Ursula Le Guin’s The Word for World is Forest (1976) is a (novella extended into a) novel that features an alien planet invaded by humanity and exploited for its resources, the natives forced into labor. An open allegory regarding the United States’ involvement in Vietnam, it is a compact novel that remains focused on three main points throughout: corporate/political greed, respect for traditional cultures, and the need to find reconciliation between the two. Elizabeth Bear’s 2007 Undertow is precisely the same story, but with additional focus on science fiction/fantasy concepts, added character viewpoints, and all upgraded for the 21 st century.
The Ranid peacefully inhabited Greene’s World, that is, until humanity colonized the water planet, discovered omelite, and put them to work extracting the valuable resource. An amphibian species, the Ranid swim the great ocean of Greene’s World in harmony with the planet but are no match for the weapons and technology of the Charter Trade Company. The Ranids who can remain in hiding do, but there is a significant portion pressganged into working the platforms and undersea tunnels mining the precious material.
Humanity is centered in Nova Haven, the great human floating city of Greene’s World. A world-wide net connecting its citizens, most wear headgear to stay continuously in touch with data, friends, and work. One such citizen is André Deschênes — a professional assassin with a big heart. Hired by the Charter to take down one of the chief agitators and supporters of Ranid rights, the social and commercial fabric of the planet comes apart in the aftermath of the kill.
Undertow stars more than one character and Bear packs the story with several viewpoints in order to represent all sides of the conflict. From the assassin to the uber-evil CEO of the Charter Trade Company, lovers to scientists, and, perhaps the most interesting piece of the novel, a few of the Ranids themselves. Called ‘froggies’ by the humans given the similarity, they fully occupy the role of alien in several interesting ways.*
But viewpoints are not the only thing there are a lot of in Undertow; science fiction ideas are another. More science fantasy than science fiction, Bear really scrapes the bottom of the plausibility barrel with some of the concepts she tries to foist on the reader, while others remain tried and true. With cyberpunk pretty much covering the net-tech employed, readers will find nothing new in Connex and head gear. But what is used, is used effectively. The same rings true of the transportation tech and space ships in relation to classic SF. It’s thus in the convolution of quantum mechanics and probability to predict or create a desired future event that the novel’s creativity frays completely. Multiple hands waving, it’s a cheap idea, utlilized when the author wants and conveniently forgotten when the scene could otherwise be drastically affected by it. If anything could be orchestrated with the power of ‘conjuring,’ why didn’t the bad guys simply stack the odds in their favor at all times instead of just ‘when drama calls’? The result: plot holes.
Regarding the remainder, Undertow is a novel so evenly balanced as to render itself mediocre. And it starts with prose. Workaday, it is neither beautiful or ugly, nor adds to or subtracts from the tale. Building on this, the characters are not pale; they have some color, but still fail to achieve realism. They feel like those from a mainstream SF novel — sketched effectively but not living, breathing souls. (I don’t know which is worse: the uber-evil CEO or ‘kind killer.’) Plot continually moves forward and hops between viewpoints effectively, but it too is spread thin. Action, character study, genocide, emotional portrait, native uprising — what does the novel want to be? It’s ok to combine all of them, but emphasis must go one way or another. As it stands, the combination is undecided, and as such, unrepresentative.
But not everything is lukewarm. The setting is unbalanced — in a positive sense. It (and the Ranids) are the aspects of Undertow best developed. The heat, humidity, storms, swamps, and froggies who live in symbiosis are effectively described. The planet and its natives are the components that stick most firmly in the mind. The ending is likewise unbalanced, albeit wholly negatively. As abrupt as slamming into a wall, the attempt at sensitivity of character and cultural relations is offset by being able to solve problems by blowing stuff up and melodramatic deaths. ‘Nuff said.
In the end, Undertow is a novel that exists at a lot of midpoints, including quality. Somewhere between planetary adventure and alien rebellion, soft science fiction and Hollywood drama, imaginative technology and emotional character study — none seem to get full attention, yet none are ignored, so the outcome is a middling mix. Featuring a spread of characters, including aliens, caught up in an underground rebellion against an evil corporation, Bear trundles the story along rather conventional lines to a sudden conclusion that seems to have warranted a little more denouement than it received. Not as focused an effort as The Word for World as Forest, readers of one nevertheless may enjoy the other. Fans of C.J. Cherryh, whose brand of science fiction Bear’s bears some resemblance to, may also enjoy.
*One of these ways is how amphibian asexuality is taken advantage of in terms of gender nomenclature. The Ranids possessing no he/she, him/her, etc., all are referred to as ‘se’. This is interesting not in the destroy-gender-boundaries sense, rather in the fact nobody in 2007 made any hullabaloo about it. Yet, in 2013/2014, all the talk was of Ann Leckie having done the same thing in Ancillary Justice. Goes to show how superficial much genre media is. If toying with gender pronouns really were such a significant event, the hullabaloo would have been in 2007.