Monday, June 22, 2009

Book Review: 'Hestia' by C. J. Cherryh

3/5 Stars

'Hestia' (1979; DAW book No. 354) features a cover painting by Don Maitz of an alluring cat-girl in a leather bikini standing knee-deep in a stream. An exemplary PorPor book cover….

Sam Merritt is a young and ambitious Federation engineer who decides to participate in a project on the Earth-like planet Hestia. Unfortunately, when Sam arrives he discovers that the dwindling human colony on the planet possesses only a late 19-century level of technology, and what outposts still survive are rustic at best.

Needless to say anti-gravity lifters, nanobots, and laser drills are not available, much less mechanized bulldozers, pile drivers, and front-end loaders. Sam tries to skip out on his contract, but finds himself shanghaied into service by the desperate Hestians: with most of population crammed into a river valley subjected to periodic floods, a dam must be constructed upstream to save the human civilization. Indeed, if the dam is not built within the span of a year, it's possible a flood could convert most of the planet's agricultural landscape into a swamp.

Sam travels upstream to the dam site and gradually discovers something the colonists are reluctant to talk about: there are aboriginal Hestians, referred to as ‘The People’, living in proximity to the site, and they don’t like the idea of constructing a dam on their territory.

As the struggle to build the dam proceeds, Sam befriends one of the natives, Sazhje, the cat-girl from the cover. This does not endear him to the human colonists. Soon the violence between aborigine and colonist escalates, and Sam finds himself distrusted by both sides. Can he prevail with construction of the dam, or will the enmity between the races lead to its destruction and ethnic warfare ?

At 160 pp. Hestia is a quick and (mostly) engaging read. Sam is a likeable (if too altruistic) protagonist. The human colonists come off as thick-headed, stubborn, and not too bright. With the exception of Sazhje the cat-girl, the aboriginal People are little more than primitives obsessed with internecine warfare, sort of like Amerindians of the pre-European contact era.

As is often the case with her novels Cherryh tends to overplay the various psychodramas between the main human characters, and this slows the narrative too often for my taste. And the book’s ending seems a bit too contrived; lots of things are tied up within the span of a few pages and some overnight conversions seem too pat.

‘Hestia’ is something of an offbeat SF novel, in that the SF elements are muted. Indeed, the interactions between Sam and the colonists with the aborigines is modeled on the conventions of the settlers and Indians conflicts of the Western genre. This makes the book worth checking out for SF fans.

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