy for both species. County offers a bouquet of twists in this novel, with a botany-focused plot that suggests an intricate rethink of Murray Leinster’s classic 1946 short story “The Plants.” The author includes clever whodunit aspects, as well as the worldview of a rooted, chlorophyll-based society that communicates via odor and chemical secretions. Some may find it overly precious that plant characters bear the names of herbs (Pepper, Sage, Tarragon); also, the human characters include a gangster-ish Russian and a libidinous, Asian dragon lady caricature. However, the book asserts that MicroWeight calculatingly loaded the Far Traveler with international ethnic stereotypes as a public relations move: “Reverse political correctness. A blatant appeal to the sensibilities of the masses instead of the intelligencia.” Aspects of Native American mysticism make an unsteady entrance but pay off well.
An uneven first-contact thriller that adroitly handles its ecological themes.