It's a bit of a relief to take a break from my run-up to the Hugos, just to read some good books. However, it makes me realize just how many good books and good authors there are out there who DON'T get the recognition they deserve. Mackey Chandler is one of these. He provided me with a review copy of "Family Law," and I can tell you in all sincerity that there is not one BIT of difference in the quality of this work and that of the Hugo-nominated books I review.
Jack and Myrtle Anderson, their almost 13 year old daughter Lee, and their partner Gordon the Derf are explorers, looking for Earth-compatible planets, and they have just struck it rich with the discovery of Providence.
What? Did he just say 'Gordon the Derf?'The Andersons and Gordon have been together for fourteen years, so Lee has known Gordon her entire life. She even refers to him as 'Uncle Gordon.' She has had a small taste of human civilizations, during infrequent planet landings, but her world consists of her parents and Uncle Gordon.
Yup, that's what I said. A Derf is a member of one of the sapient races humans encountered on their exploration of the stars. Imagine a grizzly bear with an extra pair of arms, and a big mouth, and you've got it. They are at least as intelligent as humans, but their tribal organization hindered development of technical specialists, so their overall technological level is below that of human society. They were unique, however, in negotiating treaties at First Contact that gave them legal status equivalent to humans, as individuals and with respect to their common rights. Derfs have a long proper Derf name, but those in contact with humans choose human cognates for use in conversation and in transactions.
With the discovery of Providence, the Andersons and Gordon have hit a payday that will make them richer than most countries. They each are entitled to claim substantial territory, as well as license fees from those wishing to take advantage of the planet's resources. There is a well-established procedure for discovery, which ensures all parties have reasonable access, thereby eliminating claim-jumping or more unsavory activities. As the discovery party, the Andersons and Gordon also have the responsibility to verify that there are no established sapients, and no chemical or biological hazards present that could possibly spread to other worlds. Even after months of verification, they expect to be placed in quarantine when they return to Earth to record their claim.
Unfortunately, jack and Myrtle never make it that far. A pack of velociraptor-analogues attacks the camp in the middle of the night, overwhelming the defensive perimeter. Jack and Myrtle go down fighting. Gordon's superior size and strength, and his battleax, allow him to continue fighting after the ammunition runs out. When the last raptor is dead, he discovers Lee has survived by hiding in her (ballistic-cloth covered) sleeping bag, and shooting from inside the bag each time she is attacked.
Review note: the night after the attack, Gordon and Lee huddle together in the ship cabin for safety. In the morning, Gordon wakes her up, and when she remembers what has happened, she grieves and clings to her Uncle Gordon for comfort. It's a very, very touching scene. Feelings, and stuff. Ick. I didn't want it to be THAT kind of book! So, I dropped Mackey a note, and told him I was in tears on page 15, and that somebody better get shot and blown up soon. He encouraged me to hang in there; exploding space ships were on the way. He was right!
There is the little story, about Lee and Gordon and family and culture, and there's the big story, about governments and political infighting and bureaucracy. Mackey blends them together to produce EXCELLENT conflict points. There may be those who simply cannot abide a novel without a message; Mackey provides one, although it is so subtly done that it's administered without notice. It has to do with honor and duty, and the nature of civilization.
The little story is told through encounters Lee and Gordon have with other humans and Derfs. We discover that the Derf civilization is totally family-centered, and that there is very little support for a Derf who chooses a life beyond apprenticeship. Gordon is one of those; he had been designated as a barrel maker, and had to leave his home at peril of becoming an outcast to make another career.
The big story begins when Gordon and Lee return to Earth, and Lee finds difficulty solely because of her minor status. Exploding spaceships ensue. I really would like to tell you more, but I can't because SPOILERS would happen.
Even though this was not intended to be a part of my run-up to the Hugos, it brought one point into such crystal clarity that I cannot ignore it: with so much good writing out there, an award such as the Hugo cannot be anything other than random, given the current divisions. Best Novel? Nope, too broad. Give us a Best Military Novel, Best Alien Novel, Best Armageddon Novel, Best Zombie Novel, and several other categories, and THEN we might have something with integrity. As it stands now, regardless of the efforts of Puppies, Kitties, and Special Snowflakes, the award is just too random. Print the names of every novel on a 3x5 card, post them on a wall, and release ladybugs. The card with the most bugs after five minutes wins the award. That, at least, means the selection isn't subject to undue influence, and I think you are just as likely to produce a 'Best Novel' as the current system.