Stephen Spielberg’s iconic film, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, appeared in 1977, starring Richard Dreyfuss and François Truffaut. Nearly forty years later, in 2016, Arrival covered similar territory with a cast headed by Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner. Both films featured uniquely original ideas about the nature of the first alien encounter between the human race and an intelligent species on another world. In Remnant Population, originally published in 1996, American science fiction author Elizabeth Moon displays an equally imaginative idea about an alien encounter—on the printed page.
Remnant Population centers on the life of Ofelia Falfurrias, a widow who is seventy years old as the story opens. She lives with her unlovable youngest son and his demanding and disdainful wife, so it’s no surprise that Ofelia resolves to stay behind when the whole colony is shut down and the colonists shipped off to another planet. Ofelia revels in her aloneness, tending the vegetable garden, the sheep and cows, the “fabricator,” and the power plant that drives the refrigeration and stove in her home. For the first time in her life, nobody is telling Ofelia what to do. She loves it.
Remnant Population by Elizabeth Moon (1996) 336 pages ★★★★★
Alien encounters that don’t involve communicating
Months go by, then years. All of a sudden, a mission arrives on-planet to establish a new colony at a distant location. As the shuttles land, depositing teams of colonists, their landing site is viciously attacked and all the humans are killed in short order. The shuttles are destroyed by bombs some unknown species has placed there.
Much later, a group of the “monsters” who killed the human party begin showing up in Ofelia’s village. To them, she’s a monster, too. But each soon realizes that the other means them no harm. The locals, who call themselves the People, are endlessly curious. They follow Ofelia everywhere, observing everything she does. As Ofelia learns to distinguish individuals among them and to appreciate their child-like inquisitiveness, they grow to respect one another. It also becomes clear the People are extremely fast learners.
Then a second new human mission arrives to investigate why the colony’s power plant remains open. The corporation that evacuated the planet had insisted they’d turned everything off to prevent any potential intelligent life from gaining access to advanced human technology. The survey team includes exobiologists and exolinguists as well as soldiers because the bombing of the earlier landing site suggests that, against all odds, there may be an intelligent species on the planet. As they arrive in Ofelia’s town, the prospects for a friendly encounter seem dim. Ofelia is determined to keep things peaceful and protect her new friends among the People.
Elizabeth Moon skillfully tells her tale, building suspense all the while she develops characters as complex as humanity itself. The novel starts slowly, dwelling on Ofelia’s thoughts and feelings over the initial months after her family and neighbors had left. But it’s worth the wait. This is a truly delightful tale of an alien encounter unlike any you’ve ever imagined before.
For related reading
Not long ago I reviewed a very different novel on a similar theme: Saturn Run by the thriller writer John Sanford and Stein. My review is at First Contact: Close Encounters of the Fourth Kind.
I’ve also reviewed a later novel by Elizabeth Moon: Trading in Danger (Vatta’s War #1), which is reviewed at The launch of a promising military science fiction series.
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