What a charming book. Its heroine is rare in fiction – a 70+ peasant woman Ofelia. Such a protagonist is even rarer in science fiction. Actually, I think she is unique in the genre. In all my reading, I’ve never heard of another old woman who would make a science fiction protagonist. Fantasy – yes, but science fiction – I don’t think so.
Ofelia doesn’t have any education. She has been living in an agrarian colony on an otherwise uninhabited planet for over 40 years, raising her children, working hard, and lately, enjoying her retirement... somewhat. Until the top dogs somewhere decided that the colony has failed and should be relocated.
Ofelia doesn’t want to be relocated. She wants to live her remaining years in her own house and die in her own bed. She has never been a rebel, so her defiance takes a quiet form: she hides from the relocation officers in the forest without telling anyone and waits until everyone else leaves. Actually, nobody is trying hard to find her; nobody needs to spend money relocating a useless old woman, right?
Left alone – a sole human being on the planet – she rejoices. She is used to living a simple life, and now she lives it on her own terms. Before, she had always obeyed the demands of the colony bosses, of her community, her husband, her children (not a rebel, remember), but now, she finds delight in solitude and no demands at all. She can do whatever she wants, grow as many tomatoes as she likes, and wear clothes she was never allowed to wear before without fear of ridicule.
For the first half of the novel, the story shuffles along as slowly as Ofelia with her arthritic joints. This unlikely Robinson Crusoe doesn’t want to go back to civilization, thank you very much, but Ofelia’s idyllic interlude can’t last. It’s fiction, and her peace is rudely interrupted. First, some totally unexpected aliens show up, and then another human expedition arrives to make contact with these aliens. And nobody expects Ofelia to be there. She was supposed to have been relocated.
I love Ofelia’s interactions with the aliens. They show that sometimes, education is not as important as human wisdom accumulated during a long life. Ofelia becomes a surrogate 'grandmother' for the aliens. She is not enthusiastic about their intrusion on her serene existence but she accepts it and deals with it, as she has dealt with other problems in her life – with quiet courage and compassion. Sometimes, she is grumpy. Other times, her wit sparks, but her humanity and rough kindness are unmistakable.
When the official delegation arrives, Ofelia retreats into her former shell of a dumb, complacent old broad. They think her unimportant, a nuisance to be dealt with, who muddled their glorious first-contact situation, and she accepts their verdict as a given. After all, that’s how she has been treated her entire life. She doesn’t have the nerve for the second rebellion. But both herself and the human delegation reckoned without Ofelia’s alien ‘grandkids.’ They might have other ideas.
I loved the book until the human delegation showed up. Before that moment, I believed the story. Ofelia is so true to life, I wanted to cheer her up, when she felt blue, and to congratulate her, when she achieved her small victories. She is daring – within reason – and her artistic soul, hidden deep inside until now, soars in the absence of outside inhibitions. She could’ve been so much more, if she was ever given a chance at education, at artistic pursuits, at a better life. But she wasn’t, and she dealt with her fate with dignity and determination.
Her interactions with the aliens were humorous and totally convincing. Then the other humans showed up, and I stopped believing. Every member of that expedition was a pompous ass. They all disregarded Ofelia and considered the aliens slightly above monkeys on the developmental scale. None of them showed any doubts, or any professional insight.
I would expect the first-contact delegation to consist of half-and-half: super scientists (biology, linguistics, sociology, etc.) and glib diplomats, plus a top-notch military team. But of this particular group, nobody is a diplomat. The leader is a hard-core bureaucrat, ignorant and without a diplomatic bone in his body. The professionals are only so-so, second assistants or some such, while the military are on the level of a local police. No one is considerate or even simply polite. A rather shameful first-contact delegation, much worse than Star Trek ever came up with.
Overall, I would give Ofelia’s story 5 stars. The human delegation soured my enjoyment of the book, so I dropped a star, but they only landed on the planet on page 211 (of 325 pages) so I was able to enjoy most of the novel unhindered by their stupid behavior.
Definitely recommended to all sci-fi readers. One of the best books in the genre