Kingdom of Cages

by Sarah Zettel

Cover image

Publisher: Warner Aspect
Copyright: 2001
Printing: June 2002
ISBN: 0-446-61106-9
Format: Mass market
Pages: 588

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We're years into the future. Earth is still habitable but has undergone significant environmental collapse. Humans have some (essentially undescribed) faster-than-light technology and have expanded to colonize other planets. The colonies are typical US SF affairs: mostly groups with their own ideas about governance or society going off somewhere where they can be on their own, with occasionally other, more structured efforts. A separate culture has sprung up among those who stay on starships, moving between the colonies and serving as a communications and trading network. But one colony, Pandora, takes a unique approach: rather than settle and expand, they stay in nearly complete isolation from the planet (one of the most Earth-like ever discovered) and attempt to study it in its pristine state.

As Kingdom of Cages opens, ecosystems are collapsing across all of the human colonies except Pandora. Crops are failing, new diseases are devastating the colonist populations, birth rates are falling, and many of the colonies are in danger of imminent collapse and possible extinction. The Called, as the colonies name themselves, reached out for Earth, but a plague they brought with them somehow got through quarantine and caused widespread death, resulting in all Called being banned from Earth. It's called the Diversity Crisis, and it poses a danger of eradicating human space colonies. All except for Pandora, which has remained immune. The Pandorans believe this is due to their careful isolation from the surrounding planet (enforced, in part, by embedded AI "consciences" in their minds). The Called demand an answer and a cure to the Diversity Crisis or they will invade Pandora and settle colonists there to to force the issue.

Into this grim meathook future come the primary protagonists: Chena and Teal Trust. They're daughters of a now-single mother and grew up on Athena Station, an independent orbital habitat above Pandora that had rebelled against the consciences many years earlier. At the start of the book, they're 13 and 10. They emigrate with their mother to Pandora's surface to escape the debt cycle of living on the station and having to pay for air. Most of the book is the story of Chena's attempts to understand, make a place for herself, and help her family in the villages of Pandora. The villages are run on human-powered technology, forbidden medicine by the scientists who work in enclosed domes, and kept separate from the surrounding planet by shock fences. Slowly, the Trust's family story becomes entangled with the pressure to find a cure for the Diversity Crisis and a crisis of leadership among the "hothousers": the Pandora scientists and their system of city AIs and self-programming through conscience implants.

While there's a lot going on in this book, it's also claustrophobic. It's one of those far-future SF novels that expands the horizons of the story and then immediately compresses the characters and plot down into a sharply constrained problem space. The pressure from the Diversity Crisis on Pandora is enormous, and life on Pandora for the Trust family is as ordered and possibly more constrained than life on the station. It's a novel that starts out tense and then gets more and more stressful for the characters with each page until irresistable force finally collides with immovable object in the last few pages. It's also very egalitarian in its pressure; there's only one arguably-hissable villain, and even her perspective makes sense given the lack of ethics in her society. Everyone in this book is operating under tight constraints and restrictions and trying to figure out how to do the best that they can within tight meshes of societal obligations. The title is very fitting.

This could be just depressing and stressful, not fun, except for two things: Chena Trust, and the city-mind Aleph.

Chena is a great protagonist. She's unsure but also determined, willing to take risks, deeply loyal to her family, but not above getting into fights with them. She's also smart, thoughtful, and analytical, but with a great balance between that and emotional reactions. One keeps being afraid that all the constraints and restrictions of Pandora's environment will stifle or destroy her, and then she finds another way out, another way around. And her turbulent relationship with her younger sister is excellent and heart-breaking in turns and feels very realistic. It's Chena's attempts to help her family, with some help from some unlikely allies with reasons of their own, that slowly breaks open the novel's story.

We meet Chena at the beginning of the story; Aleph, one of the city-mind AIs, comes along quite a bit later. But as the story progresses, we find out more about the governance structure of Pandora and its technology, and the AIs become increasingly important. With Aleph, Zettel does a good job balancing a human-like intelligent character with the constraints and limitations of a programmed computer. It's not going to win prizes for technological accuracy, but Zettel also wisely avoids poking too deeply at the details other than by making her computers primarily biological (which helps suspension of disbelief about their human-like behavior enormously, even if the giant brain imagry provokes a few eyerolls). Aleph's limitations, reactions, and gentle transformation over the course of the story leads to one of the high points in it for me, when the forces arrayed against the protagonists finally start to shatter.

This is a higher-stress story. It's one of those books that, about halfway through, has you wanting to jump into the world with an automatic weapon and start killing people. But it also forces you to have some grudging understanding, if not respect, for the sources of the attitudes of even the villains. It's a nasty book in places (the ending, in particular, has a moment that I thought was a sharp, vicious shock, a bit more than I really wanted in my head), but it's also a heartfelt one. It makes you feel how hard the choices are and how few options are available. (This does, unfortunately, undermine the ending slightly, as Zettel has made the case so well against every possible outcome that one is left with a feeling of settling for the least bad option.)

I would have preferred something a bit more optimistic and a bit less claustrophobic, but this is a solid, well-written bit of somewhat grim SF. It gives up points in technology, which is hand-waved and mostly sidelined, but gains from excellent characters and plenty of grey area. Recommended if you have the tolerance for the dark setting. I'll be looking for more of Zettel's work.

Rating: 7 out of 10

Reviewed: 2011-11-13

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