Remnant Population: A Look at First-Person Narration
Elizabeth Moon is a controversial writer both for her writings and for her stance on social issues. She’s a favorite of the feminists in science fiction crowd and broke ground for women writers competing for awards in a genre that was claimed for many decades as men-only. Because of her notoriety, many female writers received a fairer hearing from agents, publishers, readers, and award groups. Kudos!
Characters in the works of Elizabeth Moon are often women past the age of romance and child-bearing who struggle to find voice in a repressive family or community – one of my favorite themes. I will mention specific plot points in this review, so **spoiler alert**.
Remnant Population is narrated by a solitary 80-year-old woman named Ofelia who secretly stayed behind when the failing colony was evacuated offworld. She resisted decisions made for her by her son, by the corporation that owned the colony, and (implicitly) by her long-dead husband. When a rescue team arrives years later, she must find her voice to resist deportation, but also to negotiate the relative rights to technological advances for the indigenous and intelligent creatures.
Ofelia reminds me of Grandma in Edward Albee’s An American Dream who has no voice within family. She is constantly shipping out boxes, and eventually follows her shipments to escape a repressive domestic fight.
This archetype follows the idea of the “affirmative no”, meaning that to realize her complete self, she must say no to loved ones. This concept was articulated in Martin Esslin’s Theatre of the Absurd where he discusses the plays by Albee along with Brecht, Beckett and even Sam Shepard.
Ofelia achieves her “affirmative no” when she hides to avoid the shuttle flight. She enjoys the solitude of the abandoned village even though she worries about her age and failing health. The pacing is good. The number and difficulty of obstacles Ofelia overcomes is engaging for the reader (similar to Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood).
Additionally, Elizabeth Moon deftly handles a classic problem of how to report plot events that are beyond the sightline of the first-person narrator. Ofelia hears the struggle over an abandoned “weathersat” when a colony ship 200 kilometers distant has to abort the landing mission because the indigenes mount a successful attack. Ofelia is sorry for the offworlders who she identifies with, and is afraid of the indigenes who she eventually befriends. The reader quickly sees that later in the story Ofelia will serve as an ombudsman between these groups.
Herein lies the problem. How does the writer present the worldview of the indigenes? How does the writer present the group dynamics of the rescue team before they step off the shuttle? A solitary narrator can only assess what is in her sightline and from her POV.
Moon resolves this writerly problem by inserting scenes from the group-think of the indigenes using a specific vocabulary, and scenes from the POV of one member of the rescue crew named Kira. These scenes are not separate sections, but presented as the next paragraphs within a chapter. But then, I read the story on Kindle where standards for section breaks are still evolving.
I found the group-think scenes charming and valuable for increasing the nuance of later encounters with the indigenes. I found the POV scenes for Kira wholly unnecessary. The crew was stereotypical for arrogant scientists, and their gestures after landing told the story of tensions in the group. In fact, Moon includes a well-written scene between Ofelia and the “enforcers” of the crew who are not included in the expedient exposition of Kira’s POV scenes.
For overall balance, though, if the Kira POV scenes were deleted, what justification remains for the occasional group-think scenes from the indigenes? Both or neither may have been the final (editor/publisher) decision.
Aspiring writers who struggle with the temptation to pause the first-person narration and present an alternative POV within the story can take a lesson from how Moon resolved that need in Remnant Population.