Fantastic Reviews - Science Fiction Book Review
Radiant book cover Radiant by James Alan Gardner

Eos Books hardcover - copyright 2004
374 pages
Cover art by Fred Gambino (left)

Book reviewed September 2004
Rating: 8/10  (Highly Recommended)

Review by Aaron Hughes

          James Alan Gardner is one of the most underappreciated authors in science fiction today, combining interstellar adventure, thought-provoking concepts, and a deft sense of humor in a way that calls to mind the best works of Lois McMaster Bujold.  A resident of Ontario, Canada, Gardner is every bit the equal of his better-known countrymen such as Robert J. Sawyer and Robert Charles Wilson.

Radiant is the sixth entry in Gardner's "Explorer Corps" series.  The Explorer Corps books are all related, but each also tells a complete story and may be read independently.  The series encompasses most of Gardner's work.  (Notable exceptions are his outstanding stand-alone novel Commitment Hour, set in a society where young people must choose when they come of age whether they wish to spend life as a male or female, and the alternate history story "Three Hearings on the Existence of Snakes in the Human Bloodstream," which received well-deserved Hugo and Nebula Award nominations.)

Recall the scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark where a companion of Indiana Jones peers into a dark cavern, sees it filled with poisonous asps, and tells Jones, "Very dangerous . . . you go first!"  Well, four centuries in the future, when mankind needs to know what there is to fear on an unexplored and possibly dangerous planet, it tells the highly trained members of the Explorer Corps to "go first".

This happens quite regularly, thanks in part to a group of hyper-advanced aliens called the "League of Peoples."  The League imposes very strict rules of civilized behavior on less advanced beings, including the upstart human race.  For one, if you receive a distress signal you must go help, on penalty of death the next time you pass through interstellar space (by some strange form of galactic federalism, the League only operates between solar systems).  But no one in the League will bother to warn you of the dangers that lie in wait when you do.  That's why human ships carry a couple Explorers, to go first.

The Explorers' tasks are so frequently perilous that the members of the Corps are often referred to as the "Expendables."  Even with their protective "tightsuits," neural stunners, and various other sophisticated equipment, being an Explorer is such hazardous duty that no one would undertake it willingly, so the Corps must draft its members.  It selects people who are particularly ugly or deformed, on the dubious theory that folks are less demoralized when ugly people get killed.  This premise seems unconvincing at first, since one would expect people to catch on and to correct their children's disfigurements with cosmetic surgery in time to avoid service, but Gardner has been dropping hints through the series that there is a good reason that the Explorer Corps works the way it does.  By the conclusion of Radiant, Gardner gives us the clearest explanation yet of the hidden purpose of the Corps.

Beginning with Gardner's first novel, Expendable, the Explorer Corps series has followed the career of Festina Ramos, an extremely resourceful Explorer.  Interestingly, while the series traces Festina's life story, most of the books are not told from her point of view, but from that of various other Explorers with whom she comes in contact.  This is a clever technique and in Radiant, Gardner uses it to excellent effect.

The first-person protagonist of Radiant (also the title character, but we don't learn that until late in the book, so forget I said anything) is a woman of Asian descent named Youn Suu, but she thinks of herself by her childhood nickname, "Ugly Screaming Stink-Girl."  On Youn Suu's homeworld of Anicca, children are given horrible nicknames for superstitious reasons, but Youn Suu finds her own quite appropriate in light of the smelly white sore that since birth has covered one of her cheeks.  The unpleasantness of Youn Suu's face has kept her a virgin into her early twenties, but to Gardner's credit he does not focus the story on when this might change.

Youn Suu and her fellow Explorer, the eccentric if not insane Tut, so called for his gold-plated face (to cover his own deformity), are the two Explorers assigned to a spaceship unimpressively named the PistachioRadiant takes the Pistachio to two very dangerous worlds where alien beings are in distress.  On the first, Youn Suu and Tut try to assist the domed city of Zoonau, which is being smothered by an advanced hivemind intelligence whose spores collectively resemble red moss.  This intelligence, which has apparently read Tolkien, calls itself "the Balrog," for reasons it has not chosen to explain.  On the second world, Muta, the Pistachio is sent to search for survivors of a mysterious calamity that has destroyed every intelligent race to attempt to settle that world.  The latest settlers are from the Unity, a region of space occupied by people who are from Earth, but who have significantly altered themselves using genetics and cybernetics.

The mystery of this second planet occupies most of the book, but on the first planet two very important things happen to Youn Suu.  First, she meets Festina Ramos, whose large, dark birthmark on light skin appears to Youn Suu like a photographic negative of her own face.  As the story progresses, we see that this is deliberate.  Youn Suu's Buddhist beliefs are central to the novel, and her Eastern approach to solving problems contrasts sharply with Festina's brash methods.

Second, Youn Suu is infected with Balrog spores, which quickly infest her body although they do not make her ill or have any other immediate adverse affect.  Once infected with the spores, Youn Suu knows that the superintelligent Balrog is fully capable of hijacking her body and her mind.  For the time being, the Balrog seems willing to leave Youn Suu in control of herself, but it does not communicate with her or Festina to assure them about its future intentions.

And this is the beauty of telling the story from Youn Suu's point of view.  Gardner could have infected his recurring character Festina with the Balrog, but then the reader would know that she'd be back to normal by the end of the story so that the series could continue.  Alternatively, he could have shown us Youn Suu's infection through Festina's eyes, but that would just leave us with the SF cliché: Is that really so-and-so or an alien in disguise?  The main concern would be the threat to Festina from the Balrog.

The way Gardner presents Radiant, our primary concern is instead Youn Suu's plight.  Through her first-person viewpoint we know that she is still self-aware, but we don't know to what extent the Balrog is affecting her perceptions, or whether Festina is right to mistrust her.  More importantly, we can't be sure whether by the end of the story she'll be cured or completely possessed by the Balrog or left somewhere in between.

Another benefit of the new protagonist is that this book is easily accessible to readers unfamiliar with Gardner's prior work.  Radiant is a fully self-contained novel, although it also reveals secrets about the Explorer Corps that existing fans of the series will not want to miss.

Even if you have not read any of the earlier Explorer Corps books, I think you will find Radiant easy to understand and highly entertaining.  Gardner uses humor well - oddball/exhibitionist Tut is especially funny - and he is an engaging storyteller, although Radiant drags a bit in the middle before the mystery of the planet Muta starts coming together.  The snippets of Buddhist philosophy are quite interesting, both for their own sake and for the insight they give us into Youn Suu's character.

          Radiant is a very successful effort by an author who merits much more attention.
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Copyright © 2004 Aaron Hughes

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Our book club's web pages for James Alan Gardner books (includes Gardner bibliography):
Commitment Hour

Links to websites about James Alan Gardner:
James Alan Gardner's Official Web Site
James Alan Gardner - Wikipedia
The SF Site Featured Review: Radiant
Challenging Destiny: James Alan Gardner Explains Himself to the World at Large

For information on more science fiction and fantasy books:
Denver Science Fiction and Fantasy Book Club

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