Saturday, August 8, 2009

Book Review: 'Second Nature' by Cherry Wilder

2/5 Stars

‘Second Nature’ (1982; 254 pp.) is a paperback original from Pocket Books’s Timescape imprint. The cover illustration (the artist is uncredited) depicts what appears to be a Lovecraftian monster; in reality this is one of the ‘Vail’ featured in the text.

Two hundred and sixty-five years after the spaceship Rho Maryland crash-landed on an unnamed planet orbiting the star Delta Pavonis, the descendents of the ship’s crew have managed to eke out a successful, if low-tech, society devoted to agriculture and fishing. The central outpost of the human society is the city of Rhomary, where lives the main character, a scholar named Maxim Bro. Rhomary supports a complex ecology of religious sects and professional guilds, some members of which possess quasi-telepathic abilities. Native herbivores serve as the primary means of overland transport, while wooden sailing ships ply the large seas. There is lingering angst over the departure, decades ago, of the Vail, a race of enormous, benign aquatic creatures.

The stories of their spacefaring ancestors and their wondrous technology are dwindling into mythology, but still there is a mystical hope that other vessels may someday make planetfall. When Maxim Bro learns that red streaks have been seen across the night sky, and meteor fragments of some sort have fallen to the earth, he sets out on a journey to the Gann Station, a community alongside the Western Sea, where a Captain LaMar has recovered what appears to be a chunk of a spacecraft from the water.

Soon an android is recovered from the sea; a religious cult reacts unfavorably to the news. The narrative focuses on the reaction of various characters, including Maxim Bro, to realization that the legends have come to life and contact with Earth and its space vessels may be within reach.

Reading ‘Second Nature’ is a laborious experience. Author Wilder (the pseudonym of New Zealand writer Cherry Barbara Grimm) has a tendency to adopt an elliptical approach to disclosing key features of the narrative. Too often, people, places, things, and historical antecedents are introduced to the reader with little in the way of accompanying exposition. The reader is regularly forced to infer what is taking place from oblique stretches of dialogue and descriptive passages. At the same time, Wilder will lavish an adjective-rich, almost poetic approach to describe things of ancillary importance to the main narrative.

The book’s Prologue is an example of the drawbacks of Wilder’s too-stylized writing. It relates an early encounter between a human colonist and one of the immense aquatic creatures (the Vail) which are native to the planet. The first-person narrator is in fact a Vail, while the ‘minmer’ it mentions is its wary human contactee. This information is related to the reader with little in the way of explication; to make things worse, sections of italicized text inserted into this Prologue deal with an independent story thread with dim relevance to the main narrative. I had to re-read this section several times in order to finally figure out exactly what was taking place.

I suspect few readers, when confronted with this rather inaccessible start to the novel, will be willing to push on. If they do, they will find a novel with flashes of adventure, but on the whole, suffering from too diffuse an approach to storytelling.

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