To Each This World

by Julie E. Czerneda

Cover image

Publisher: DAW
Copyright: November 2022
ISBN: 0-7564-1543-8
Format: Kindle
Pages: 676

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To Each This World is a standalone science fiction novel.

Henry m'Yama t'Nowak is the Arbiter of New Earth. This is somewhat akin to a president, but only in very specific ways. Henry's job is to deal with the Kmet.

New Earth was settled by a slower-than-light colony ship from old Earth, our Earth. It is, so far as they know, the last of humanity in the universe. Origin Earth fell silent hundreds of years previous, before the colonists even landed. New Earth is now a carefully and thoughtfully managed world where humans survived, thrived, and at one point sent out six slower-than-light colony ships of its own. All were feared lost after a rushed launch due to a solar storm.

As this story opens, a probe from one of those ships arrives.

This is cause for rejoicing, but there are two small problems. The first is that the culture of New Earth has changed drastically since the days when they launched the Halcyon colony ships. New Earth is now part of the Duality, a new alliance with aliens painstakingly negotiated after their portal appeared in orbit. The Kmet were peaceful, eager to form an alliance and offer new technology, although they struggled with concepts such as individuality and insisted on interacting only with the Arbiter. Their technological gifts and the apparent loss of the Halcyon colony ships refocused New Earth on safety and caution. This unexpected message is a somewhat tricky political problem, a reminder of the path not taken.

The other small problem is that the reaction of the Kmet to this message is... dramatic.

This book has several problems, but the most serious is that it is simply too long. If you have read any other Czerneda novels, you know that she tends towards sprawling world-building, but usually there are enough twists and turns in the plot to keep the story moving while the protagonists slowly puzzle out the scientific mysteries. To Each This World is not sufficiently twisty for 676 pages. I think you could have cut half the novel without losing any major plot points.

The interesting parts of this book, to me, were figuring out what's going on with the Kmet, some of the political tensions within the New Earth government, and understanding what Henry and Pilot Killian's story had to do with the apparently-unrelated but intriguing interludes following Beth Seeker in a strange place called Doublet. All that stuff is in here, but it's alongside a whole lot of Henry wrestling with lifeboat ethics in situations where he thinks he needs to lie to and manipulate people for their own good. We also get several extended tours of societies that, while vaguely interesting in a science fiction world-building way, have essentially nothing to do with the plot.

We also get a whole lot of Henry's eagerly helpful AI polymorph Flip. I wanted to like this character, and I occasionally managed, but I felt like there was a constant mismatch between, in hindsight, how Czerneda meant for me to see Flip and what I thought she was signaling while I was reading. I wanted Flip to either be a fascinatingly weird companion or to be directly relevant to the plot, but instead there were hundreds of pages of unnerving creepiness mixed with obsequiousness and emotional neediness, all of which I think I read more into than Czerneda had intended. The overall experience was more exhausting than fun.

The core of the plot is solid, and if you like SF novels built around world-building and scientific mysteries, there's a lot here to enjoy. I think Czerneda's Species Imperative series (starting with Survival) is a better execution of some of the same ideas, but I liked that series a lot and was willing to read another take on it. Czerneda is one of the SF writers who takes biology seriously and is willing to write very alien aliens, and that leads to a few satisfying twists. Also, Beth Seeker is a great character (I wish we'd seen more of her), and Killian, while a bit generic, is a serviceable protagonist when Czerneda needs someone to go poke things with a stick.

Henry... I'm not sure what I think of Henry, and your enjoyment of this book may depend on how much you click with him.

Henry is a diplomat and an extrovert. His greatest joy and talent is talking to people, navigating political situations, and negotiating. Science fiction is full of protagonists who should be this character, but they rarely are this character, probably because a lot of writers are introverts. I think Czerneda deserves real credit for making her charismatic politician sufficiently accurate that his thought processes occasionally felt alien. For me, Henry was easiest to appreciate when Killian was the viewpoint protagonist and I could look at him through someone else's eyes, but Henry's viewpoint mostly worked as well. There's a lot of competence porn enjoyment in watching him do his thing.

The problem for me is that I thought several of his actions were unforgivably unethical, but no one in the book who matters seems to agree. I can see why he reached those unethical decisions, but they were profound violations of consent. He directly lies to people because he thinks telling the truth would be too risky and not get them to do what he wants them to do, and Czerneda sets up the story to imply that he might be right.

This is not necessarily a bad choice in a novel, but the author has to do some work to bring me along, and Czerneda didn't do enough of that work. I kept wanting there to be some twist or sting or complication that forced Henry to come to terms with what he was doing, but it never happens. He has to pick between two moral principles that I consider rather finely balanced, if not tilted in the opposite direction that he does, and he treats one principle as inviolable and the other as mostly unimportant. The plans he makes on that basis work fine, and those on the other side of that decision are never heard from again. It left a bad taste in my mouth, particularly given how much of the book is built around Henry making tough, tricky decisions under pressure.

I don't know about this book. I have a lot of mixed feelings. Parts of it I quite enjoyed. Parts of it I mostly enjoyed but wish were much less dragged out. Parts of it frustrated or bored me. It's one of those books where the more I thought about it after reading it, the more the parts I disliked annoyed me.

If you like Czerneda's style of world-building and biology, and if you have more tolerance for Henry's decisions than I did, you may well like this, but read Species Imperative first. I should probably also warn that there is a lot of magical technology in this book that blatantly violates some core principles of physics. I have a high tolerance for that sort of thing, but if you don't, you're going to be grumbling.

Rating: 6 out of 10

Reviewed: 2024-04-30

Last modified and spun 2024-05-15