Bothari43 mentioned Elizabeth Moon as an author to check out when I was lamenting my inability to enjoy sci-fi, and this novel had been mentioned on a Book Riot discussion about novels “with a female protagonist over 60” (or “sci-fi novel with a female protagonist by a female author”). With those two recommendations, I decided to give it a shot, and: it wasn’t me! I have simply been choosing the wrong sci-fi novels.
It turns out that I might get bored with descriptions of the Mars landscape, but I actually don’t mind reading about an old woman gardening, doing chores, and creating beaded clothing. I mean, I was happy when more started happening but I definitely wasn’t zoning out.
Ofelia was part of a group hired by a corporation to colonize the planet she has lived on for decades. The idea was that the settlers would develop a community, reproduce, creating a self-sustaining work force, and harvest the local area for exports to send back, thus creating the profits needed to justify this mission. Unfortunately, thoughtless site selection already put the colony at a disadvantageous, and after a few disastrous natural events that depleted the community, the corporation did not invest more or bring in more settlers to help make up the difference. As a result, it is now many years later, Ofelia has buried her husband and all but one of her children, and the corporation has declared the colony a failure. The remaining settlers have 30 days to pack up and prepare to leave for a new site of the corporations choosing. Ofelia goes through the motions, but she has already decided that she is done. She is not going on a space trip that might kill her, only to continue to be viewed as a burden by her remaining son, and a useless elderly woman by the rest of society.
On the day of her departure on the final shuttle, she hides in the forest, and successfully avoids the transports. For the first time since she was a very young child, she can do as she pleases without worrying about the rules. While she quickly develops a routine to maintain the equipment she needs for survival, within those constraints she can do as she pleases, dress in what is comfortable and makes her happy, and do chores as she likes. Though alone she never feels lonely. When she hears radio chatter that shows a new group of settlers coming to the planet, she is initially worried about her solitude, but quickly realizes that their site will be far out of range and stops worrying. However, she soon hears the new settlers get attacked and killed, leading Ofelia to realize that she isn’t alone on the planet after all.
Though Ofelia stays in her community, now that she knows of the existence of an indigenous species, it seems inevitable that they will discover her, and it does not take too long for first contact to occur. Though she has never been trained in interactions with other species, her actions lead to be a bit of a truce between the People and her as they investigate each other until yet another event threatens to disturb the equilibrium, and relegate Ofelia back to burden.
Beyond the ideas of first contact, the novel explores the role of the elderly in society, especially elderly women without formal education. Their work is unacknowledged, taken for granted, their opinions dismissed. It is only when she is alone that Ofelia can explore life and her interests, and only through interactions with an entirely new species that someone else finally recognizes her worth and importance. I definitely recommend this one – it’s a much more human approach to sci-fi, exploring big ideas in a much more personal setting.