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Rereading this in its 50th anniversary year. After this I will go looking for critical perspective, but I wanted to write this first from my own reaction to the book.

In some indefinite but not actually very far future the human race has been uplifted, after a fashion, following the visitation of superior aliens. After an initial period of violent confusion, everybody is much happier and better behaved as a result, and there is no longer any hunger or war. Members of a class of specially educated and temperamentally suited persons have the power to travel between galaxies, spending the travel period in a kind of meditative hibernation, and benefiting from relativisitic effects to remain young relative to those who remain behind on Earth. The narrator is a professional communicator, a successful and respected member of this class, and late in life writes her memoirs.

Expeditions are expensive and problematic, requiring that choices be made as to the nature of the team, approach to research, selection and use of resources. There is conflict between various strands of human interests: research, exploitation, defence; there are rumours of wars elsewhere in distant galaxies. Our narrator's memoirs are mostly concerned with a variety of encounters with aliens and other species of many forms, with many varying results. Much human energy is expended on establishing communication, which may, and frequently does, require highly tactile contact involving hands, skin and sexual organs as well as scent, voice, eye and ear. She deals with a variety of moral and ethical issues, while involved in complex personal relationships with humans, animals and aliens. She bears and is involved with rearing many children, human and otherwise, but in her memoir privileges the life of the mind over the life of the family. She is concerned with the fate of humans and other races, and thinks it possible that her way of life will last only a few generations, but does not seem overly concerned about this: her class is conditioned to a strong ethic of non-interference, and this extends to her own species.

The narrator does not introduce herself directly. She speaks familiarly to us, as persons concerned with her concerns and thoughts. We do eventually learn her name, but only when used by others in reports of direct speech. Her tone of voice throughout is meditative, detached, analytic, which separates her readers to some extent from shocking events and strong emotions. The language is plain, but this does not always mean that it is unambiguous: some passages are cryptic and incomplete, leaving much to be inferred by the reader. The memoir ends abruptly, leaving research in progress and relationships unresolved. This is an entirely satisfactory and fitting end. Life, after all, goes on.

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( 1 comment — Leave a comment )
la_marquise_de_
25th Mar, 2012 12:48 (UTC)
It's a fine book.
( 1 comment — Leave a comment )

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Caroline M

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